Carbohydrates have been the enemy of the diet world for pretty much forever. They’ve been long accused of making us gain weight, and it seems like every trendy diet out there recommends we slash them from our daily eats.
But if you’ve ever tried a low-carb diet, you probably know the feeling of being absolutely drained that comes along with it. And that’s not surprising: Carbs are a powerful source of energy for our body. They’re composed of strings of glucose molecules, which our body breaks down into sugar molecules, says nutritionist Kara Landau, founder of The Traveling Dietitian. These sugar molecules are used as energy or stored to be used later, she says.
“Carbs are the preferred fuel source for our brain and our muscles,” she says. “They help us concentrate, perform optimally, and stay energized.” Sounds pretty important, right?
Still, misunderstandings about carbs are everywhere, so we’re busting some of the most popular myths out there in hopes of convincing you that carbs can be part of your life.
Myth #1: Carbs Make You Fat
We know you’ve heard this one before. But the connection between carbs and weight gain is a little more complicated than “carbs equal fat,” says Keri Gans, R.D.N., author of The Small Change Diet. Whether or not carbs affect the scale comes down to quantity and quality, she says.
Eat too many carbs—or too much of anything, for that matter—and you may take in too many calories, which leads to weight gain, Gans explains. You don’t have to completely break up with pasta and bread if you’re watching your weight—but you do need to control your portion sizes, she says. Just fill half of your plate with veggies, a quarter with protein, and the other quarter with high-fiber carbs. Choose carbs like legumes, beans, and whole-wheat pasta to get a dose of that filling fiber, she says.
When these carbs are just a portion of a healthy, balanced meal—and not the focus—you’ll feel satisfied without going overboard. Gans recommends serving pasta with sautéed vegetables and olive oil instead of dousing it in cheese, and making sandwiches with grilled chicken breast and avocado instead of processed deli meats.
Myth #2: All Carbs Are The Same
If a serving of soda and a serving of fruit contain the same amount of carbs, they’re pretty similar, right? Wrong.
Foods and drinks that contain refined carbs (like white flour and added sugar) do a pretty poor job of keeping you full and providing nutrition, says Landau. “When you eat cookies, cake, or candy, your blood sugar spikes and then nose dives quickly,” Gans says. And when your blood sugar dips back down, you’ll want to eat again to bring it up a bit—explaining the vicious cycle of all-day cravings. Plus, refined carbs are often pretty devoid of valuable vitamins and minerals, hence why they’re often called ‘empty calories,’ says Landau.
That’s not the case with natural, whole sources of carbs, like fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, and beans, says Landau. These wholesome carbs provide micronutrients our body needs, along with fiber. Dietary fiber is critical for slowing your digestion, making you feel full, and supporting your metabolism, Landau says. Some whole-food carbs even contain an indigestible type of fiber called ‘prebiotic fiber,’ which works to keep your gut healthy by supporting your digestion, immune system, and ability to absorb nutrients, she says.
So, yeah, go ahead and bit into that apple. The soda can go, though.
Myth #3: You Should Cut Carbs To Lose Weight And Be Healthier
When it comes to your daily diet, no food group should be ‘off limits,’ Gans says. If you swear off carbs, you’re practically guaranteed to go overboard when you do eventually eat them, she says.
Yes, cutting certain carbs can benefit your waistline and your overall health. If you’re going to slash carbs, just slash refined carbs and added sugars, says Landau. By now, you already know that whole-food carbs are better for your waistline—and they may also be better for your brain. You know that joke we’ve all made about being addicted to carbs? According to research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, a super-high-carb meal activates the part of the brain associated with cravings, reward, and addiction.
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Just swap out white pasta for pasta made from legumes (chickpea pasta is a good option) and ditch side dishes like white rice for sweet potatoes. This way, the carbs you eat provide fiber and nutrients to support your health and keep you from going overboard, says Landau.
Myth #4: You Should Only Eat Carbs At Certain Times Of Day
Only eat carbs after you work out? No carbs after lunchtime? There are plenty of ‘rules’ about when you should eat carbs floating around out there. But ultimately, the quality of the carbs you eat—and how much total you consume—throughout the day is what really matters, says Landau.
Sure, if you’re snacking in front of the TV or computer after dinner, you might be more inclined to munch on foods that are high in refined carbs and sugar, like snack mixes or sleeves of cookies, says Landau. And because these foods don’t keep you full, you end up overeating. Instead, reach for a filling snack bar that’s made from nuts and contains fiber (like KIND’s Madagascar Vanilla Almond bar) or a serving of your favorite fruit. It’s all about eating healthy carbs in the proper portions—and pairing them with quality protein or fat, Gans says. We’ll have a spoonful of peanut butter on our evening apple, please!