Carbs aren't always the enemy: Here’s why you need to eat enough of them

January 7, 2019 Providence Health Team

You need a proper amount of carbs for your body to function properly.

Low-carb diets can result in health issues.

The Choose My Plate guidelines can be helpful for planning healthy meals.

It seems like dieters nowadays are constantly counting carbs instead of calories these days. But low carbohydrate numbers simply don’t add up to sustainable weight loss or good health, despite the latest fad diets trying to tell you otherwise. While these types of eating plans are built around stringent carb limitations in order to drop pounds, scientific data tells a different story about their effectiveness.

“This is the fourth or fifth ‘carbs are evil’ cycle I’ve seen in my career, and I think it has caused a lot of harm to our society and a lot of imbalanced diets,” says Terese Scollard, regional clinical nutrition manager and a registered dietitian nutritionist with Providence Health & Services in Portland, Oregon. “Instead, I use national recommendations from people who have studied this subject their whole life.”

According to Scollard, the recommended minimum amount of carbohydrates for an average-sized person is about 130 grams per day. Those carbs are crucial because they give the brain, nervous system and other organs the fuel needed for optimal function, Scollard says. She adds that people can survive on a diet where carbs make up anywhere from 35 percent to 65 percent of daily food consumption. Unfortunately, dieters can take it to the extreme and fall below that range.

“The low-carb diets that are common now are often too low,” Scollard says. “That causes problems because people aren’t getting enough nutrients when their diets are too low in carbohydrates.”

A recent study in the journal Lancet highlights that issue. It found a lower mortality rate associated with moderate carbohydrate intake — about 50 percent to 55 percent of a total daily diet — compared to diets where the proportion of carbs was low, i.e., less than 40 percent. Incidentally, there was also a higher mortality rate associated with high-carb diets. Other known health issues stemming from low carb intake include headaches, lack of energy, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies.

“That’s why the national recommendations say that about half of your calories should come from nutritious carbohydrates, such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and some dairy,” Scollard says. “What many people do is mix up these real-food carbs with junk-food carbs. They’re pointing the finger at the whole category of carbs instead of the sodas, sweets and all those things. I think the public is confused about all this, and there’s a lot of expensive advertising and marketing promoting low-carb diets.”

Scollard says the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Choose My Plate guidelines are a good rule of thumb when trying to eat healthy. Half of your meal should consist of vegetables and fruit and a quarter should be from whole grains (the remaining quarter should be protein). She suggests that anyone confused about carbs use some of the tools on the Choose My Plate website. “People shoot themselves in the foot a lot of times when they are trying to do the right thing and end up overcomplicating what they eat,” Scollard says. “It causes problems for their health and leads them to develop erratic eating behaviors.”

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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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