There is nothing more contentious in the world of nutrition than the status of the carbohydrate. Advocates for low-carb diets like the Atkins Diet will tell you that carbs are the enemy, while critics of those diets will tell you they can lead to all sorts of health problems.
The truth is that, as with most other things, carbohydrates are good for you when consumed them in moderation. However, most people in the western world are consuming excessive amounts of carbs. Here are the things you need to know about carbs and how to tell if you’re eating too many of them.
In all the foods that we eat, there are only four sources of calories: protein, fat, alcohol, and most people’s main source of calories, carbohydrates. Sugars, starches, and fiber are all kinds of carbohydrates and, according to the US Dietary Guidelines, carbohydrates should make up between 45 and 65 percent of the calories we consume.
The Good Stuff
The problem with that is so many of our favorite foods, such as bread, sweets, pasta, juice, potatoes, and soda, are high in carbohydrates. That means for many of us, carbs make up a greater percentage of our diets than they should.
What to Look For
Thankfully, there are a few signs that can let you know if you’re eating too many carbs that are easy enough to identify. If you exhibit some or all of the following signs, it may be time to reevaluate your diet.
Carbohydrates naturally form bonds with the water in your body. For each gram of carbs you consume, your body holds on to three grams of water. After eating a meal high in carbohydrates, you will look and feel puffy as a result of all that excess water.
Four different sugars — raffinose, lactose, fructose and sorbitol — are all known to cause gas, as are most starches and fibers. Some people will be more sensitive to the effects of particular carb sources than others, perhaps most notably with lactose intolerance.
If you find yourself constantly eating large meals just to be hungry again a short while later, it may be because that meal contains too many carbohydrates, especially refined carbs and simple sugars. This is a sign that you may want to cut back on your carb intake.
That’s because refined carbohydrates are quickly and easily digested, spiking your blood sugar and giving you lots of short term energy, but leaving your feeling empty shortly after. By comparison, fiber-rich carbohydrates, healthy fats, and protein give you a more even blood sugar level over a longer period of time, leaving you feeling fuller.
Foods that are high in sugar cause your brain to release dopamine, a hormone responsible for pleasure and motivation. The more sugar you consume, the more dopamine is released, and consequently, the more your body craves that feeling again. This is the same dopamine cycle that is present in addictions to things like gambling or drugs.
Eating lots of carbohydrates causes the insulin levels in your blood to spike. This increase in insulin level can stimulate oil gland production, which can lead to adult acne breakouts. Of course there are other factors involved in the formation of acne, but if you’re still getting it as an adult, consuming too many carbs may be the cause.
Everyone knows that eating sugar and sweets can lead to cavities. It should come as no surprise then that a diet with lots of carbohydrates can lead to more cavities, toothaches, sensitivity to hot or cold foods, and pain when chewing.
For the same reasons that a carb-rich diet leaves you constantly hungry, it can leave you tired as well. When blood sugar levels spike, they provide you with a surge of energy. Then after, when blood sugar levels crash, so does your energy and often your mood.
All of those emotional crashes day after day can have a long term impact on your mental health. “Research has tied heavy sugar consumption to an increased risk of depression,” said Dr. David Sack in Psychology Today. “The roller coaster of high blood sugar followed by a crash may accentuate the symptoms of mood disorders.”
A recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease shows that older people who have a diet high in carbohydrates have nearly four times the risk of developing mild cognitive impairment, or MCI, which is often a precursor to Alzheimer’s.
Trouble Losing Weight
On its face, trying to lose weight seems like simple mathematics. If you simply burn more calories than you consume, you should lose weight. But when you get deep into the biochemistry of weight loss, and how carbohydrates affect the body’s ability to lose weight, it becomes a lot more complicated.
When you eat carbs, your body releases insulin, which acts to store sugar as fat in your body’s cells. Insulin also inhibits fat breakdown, which can make it more difficult for a person to lose weight.
When people think about the causes of cholesterol problems, they usually look to fatty meats as the primary culprit. However, a diet high in carbohydrates has been associated with lower levels of HDL (“good cholesterol”) and higher levels of LDL (“bad cholesterol”) and triglycerides, which puts you at a higher risk of having heart disease.
What to Do?
If you’d like to get a handle on your carbohydrate intake, there are a few simple steps you can take. However, if you are planning on making any major dietary changes, you should always consult with a healthcare professional first.
Complex is Better
After that, you should take a look at the types of carbohydrates you consume. It can get a bit complicated, but as a basic rule, it’s better to eat complex carbohydrates than simple ones. Generally speaking, simple carbohydrates come from sugary and processed foods while complex carbohydrates come from starches, vegetables and unprocessed foods.
For a quick fix, you can cut fruit juice, soda, and energy drinks out of your diet. Additionally, you can cut sugar out of your tea or coffee. If you’re desperate for a flavored beverage, consider adding a slice of lemon or orange to some water, or leave a pitcher of water with cucumber or the fruit of your choice inside the fridge.
Read Food Labels
The labels on the back of foods will tell you exactly what its carb content is. Just make sure to take note of the serving sizes and, if you live in the United States, subtract the grams of fiber from the total grams of carbs as carbohydrates from fiber are not digestible.