Carbs sometimes—ok, almost always—get a bad rap. With more and more people trying low- and no-carb diets (hello, keto), it’s no wonder dieters get a little mixed up about this mighty macro. But here’s the thing: Carbs aren’t the enemy! In fact, eliminating them altogether could yield some seriously negative effects on your health.
“Our fear of carbs is putting a lot of people in a dangerous spot,” says clinical nutritionist Tara Coleman. “There is no doubt that the average American eats too many carbs, but I don’t believe that completely cutting them out is the answer.”
First off, carbohydrates are the body’s main source of energy, according to The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. There are two main forms of carbohydrates—simple and complex. The core difference? How quickly they are digested and absorbed.
Simple carbohydrates (think soda, candy, white bread, and pastries) usually offer no other fiber or nutrients. They’re what we call short-chain carbs, and that’s because they’re made of short chains of sugars that enter quickly and easily into your system, requiring very little processing. You’ll probably notice an immediate energy rush after snacking on these sorts of carbs, because they spike your blood sugar level.
Related: What You Should Know If You’re Considering Cutting Refined Carbs
On the other hand, complex carbohydrates (think whole wheat grains, quinoa, legumes, and vegetables) have longer chains of molecules, which means it takes longer for the body to break them down, providing a more stable energy source. These are the carbs you’re looking for, since they supply nutrients, fiber, and sustainable energy.
According to the The Quarterly Review of Biology, carbs are crucial: They help us support healthy human tissue, blood cells, brain, and fetus development.
Are You Carb Deficient?
Hangry much? You could be eating too few carbs, especially if you’re on a low- or no-carb diet.
“Typically, the first symptoms [of carb deficiency] are low energy and trouble working out,” says Coleman. “Also, people don’t usually replace the calories lost from carb [reduction] so they end up eating too little food. They also tend to see a change in mood where they become depressed, anxious, or irritable.”
Essentially, carbs release serotonin. So if you’re cutting carbs, you may be cutting into your happiness hormones.
Coleman has also seen constipation, binge eating, and chronic hunger as a result of a carb deficiency. (That’s not because you’re not eating, but because carbs produce insulin, which signals to the body that you’re full.)
According to the Journal of America College of Nutrition, low-carbers may also experience dysregulation in their thyroid production due to the lowered insulin production. Low thyroid hormone production can result in headaches, feeling cold, having constipation, experiencing fatigue and brain fog, and a reduction in muscle strength.
Still not sold? According to one study by the Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, low glycemic index carbohydrate diets (those complex carbs that don’t cause an immediate blood sugar spike) are key “in the prevention of obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.” Boom.
Do The Math
To get a hold on your carb intake, food journaling is a great place to start, says Coleman, who has her clients list their food intake for a few weeks.
Once you have your entries down, you’ll want to take a sampling of days, and then for each day chosen, break down the food consumption. The amount of carbohydrates in a food is readily available online (you’ll also want to note if it’s a complex or simple carb, and if you’re deriving any other nutrients from it).
After totaling your average daily calories, figure 45 percent of that number. Then divide that by four. This will be the amount of grams of carbohydrates you should be consuming daily. (If you follow a 2000-calorie diet, for example, you should have eaten 225 grams of carbs.)
If the percentage is lower than 40 percent on a regular basis, you could be carb deficient. However, Coleman notes, every body is different and everyone’s goals are different.
To add more carbohydrates to your diet, reach for the complex carbs: black beans, oatmeal, whole grain breads, fruits, and vegetables.
It’s all about moderation, as Coleman says, which also means a simple carb here and there won’t hurt you.