Carbohydrates always seem to get a negative reputation. There are so many common misconceptions about carbohydrates, and it can be hard to keep in mind that carbs are good for us as part of a nutritious and balanced diet. To that end, I’ve gathered some common myths about carbohydrates that I hear all the time.
Myth: Eating a gluten-free diet will help you lose weight.
Fact: There is no scientific data that proves that eliminating gluten promotes weight loss. Any time we try something new, we are “all in,” at least at the onset, with a keen and committed attention to our nutrition, physical activity, and avoidance of what we (or the internet) consider as “bad food.” So yes, there can be indirect weight loss for some people due to cutting down on calories as a result of elimination of certain foods or even an entire food group. Additionally, if processed gluten foods are being replaced with fruits and vegetables, some weight loss will likely occur.
However, this enthusiasm when trying to follow a diet, rather than a lifestyle modification, may start to wane over time, making any weight loss benefits short-lived. One instance where a gluten-free diet may benefit and prompt weight loss is for those with an unknown gluten sensitivity. The diet may alleviate some bloating or water retention.
A little warning here: Wheat provides elasticity and stability in a food product.
Once it is removed, companies must use a substitute that will provide the same qualities. They may use rice, tapioca starch, quinoa, buckwheat, or bean flours as well as fillers like gums, syrups, oils, and starches. The calories, fat, and carbohydrate levels can be higher in these gluten-free products compared to the original gluten-containing foods.
Myth: Gluten free is healthier.
Fact: A gluten-free diet can be less healthy. Following a gluten free diet long-term can result in avoidable nutrient deficiencies. Grains are enriched with folate, thiamine, iron, niacin, riboflavin, and selenium. Some folate deficiencies may occur from an adherence to a gluten-free diet as it is low in folate.
Also, a gluten free diet tends to be low in fiber, which may lead to constipation as well as other negative side effects. Considering all the health benefits of fiber, it shouldn’t be a missing diet component. Fiber is good for the management of diabetes, heart disease, and regularity, and it plays a major role in weight reduction, among other things.
Some gluten free foods can be higher in calories, as mentioned above, and therefore not necessarily healthier. Apart from that, if you have walked the grocery aisles recently, you may have noticed that following a gluten-free diet can be costly, as many gluten-free foods tend to be more expensive.
Myth: Gluten free gives me more energy.
Fact: People may express they feel a boost of energy when eating gluten free, but here again, there is no scientific evidence to support this claim. Perhaps if someone is replacing gluten foods with more fruits, vegetables, and lean protein, and eliminating junk food from a diet, all this would be contributing to an increased sense of energy, though it would not be necessarily due to the avoidance of gluten alone. If one’s overall nutritional intake improves from eating a more balanced diet, better overall well-being would be anticipated as an outcome.
Myth: Carbs make you fat.
Fact: Carbohydrates seem to be the most misunderstood nutrients, despite several studies demonstrating that whole grain consumption is associated with a reduced risk of weight gain. The quality of carbohydrates consumed is what counts, so we cannot lump all carbs into one category, as they are not all equal. No one macronutrient—whether it be carbs, fat, or protein—causes weight gain. Excess calories, no matter the source, cause weight gain. The goal here is to eat whole foods and minimally-processed high fiber whole grains along with fruits, vegetables, and legumes. For example, swap out white rice for brown rice, or opt for a whole grain English muffin on most days over a white one.
And overall, get rid of the empty calorie sugars like candy, sodas, cookies, donuts, and pastries. These foods should be consumed in moderation and not be part of a daily routine. One takeaway note is that a low carbohydrate diet actually lowers energy levels and decreases alertness. This isn’t a good combination when you are trying to be your best self at work, school, or with your family. So choosing healthier carbs and watching your portions are key here.
Myth: People with diabetes cannot eat carbs.
Fact: If you read last month’s Mythbuster on Breadsense, you already know that this is false. All foods can raise blood sugar, with the largest effect exhibited by carbohydrates, but not all to the same degree. If you have prediabetes or diabetes, you just have to track your carbohydrate intake, not eliminate them. A healthy diet consists of the right balance of complex carbohydrates, lean protein, and healthy fats.
Carbohydrates are the body’s preferred form of fuel. We need them every day to give us energy. The National Academy of Science’s Institute of Medicine recommends that 45 to 65 percent of our total calories come from carbohydrates. The idea is not to eliminate carbs, but incorporate the right balance of the three main nutrients to meet our individual needs. This translates into a minimum of 130 grams of carbohydrates a day for children ages one and older and adults, 175 grams of carbs for pregnant women, and 210 grams of carbs each day women who are nursing.
We need glucose from carbs as energy for brain and other body cells. An effective approach would be to reduce the intake of refined simple sugars and consume whole foods as often as possible. These can be lean proteins, whole grain breads and cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes, and healthy fats. If you have not seen a dietitian or certified diabetes educator, I strongly urge you to do this in order to not only get your diabetes on track, but also learn how to incorporate your favorite foods.
Lela Iliopoulos is a Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator and an expert in nutrition therapy, health promotion, and education. She is passionate about impacting nutritional health through the practical application of science-based information