Since the rise of the Atkins diet in the early 2000’s, we’ve been told that carbohydrates are detrimental to our health. Now, with the gaining popularity of the keto diet, even more hesitation and questions surround carbohydrates.
Many of us have been told that the only way to prevent diabetes, heart disease, and weight gain is to go on a low-carb diet. However, that is not quite the case. In fact, just like how we need fat and protein, our bodies need carbohydrates to stay healthy and to help our brain function. The type of carbohydrates we choose can have the most impact on our health.
What is a carbohydrate?
Carbohydrate or “carb” is an umbrella term for a number of different food categories. It refers to the sugars, starches, and fibers that are found in grains, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. They are also found in soda, candy, and other sweets.
During digestion, carbohydrates are converted into blood glucose, which the body uses for fast-acting energy. The excess carbohydrates we consume are delivered to the liver and muscles and stored as glycogen. This fuels the body when blood glucose levels run low or when we exercise.
When many of us think of carbohydrates, we often first think of bread, pasta, cake, and cookies. These types of carbohydrates are called highly-processed or refined carbohydrates. They have undergone extensive manipulation and don’t provide much nutritional benefit. In fact, some refined carbohydrates have vitamins and minerals added back in during the manufacturing process.
Have you ever felt hungry immediately after you’ve eaten foods high in sugar or white flour? Due to the lack of fiber, these carbohydrates are quick to digest, causing a blood sugar spike followed by a blood sugar drop about an hour or so after eating. This can cause further hunger and stimulate the part of the brain that is associated with reward and craving, which can lead to overeating.1 When our activity levels are low and our lifestyle is sedentary, these excess refined carbohydrates can become body fat. Refined carbohydrates in your diet has been linked to insulin resistance, high triglycerides, the risk of type 2 diabetes, and heart disease.2, 3
Whole carbohydrates exist in a relatively natural state. They include whole foods such as fresh fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains. Whole carbohydrates also include foods that have been minimally processed for freshness or safety. This includes frozen or canned vegetables, yogurt, milk, and whole-grain bread or pasta. Due to their high fiber content, these types of carbohydrates provide a more sustained source of energy.
Because of their complex structure and long molecular chains, complex carbohydrates take a fair amount of work for your body to break down. These types of carbs keep you full for longer and slowly release glucose into your bloodstream. Complex carbs are found in foods like grains, oats, legumes, and potatoes. Sources of complex carbohydrates are typically rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.
High and Low Carb Diets
A diet consisting of fresh fruits and vegetables that is high in fiber may help improve chronic conditions like diabetes and heart disease. Additionally, since carbohydrates are our body’s main fuel source, performance typically improves when there is adequate carbohydrate intake. This would include plenty of non-starchy vegetables, fruits, legumes, and whole grains.
Low-carb diets with extreme guidelines, such as keto and Atkins, may provide short-term weight loss and other health benefits. However, when carbs are reintroduced, cells are flooded with glucose and fluid. People on these types of diets typically gain all the weight back—and then some. That being said, several diets such as Paleo and Mediterranean that focus more on eating whole, real foods instead of highly processed and refined ones.
Should carbs be part of your diet?
Many people rely on family history to figure out if they are at risk for certain health conditions and that may influence how they eat. Your family history can give you hints about how your genetic impact will influence your health. However, just because a relative has gotten a genetic-related disease doesn't mean that you're actually at greater risk. Analyzing your genes can help you gain clarity on what traits were actually passed down and which traits were not.
For instance, studies have shown that if you have a particular variant in your IRS1 gene, you are at higher risk for developing insulin resistance. However, you may reduce this risk from a diet that’s higher in carbohydrates.
If this is you, when picking out fruits, you may benefit from choosing one that has a higher fiber content, such as passion fruit. If you don’t have this variant, then studies show you’re not at greater risk for developing insulin resistance. In this case, GenoPalate recommends you eat the National Institutes of Health's daily recommended amount of carbohydrates.
Additionally, another variant in the MMAB gene can put you at greater risk for developing lower HDL (good) cholesterol levels on a high carb diet, therefore you may benefit from a diet lower in carbohydrates.
In this case, you may not need as much fiber, so you may pick out fruit lower in carbohydrates and fiber, such as plums or grapefruit. If you don’t have this variant, however, then studies show you’re not at greater risk for developing low HDL and you can eat the National Institutes of Health's daily recommended amount of carbohydrates.
While we don’t believe in a one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition, we do stand firm in our position on carbohydrates. Carbohydrates that are high in fiber and nutrients are a healthful addition to the diet.
Your DNA can help you make smarter choices
GenoPalate’s nutrition DNA test is just like the one you’d take to research your ancestry. Once you’ve submitted your DNA test kit or existing test results to us, your DNA is analyzed. We’ll break down how your body processes carbohydrates, along with the other nutrients you’ll need for optimal health.
Based on your DNA results, we’ll create a customized nutrition profile for you. Your profile will include a detailed analysis of the type, amount, and best sources for each nutrient, including carbohydrates.
The key is to follow a nutrition plan and make long-term lifestyle changes that will help you feel good and keep you healthy.
It’s time to ditch the extreme diet of the day and eat for your genes. Get your report here.
- Lennerz BS, Alsop DC, Holsen LM, Stern E, Rojas R, Ebbeling CB, Goldstein JM, Ludwig DS. Effects of dietary glycemic index on brain regions related to reward and craving in men. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Sep;98(3):641-7. doi: 10.3945/ajcn.113.064113. Epub 2013 Jun 26. PMID: 23803881; PMCID: PMC3743729.
- López-Alarcón M, Perichart-Perera O, Flores-Huerta S, Inda-Icaza P, Rodríguez-Cruz M, Armenta-Álvarez A, Bram-Falcón MT, Mayorga-Ochoa M. Excessive refined carbohydrates and scarce micronutrients intakes increase inflammatory mediators and insulin resistance in prepubertal and pubertal obese children independently of obesity. Mediators Inflamm. 2014;2014:849031. doi: 10.1155/2014/849031. Epub 2014 Nov 16. PMID: 25477716; PMCID: PMC4248360.
- Yu D, Shu XO, Li H, Xiang YB, Yang G, Gao YT, Zheng W, Zhang X. Dietary carbohydrates, refined grains, glycemic load, and risk of coronary heart disease in Chinese adults. Am J Epidemiol. 2013 Nov 15;178(10):1542-9. doi: 10.1093/aje/kwt178. Epub 2013 Sep 5. PMID: 24008907; PMCID: PMC3888273.