Carbs: A Love Story
You'd be hard-pressed to find a woman watching her weight who doesn't think that carbs are evil. Between diet books like Grain Brain, Wheat Belly, and Cavewomen Don't Get Fat, it's no wonder we're not only terrified of croissants, we're also pretty sure we shouldn't be eating whole wheat anything either. But here's a secret the authors of those best sellers don't want you to know: You need carbs. In fact, eliminating them could harm your health and make you miss out on one of the most effective ways to stay slim. "Carbs should make up the majority of your diet, especially if you're active," says Kelly Pritchett, PhD, RD, a sports dietitian and spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. We cut through the confusion so you can welcome back carbs with open (sculpted) arms.What Are Carbs, Exactly?
They're nutrients that break down into glucose, your body's primary source of energy, and tons of foods contain them. "Carbs get a bad rap, but we need them to keep our brain working and our heart pumping," says Tanya Zuckerbrot, RD, the author of The Miracle Carb Diet.
Not all carbs are created equal, however. Naturally occurring sugars like fructose in fruit and lactose in dairy, sugars that are added to foods, and refined grains such as white rice are broken down quickly by your body. That means they provide almost-instant energy, but it doesn't last. And unless they're bundled with other nutrients, like the fiber in an apple or the protein in yogurt, they're basically empty calories. Other carbs, such as those found in whole grains, vegetables and legumes, take longer to digest, so you get a steadier supply of energy.
"Carbohydrate-rich foods like bread can be very high in calories," Pritchett says. "But many foods that contain carbs, such as fruits and vegetables, are low in calories and high in vitamins and minerals." Others fall somewhere in between: Whole grains contain a lot of nutrients and calories, while low-fat dairy has a medium amount of both. The bottom line: Cut down on added sugar and refined grains and consider all other carbs fair game.If Carbs Are So Great, Why Is Everyone on a Low-Carb Diet?
Well, it's easy to overdo it on certain carbs. When you eat any type of carb, your body releases insulin to help you regulate an increase in blood sugar. But your system processes refined carbs so quickly that your blood sugar may dip, setting off an "eat more" signal in your brain.
The problem is, cutting out all carbs can hamper your weight-loss efforts, especially if you're active. "They're our primary energy source during exercise, and we can't get to the same level of intensity if we're carb depleted," Pritchett says. She recommends getting 45 to 65 percent of your calories from carbs, depending on how much cardio you do (aerobic activity requires more carbs than Pilates, for example). "You need 130 grams a day just for your brain to function, and active women should aim for between 200 and 300 grams," she explains.
Skimp on carbs and you'll also miss out on important nutrients, Zuckerbrot says. "Many of the vitamins and minerals we need come from fruits and vegetables, so cutting these out can lead to deficiencies." And your mood could suffer, too: A yearlong study found that people on a low-carb diet reported feeling angrier and more depressed than those on a low-fat diet did.
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