The Role of Carbs in the Diet

The International Food Information Council (IFIC) foundation recently published findings from an online food and health survey conducted between 2012 and 2015. While there continues to be a disconnect between weight status and perceived health by many Americans, the participants report behaviors consistent with widely disseminated nutrition advice including trying to limit or avoid added sugars. It’s important to note that this nutrition advice is likely from television or social media sources and only 6 percent of respondents had ever seen a Registered Dietitian Nutritionists (RDN).

Carbohydrates have been unfairly deemed the ultimate foe in the journey for weight management. With the prevalence of low-carbohydrate fad diets, it’s important that healthcare professionals be prepared to provide a basic background on the importance of well-balanced diets for their patient’s and client’s successful long-term weight management.

Carbohydrates are an essential part of the diet. As a macronutrient, carbohydrates, provide nourishment essential for growth and the maintenance of life.  Ideally, 45 to 65 percent of someone’s daily intake should come from carbohydrates with the remaining 20 to 35 percent of daily intake from fats, and 10 to 35 percent of daily intake coming from proteins.

With the public health focus on reducing added sugars, it is important to remember that carbohydrates include sugars, starches, and dietary fibers. Sugars including glucose, fructose, lactose, and sucrose, can be easily digested and metabolized. Individuals may be familiar with these sugars because they can be found in numerous foods and also be used as ingredients in recipes. Patients may find it helpful to know they can look for these carbohydrates by checking recipes and foods for terms including sugar (sucrose), fructose, lactose, brown sugar, molasses, honey, beet sugar, cane sugar, maple syrup, agave nectar, and many more.

People may be less familiar with starch and dietary fiber as sources of complex carbohydrates. Starches are also digested and metabolized by the body but take longer than sugar to become available for use as energy. Most of our dietary intake of starches comes from our staple foods such as potatoes, wheat, corn, and rice including flours from these staples.

Dietary fibers are indigestible carbohydrates found in fruits, vegetables, nuts, legumes, whole grains, and many foods enriched with fiber. Dietary fiber has been shown to impart many benefits such as weight management, digestive health and regularity, and cholesterol reduction.

Explaining that habitual over consumption of any energy source, including carbohydrates, with no compensatory physical activity leads to weight gain may be helpful to individuals that express interest in diets that aim to eliminate entire food groups or specific nutrients. More detailed conversation regarding glucose management is necessary for those with hyperglycemia including insulin management, types and portions of carbohydrates, and management of overall diet, carbohydrate intake, and physical activity to keep blood sugars within normal limits.

There are millions of adults deciding on the best way to manage their weight.  Those who are most successful at weight loss and maintenance commit fully to a healthier lifestyle that includes adopting behaviors with lower calorie intake and increased energy expenditure. While numerous fad or elimination diets tout their success, there is no one-size-fits-all diet and it is important to explain the difficulty in long-term adherence and risks associated with fad diets.

Patients and clients should understand that the overall pattern of food eaten should be the focus and that all foods can fit within this pattern if consumed in moderation with appropriate portion size and combined with physical activity. Current recommendations of physical activity include 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity for overweight and obese adults to improve health while more is recommended for long-term weight loss.