In a high-carbohydrate culture in which processed food is king, whole grains are ubiquitously recommended, and the whisper of a low-carb intake can incite great animosity, it’s easy to ignore the many benefit of eating carbs. Yet, besides being delicious, there are many physiological advantages to eating certain carbs.
Just like with the distinctions between beneficial fats and those that need to be avoided, which we wrote about here, not all carbs are created equally.
Evidence of the confusion about how to eat carbs for health and leanness is seen with the reality that most people don’t even know what carbohydrates are, let alone which ones they should be avoiding.
On the flip side, the radical approach of eliminating carbs brings with it hidden dangers. Extremely low-carb diets can lead to depressed mood, plateaued fat loss, inflammation, an elevated cortisol curve, and increased cancer and disease risk.
That doesn’t mean that very low-carb diets may not have their use. However, it’s necessary to take action to counteract the faults in such a style of eating.
This article will provide guidance for intelligently eating carbs, whatever your approach is to the macronutrients of carbs, protein, and fat. Here are seven excellent benefits of eating carbs.
#1: Easier Fat Loss
Certain carbs should be eliminated or avoided if your goal is fat loss, but eating plant-based carbs is an integral part of any fat loss diet. In addition, many people who are eating a low-carb diet to lose fat will benefit from cycling carbs by having a higher intake on certain days.
Carbs in the form of both raw and cooked vegetables and fruit should make up a large portion of what you eat on a low-carb fat loss diet because these foods contain minimal calories and a lot of water and fiber that goes undigested.
The effect of diets high in vegetable carbs is that they lead people to eat fewer calories overall because blood sugar is more stable, they are getting more nutrients per calorie, and the fiber keeps them fuller. Studies show higher fiber meals reduce calorie intake at the next meal.
Fruit can also have a beneficial effect. Opt for variety and dark -colored fruits. The one exception to eating fruit is ketogenic low-carb diets that must restrict carbs to maintain ketosis, which is the use of fat for fuel rather than glucose.
Pitfall to eating carbs for fat loss: Not liking vegetables. The major problem with using vegetable and fruit-based carbs to limit calorie intake is that people don’t like them and don’t tend to eat them in adequate quantities.
There is no magic solution other than to retrain your taste buds to enjoy eating veggies and fruit, while eliminating the hyperpalatable processed carbs that people favor.
Carbs To Avoid: Grains, sugar, and anything that is processed or in a package—bread, cookies, crackers, most protein bars, and sweetened yogurt are ones to look out for.
Carbs To Favor: There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of vegetables in the world. You should be able to find some you enjoy. Favor green vegetables and dark-colored fruits and berries. Minimize intake of potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, bananas, and avoid dried fruit.
#2: Easier Maintenance of Body Composition
A decent carb intake from whole foods makes it much easier for many people to maintain body composition once they reach their ideal fat and muscle proportions.
First, glucose, which is what carbs are turned into in the body, is necessary for the conversion of thyroid hormone in the liver. Although, the liver can make glucose from protein, this process can become taxed over time with low-carb eating or due to excess stress, low caloric intake, or a high toxic load.
Second, glucose elevates insulin, which leads to an increase in the hormone leptin a few hours later. The effect is that hunger can be reduced if this hormone cascade works properly.
However, with insulin resistance, insulin and glucose concentrations stay elevated and resistance to leptin can develop. The solution is to favor complex carbs that naturally contain a lot of fiber and are slowly digested.
Third, carbs can help you maintain muscle because they help balance cortisol, particularly after a workout. When carbs are chronically absent from your diet it can lead to an altered cortisol curve throughout the day, which has a detrimental effect on body composition.
Finally, although research shows carbs are not necessary to maximally trigger protein synthesis, it is possible that taking carbs with protein over the longer term has some additive effect on muscle gains by enhancing the hormonal environment. Either way, consuming carbs around your workout is beneficial if your goal is other than strict fat loss because they will lower cortisol post-workout.
Pitfall to eating carbs for body composition: Thinking you need the extra insulin spike that comes from carbs to build muscle. This belief is not supported by the research.
Carbs To Avoid: For meals, avoid all processed grains and added sugar. For workout nutrition, avoid sports drinks, high-fructose corn syrup, and carb drinks with artificial additives.
Carbs To Favor: For meals, use the same guidelines as for fat loss, with the possible exception of whole grains such as rice or quinoa if you are eating grains. For workout nutrition, turn to liquid carbs only if you’re doing intense training and are not trying to lose fat.
#3: Better Athletic Performance
Carbohydrates can be an impressive performance-enhancing tool for athletes. Whether they are used during training or are consumed as part of the diet, higher carb consumption tends to allow most athletes to feel and perform better than lower carb diets.
Carb consumption has been found to be most beneficial in the following cases:
- A large review found the greatest benefit of a 6.5 percent increase in athletic performance from taking between 0.9 g/kg/hour of exercise of carbs with 0.2 g/kg/hour of protein. Both longer duration, high-intensity (such as team games) and endurance exercise lasting more than 2 hours can benefit from carb supplementation.
- Carbs are most important during twice-a-day training or during multi-day competition in order to rapidly replenish glycogen fuel stores. As much as 1.2 g/kg/h of carbs is recommended. Adding protein will reduce the carb dose needed and enhance uptake.
- For combat and precision sports, carb consumption can activate central nervous system drive in the brain for better focus and strength output. For example, in elite female gymnasts, taking a carb solution after an exhaustive exercise circuit resulted in fewer falls during balance beam exercises than a placebo.
Pitfall to eating carbs for performance: Being a casual exerciser who only trains a few times a week. Supplemental carbs aren’t recommended for moderate intensity exercise unless you are trying to gain weight. High-intensity workouts lasting less than 30 minutes also don’t require extra carbs.
Carbs To Avoid: High-fructose containing carbs such as corn syrup or agave sweetener.
Carbs To Favor: During exercise, glucose or glucose polymers are recommended because they enter circulation quickly. For intermittent, high-intensity sports such as soccer, a 2:1 blend of glucose and fructose is suggested by the literature.
#4: Faster Recovery from Training
When you exercise intensely, the body produces reactive oxygen species, which insulin can help suppress. For example, consuming protein post-workout elevates insulin, which is thought to provide an antioxidant effect to muscle, allowing for recovery benefits beyond enhanced protein synthesis.
Consuming carbs with protein can further elevate insulin and they provide other recovery benefits that have already been highlighted, such as replenishment of glycogen stores, a lower cortisol response to training, and better thyroid function.
Carbs increase total calories, which are necessary for speedy recovery from very intense exercise. A state of overtraining is often a response to a lack of calories. The effect is a catabolic environment that leads to muscle loss and delayed recovery. Athletes, particularly college athletes in sports with a high workload, are well known for not eating enough.
Pitfall to using carbs for recovery: Bingeing on carbs post-workout could lead to fat gain or delayed recovery. Be smart with post-workout carb intake.
Carbs To Avoid: Those that lead to a lack of moderation.
Carbs To Favor: Plant-based carbs are the most nutrient-rich foods available and certain ones are energy dense for quick glycogen replenishment and recovery. A quick summary of the protective benefits of plant-based carbs include the following:
- The cruciferous vegetables that include broccoli, cauliflower, and bok choy activate liver enzymes that enhance elimination of waste products produced during intense training.
- Anthocyanins found in berries and grapes counter inflammation and reduce muscle soreness after exercise.
- Pineapple has abundant nutrients that help reduce inflammation and support enzymatic function to restore cellular activity. The simple carb content is ideal for recovery after high-volume, intense exercise.
- Squash, sweet potatoes, and other tubers are energy-rich and provide calories. Naturally, certain populations will benefit from even more energy dense grains for the extra calories.
- Garlic, onion, tomatoes, dark-green vegetables, peppers all provide notable recovery benefits as well as variety.
#5: Reduced Cancer & Cardiovascular Disease Risk
Certain carbohydrates such as the ones just mentioned in #4 can reduce risk of both cancer and cardiovascular disease. They provide plant fiber, which has repeatedly been shown to dramatically reduce cancer risk, particularly colon, stomach, and intestinal cancers, while improving cardiovascular health.
The catch is that most humans are not fond of these foods—the Western diet is spectacularly low in fiber—and won’t eat them.
That’s one reason that the “whole grain” endorsement is so strong: Humans will eat more whole grains than plants, particularly those that say “whole grain” on the label, and the higher fiber content in these foods is associated with reduced cancer risk.
On the other hand, sugar and refined carbs may contribute to cancer risk for the following reasons:
- Both are calorie-dense and eating sugary foods and refined carbs on a regular basis leads people to overeat, increasing total caloric intake, thereby increasing body fat.
- Obesity increases cancer risk, and elevated blood sugar and the insulin resistance that commonly comes with it causes an inflammatory environment in the body that contributes to disease risk.
- Cancer tumor cells depend almost exclusively on glucose for their survival and growth. Restricting dietary carbs from grains and starches has been suggested as a treatment for cancer.
- It’s ironic to note that in the 1970s before the USDA low-fat guidelines came out, a common view of refined carbs was that they were fattening and that sugar in particular was “pure, white, and deadly.”
Pitfall to eating carbs for cancer prevention: Relying on food labels for your “whole grains” and fiber. Reality check: If a food is made out of flour that was once whole, but has been ground up, it is no longer “whole.” Opt for plant fibers. If you eat grains, make sure they really are in their whole kernel form with the hull on.
Carbs To Avoid: Refined carbs and sugar.
Carbs To Favor: Veggies and fruit. Mango, kiwi, and all dark-colored fruits and veggies such as cherries, pomegranates, blackberries, collards, and green chard are just a few that are that packed with beneficial nutrients to reduce cancer risk.
In addition, fermented carbs provide beneficial probiotics for gut health and reduced cancer risk. Kim chi, pickled ginger, and sauerkraut are a few to eat often.
#6: Reduced Diabetes Risk
Low-carb diets are a very effective treatment for diabetes because they improve insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance by slowing digestion and preventing blood sugar spikes and valleys.
However, diets too low in carbs can actually increase insulin resistance, making specific carbs beneficial. In addition, the fiber that plant carbs contain improves glycemic control and is robustly associated with a reduced risk of developing diabetes.
Therefore, depending on your individual insulin health, body fat percentage, and other metabolic factors, getting a decent amount of daily carbs (100 to 150 grams) or cycling carbs with a higher carb day may support insulin sensitivity and re-set production of the hormone leptin.
Pitfall to eating carbs to reduce diabetes risk: People have a hard time estimating food and calorie intake, so be wary of eating more carbs than you intend. Processed foods should be strictly avoided, but if you are consuming them for some reason, watch out for added sugar!
Carbs To Avoid: Sugar, refined carbs, dairy, and grains.
Carbs To Favor: Vegetables and fruit.
#7: Better Mood & Improved Sleep
A common drawback to very low-carbohydrate diets is that they do not allow for adequate production of the neurotransmitter serotonin. Some people on very low-carb diets report sleep trouble due to over-activation of the hypocretin neurons that are energizing.
Serotonin counters this, enabling restful sleep. Serotonin also helps you feel good, improving mood, motivation, and cognition.
It works like this: the amino acid tryptophan is the precursor to serotonin and it is not taken up for conversion when other amino acids from a high-protein diet are present. However, when you eat carbs they trigger insulin, which reduces amino acid levels in the blood so that tryptophan can easily cross the blood brain barrier for conversion to serotonin.
Pitfall to eating carbs for improved mood and sleep: Although pairing protein and complex carbs is normally recommended, it may be preferable to eat a carb meal alone without protein since this will reduce the blood amino acid pool so that serotonin can be produced.
Also, ensure adequate tryptophan intake by eating meat and eggs, or if you’re a vegetarian, supplement with tryptophan (also known as 5-HTP).
Carbs To Avoid: Simple carbs and grains that you are intolerant of.
Carbs To Favor: Complex carbs, such as all the ones listed above.
- amino acids
- athletic performance
- blood sugar
- body composition
- fat loss
- gut health
- insulin resistance
- processed food
- workout nutrition