Carbohydrates, or "carbs", seem to always get a bad rap when people start talking about eating healthfully or trying to lose weight. I'm here to convince you otherwise by stating that carbs definitely have a place in a healthy diet and there's no need to be scared of them. In fact, I hope by the end you find a reason to celebrate them with me.
What are Carbohydrates?
On the most basic level. they are just some carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms hooked together in certain ways to form sugars, starches, cellulose. One gram of carbohydrate is 4 calories (the same as protein).
You might know them better for their famous work in grains, fruit, dairy, vegetables, sweets, breads, pastas, crackers, pretzels, beans, barbeque sauce, and many more. In fact, carbohydrates are in every food product except meats and fats/oils.
The Importance of Carbohydrates, Then
Let's review some classic carbohydrates that unnecessarily get the shaft.
The claim has been made by many ahead of me that rice is the most important food in the world. In 2004, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) declared the theme of that year to be "Rice is Life," and focused on using rice to resolve world hunger (http://www.fao.org/newsroom/en/focus/2004/36887/). Rice is cheap, easy to cook, calorie-dense, and provides some protein, vitamins, and minerals. Sometimes it's easy to forget in America, where we can order whatever food we want through our smart phones to be delivered to our homes, that not every one else in the world is nearly as fortunate. As far as nutrition goes, remember that brown rice is a whole grain, which means that it has more fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Even though rice is the most important food in the world, do keep in mind if you are trying to watch your weight that 1 cup is around 200 calories of either brown or white.
The picture that I included for this post is "Irish Colcannon," served as a brunch. It is mashed potatoes with greens (kale and spinach), scallions, eggs, and sprinkled with parmesan. I chose this meal because potatoes are outcast by many health foodies, but potatoes have a similar story as rice to my ancestors, the Europeans. Most people have heard of the potato famine in Ireland and it's devastating results. You can learn more about the heroic tales of the potato here: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/how-the-potato-changed-the-world-108470605/. Consider that the lowly russet potato contains lots of vitamin C, B6, folate, niacin, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and manganese. It even has some fiber and protein, without any contributing any fat. When I was a poor college student, I bought a 10 pound bag of potatoes each time I went grocery shopping and I learned how to make them every which possible way. Not a bad choice, considering the nutritional value and versatility,
Wheat is also a major crop worth discussing. Its varieties give us pastas and breads, which are the basis of diets all over the world. Though you might think of spaghetti being from Italy, people in China were eating versions of it much longer before, more than likely thanks to Marco Polo. You can read more about the history of pasta here: https://www.pbs.org/food/the-history-kitchen/uncover-the-history-of-pasta/#:~:text=While%20we%20do%20think%20of,Polo%20during%20the%2013th%20century.&text=Noodles%20existed%20in%20Asia%20long%20before%20Polo's%20trip%20to%20China.). Bread was so important that it was even used by ancient Egyptians as currency, since it was a staple of everyone's diet. Once it is baked it has a decent shelf-life, requires few ingredients to make, and is a great grab-and-go food.
The Importance of Carbohydrates, Now
Carbohydrates have fueled us for centuries and have a very clear importance in history. Unfortunately, they are still greatly needed for countries less well off and struggling with populations suffering from hunger. It is important to revere these foods for their contribution to human nutrition and not snub our nose at them. But, with our plethora of food availability, why should we eat more than 50 grams of carbohydrate a day?
I throw out the amount of 50 grams of carbohydrate because certain diets encourage their practitioners to limit that far. I have even heard some rogue Registered Dietitians use this figure. This would limit your carb intake to be a mere 200 calories in your day. Let's talk about why that's not a good idea on a consistent basis.
Carbohydrates, like fats and proteins, are a macronutrient which provides calories. This means that you need them in a proportionally large amount compared to other nutrients. The accepted ratio of macronutrient ratios are as follows:
This means it is recommended that 45-65% of your entire calorie intake should come from carbohydrates.
But wait... WHY?
Carbohydrates contain essential nutrients that proteins and fats do not provide. Certain vitamins and minerals, fiber, and glucose for energy are the main reasons you need carbs in your life. When trying to eat healthier carbohydrates, think "whole". Whole grains, whole fruits, and whole vegetables are the best way to get the nutrition and clean energy that you need. Beans, peas, and lentils are affordable, nutritious, and worth including more in your diet. If you are concerned about being able to afford a more nutritious diet, please refer to my blog post "Eating Healthy on a Budget".
My fear is that we live in a culture that teaches us to hate food, and makes it trendy to do so. Practically eliminating one third of our essential macronutrients that has faithfully fueled us is not a wise solution to the obesity epidemic in our country and absolutely does not equate to optimal nutrition. We do, however, need to be cognizant of our portion sizes and be mindful of our food choices and their effects on our bodies. Keep sweets as rare treats, sure, but don't hate food, calories, or carbs.
Be thankful every day.