Carbs: to eat or not to eat?
This is one of the most hotly debated topics in the field of nutrition.
Just as fat used to be, carbs are now accused of causing weight gain, heart disease and all sorts of other problems.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
It is also true that most junk foods tend to have carbs (mostly refined) in them.
In fact, many of the world's healthiest foods have plenty of carbs in them.
Here are nine reasons why you don't need to fear all carbs.
1. Carbs are Not Inherently Fattening
Some sources blame carbs for obesity, because they raise insulin levels.
They claim that carbs are the primary cause of obesity due to their effects on insulin and fat storage. In other words, that carbs are uniquely fattening, regardless of total calories.
The truth is, scientific evidence overwhelmingly rejects this hypothesis.
This argument is also at odds with indigenous groups like the Massas, Kitavans and Tarahumara Indians, as well as the pre-industrialized Thai, Taiwanese and the rest of Asia during the 20th century. These groups thrived on high-carb diets (3, 4, 5, 6, 7).
If carbs are fattening and harmful on their own, then these populations should not have been in good health with lean bodies.
2. Early Humans Ate Carbs All the Time
Learning to cook was a game-changer for our early ancestors. Cooked meat provided increased protein, fat and calories.
But a flurry of new evidence indicates that carb-rich foods like root vegetables, legumes and even grains were cooked and consumed by our ancestors too. This is important, since cooking these foods makes many of them safer to eat (8).
Not only would cooked carbs often have been more nutritious, they may also have been more appealing to a hungry hunter-gatherer.
This theory is supported by emerging biological evidence that shows early humans began developing extra copies of the amylase gene, which helps produce the enzymes you need to digest starchy carbs (9).
By analyzing bone DNA, researchers can see that early humans in Europe had developed extra copies of the amalyse gene long before they started farming.
That's why people today can have up to 18 amalyse gene copies, indicating that we have evolved to be able to digest starches more efficiently.
Also consider that every single cell in your body runs on glucose, which is a carbohydrate sugar. Even the most fat-adapted brain requires, at the very least, 20 percent of its energy from carbs (10).
Bottom Line: Humans ate high-carb foods long before they started farming. This is supported by genetics and archaeological evidence.
3. Gluten Sensitivity Actually Affects Few People
A gluten-free diet is necessary for the small number of patients with celiac disease and (potentially) some other types of autoimmune disease.
But, even if we group all these conditions together, the scientific literature indicates that between 87–99 percent of people should have zero problems digesting gluten. What's more, the weight of the evidence leans towards the 99 percent (11, 12, 13).
The latest clinical trial even found that only three out of 59 participants with self-reported gluten sensitivity actually reacted to gluten (14).
Although foods that are naturally gluten-free can be healthy, processed gluten-free foods are not. Gluten-free junk food is still junk food.
Bottom Line: Although removing gluten is crucial for some people, the current body of evidence suggests that the majority of people don't benefit from a gluten-free diet.
4. Fiber is Important for Optimal Health and it's a Carbohydrate
Nutrition is rarely black and white.
But one thing that almost all experts agree on, is that eating fiber is good for your health.
This leads to a longer feeling of fullness and a significantly reduced appetite. Fiber is also closely linked with important fat loss around the heart and other organs (18).
Interestingly, almost all dietary fiber is made of carbs, we just don't have the enzymes to digest them.
5. Gut Bacteria Rely on Carbs for Energy
The role that our gut bacteria have on health is a new and exciting area of science.
It is thought that the balance between “good" and “bad" bacteria influences our risk of developing many lifestyle diseases, ranging from physical to psychological.
In order to grow, the “good" bacteria need carbs that they can ferment for energy.
Once again, some of the best food sources of soluble fiber include legumes and oats.
Bottom Line: It is important to maintain a healthy balance of gut bacteria and eating soluble fiber may play a crucial role.
6. On a Nutrient-To-Cost Basis, Legumes are a Real “Superfood"
They are naturally high in carbs, which means they are often excluded from low-carb eating patterns. They are also eliminated on a strict paleo diet.
However, nutritionally, legumes are incredibly unique. They are one of the few foods rich in both protein and fiber. Legumes are also high in vitamins and minerals and calorie for calorie they are one of the most nutrient-dense foods available.
This remarkable nutrition-to-cost ratio is why legumes are an important food staple in many developing countries.
Bottom Line: Legumes are incredibly healthy and amazingly cheap. They are rich in protein, fiber and other valuable nutrients. Calorie for calorie, they are one of the most nutritious foods out there.
7. Cutting Carbs Does Not Improve Exercise Performance
There is a myth that a low-carb diet can outperform a conventional high-carb diet for athletes.
One well-designed study followed cyclists performing a 100-km trial with intermittent sprints. The researchers compared following a low-carb diet to a high-carb diet, for the week leading up to the trial (20).
Although both groups had similar race times, the high-carb group outperformed the low-carb group's sprint output on all four occasions (20).
Solid conclusions can't be drawn from just one study, but the weight of evidence overwhelmingly supports those results (21).
If you're fat-adapted on a low-carb diet, you can still perform very well, but there are certainly no good studies to show you can outperform higher-carb diets (22).
This holds true for cardio endurance events like cycling, as well as weight training and bodybuilding for muscular strength and endurance (23).
For those who simply exercise to keep fit, a low-carb diet will likely not have a negative impact on your performance. However, it probably won't improve it either.
8. Carbs Don't Cause Brain Damage
Some sources claim that carbs cause harmful brain inflammation.
However, this is an untested hypothesis that only presents one side of the debate.
In fact, the extensively studied Mediterranean diet, which is rich in whole grains, is strongly associated with slower age-related mental decline and a lower risk of developing Alzheimer's disease (27, 28).
The latest review on known Alzheimer's risk factors analyzed 323 previous studies, with not a single mention of grains or gluten (29).
Bottom Line: There is no evidence linking whole carb sources to brain damage or diseases like Alzheimer's. The latest review on risk factors for Alzheimer's doesn't even mention grains or gluten.
9. The World's Longest Lived Populations Eat Plenty of Carbs
The Blue Zones or the regions where people live measurably longer lives, provide us with unique insights about certain eating patterns.
The island of Okinawa in Japan has the most centenarians (people who live over the age of 100) in the world.
Another long-living population inhabits the Greek island of Ikaria. Nearly one in every three people lives to be 90 and they eat a diet rich in legumes, potatoes and bread.
Several other Blue Zone regions share similar dietary traits, indicating that carbs are not causing problems for these people.
Bottom Line: Some of the world's longest living populations eat diets with plenty of high-carb plant foods.
Consider Food as a Whole, Not Just Its Nutrients
It's important to think about foods as a whole and not just by their individual nutrients. This is especially true when talking about carbs.
For instance, carb-laden junk foods are not healthy. They provide no nutritional value and are today's biggest contributors to excess calories.
It's also important to note that low-carb diets can be an effective tool for weight loss and diabetes control, at least in the short-term.
But that doesn't mean carbs alone make people fat and sick in the first place, nor are they the sole cause of the current state of public health.
This depends entirely on the context and varies between individuals.
Some people do well with little carbs, others function just fine eating plenty of carbs from healthy food. Different strokes for different folks.
The main message to take away is that whole carb foods can definitely be part of a healthy diet … and enjoying some carbs at Christmas is not blasphemy.
This article was reposted from our media associate Authority Nutrition.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE
Maryland will become the first state in the nation Thursday to implement a ban on foam takeout containers.
- New Jersey Legislature Passes 'Most Comprehensive' Plastics Ban ... ›
- Canada to Announce Ban on Single-Use Plastics - EcoWatch ›
- The Complex and Frustrating Reality of Recycling Plastic - EcoWatch ›
- Dunkin' Says Bye to Foam Cups (But Bring Your Own Thermos ... ›
- Maine and Vermont Pass Plastic Bag Bans on the Same Day ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Ajit Niranjan
Leaders from across the world have promised to turn environmental degradation around and put nature on the path to recovery within a decade.
- Destruction of Nature Is Triggering Pandemics, Say Leaders of WWF ... ›
- The UN Wants to Protect 30% of the Planet by 2030 - EcoWatch ›
- New WWF Report Calls for Protecting Nature to Prevent Future ... ›
Just days after a new report detailed the "unequivocal and pervasive role" climate change plays in the increased frequency and intensity of wildfires, new fires burned 10,000 acres on Sunday as a "dome" of hot, dry air over Northern California created ideal fire conditions over the weekend.
- California's Iconic Redwoods Threatened by Wildfires - EcoWatch ›
- California Wildfires Destroy Condor Sanctuary, at Least 4 Birds Still ... ›
- 7 Devastating Photos of Wildfires in California, Oregon and ... ›
- David Attenborough Calls For Ban on Deep-Sea Mining - EcoWatch ›
- Sir David Attenborough Set to Present BBC Documentary on ... ›
- David Attenborough Gives Stark Warning in New BBC Climate ... ›
Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
- Overlooked Flood Risk Endangers Homeowners - EcoWatch ›
- Florida Coastal Flooding Maps: Residents Deny Predicted Risks to ... ›
- Flooding Risk for U.S. Homes: Millions More Are Vulnerable Than ... ›