Everyone and their mom seem to have an opinion about carbohydrates. How much you should eat, when you should eat them, why you should never eat fruit after lunch—there is no shortage of advice regarding carbs and people ready to wage war on them. Does all this conflicting information leave you frozen in the bread aisle? Here are a handful of common carb myths you’ve likely heard through the grapevine—and why you should view them as the real fake news.
Myth #1: All Grains are Bad News
Sensationalist diets may attempt to pin everything from heart disease to brain fog on grains, but research shows this food group definitely should not be blamed for all of society’s ills. Case in point: A 2016 study in The Journal of Nutrition showed that people who ate a whole-grain heavy diet for two months experienced improvements in blood pressure numbers. Scientists in Denmark found that among more than 55,000 people studied those who ate the most servings of whole grains had a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes. One recent study even found that people who consumed a low carbohydrate diet, which often means being skimpy in grains, were at greater risk of premature death from maladies like heart disease. Just like other food groups, grains should play a role in an overall healthy diet. The key is to double down on unrefined whole grains such as quinoa and oats because these will give you more nutritional bang for your buck compared to refined grains and sugar.
Myth #2: High Carb Diets are Fattening
In fact, the opposite can be true. Many people will maintain a healthy weight while eating plenty of carbs—and not just ultra-endurance athletes. A 2018 study published in Nutrients showed that people who followed a plant-based high-carb diet (about 70% of daily calories) for four months experienced benefits in their body composition including a drop in body fat levels. A separate investigation showed that higher intakes of carbs, specifically those containing more fiber, when consumed as part of a calorie controlled diet played a big role in weight loss success among people at risk for diabetes. “This just shows that no one food will make you fat, just like no one food will make you thinner,” says Alissa Rumsey MS, RD, founder of Alissa Rumsey Nutrition and Wellness in New York City. What matters most she says, whether you’re following a high-carb or low-carb diet, is that your overall diet contains mostly high-quality foods in appropriate portions. But, yes, polishing off a half loaf of bread will make most people gain weight.
Myth #3: Fret Not About Natural Sugars
Maple syrup, honey, high fructose corn syrup or table sugar—they’re all very similar from a health perspective. A 2015 study in The Journal of Nutrition found that when people ate the same amount (about two tablespoons) of honey, sucrose (i.e. white sugar) or much-maligned high fructose corn syrup every day for two weeks, they experienced the same concerning metabolic changes including a rise in blood triglycerides and markers of inflammation, both risk factors for heart problems. Though “natural” sweeteners like coconut sugar and maple syrup may contain higher amounts of certain nutrients and antioxidants, it’s hardly enough to outweigh the concerns of eating too much of them. “The key is to make the choice to eat foods with added sugars as long as you are eating an overall balanced, nutritious diet,” notes Rumsey.
Myth #4: Whole Grains Should be Your Go-To Fiber Source
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends women aim for 25 grams of fiber per day and 38 grams per day for men.Yes, whole grains can help you nail this quota but you’re likely going to need more help to get there. For instance, a half-cup serving of brown rice has about three grams of fiber while certain brands of whole-wheat bread may only deliver a single gram per slice. “The key to getting the fiber you need daily is to vary your sources including fruits, vegetables, pulses and whole grains,” Rumsey says.
Myth #5: Today’s Wheat Has More Gluten
Despite the internet gossip, Rumsey says there is no proof that the gluten content of wheat has increased with modern agriculture. But regardless of wheat’s gluten potency, research continues to show that the vast majority of people experience no health benefits from avoiding gluten (a protein, ironically, not a carb). In fact, a study published in the BMJ found that people who follow a gluten-free diet but don’t have celiac disease can be at a greater risk for heart disease, largely because they aren’t consuming enough whole grains and the nutritional benefits that come with those.
Myth #6: Avoid Fruit Because it Has Sugar
Criticism of sugar is so widespread that the naturally occurring sugar in foods such as fruit and milk has also come under fire. But comparing the sugar in an apple to the sugar in candy just doesn’t work. “The sugar in fruit is also bundled with fiber, vitamins and antioxidants which you don’t get when consuming sugar from highly processed foods,” says Rumsey. Besides, you get much less sugar from a piece of fruit compared to what you get from sweetened items, like soda and boxed cereal. For example, a medium orange has about 13 grams of sugar, while a can of soda delivers three times as much. No wonder you’d be hard pressed to find a study linking fruit intake with weight gain and health woes.
—Matthew Kadey, MS, RD