Updated: 2022, May 11

Dieting for weight loss: Are all carbs evil? Or are there some better than others?

A low-carb diet limits carbohydrates — such as those found in grains, starchy vegetables and fruit — and emphasizes foods high in protein and fat.

Everyone wonders which diet is best for weight loss. When you’re looking to lose some of those stubborn pounds, one of the factors we hear about is that carbohydrates should be the first thing to go out of your diet. There are even diets that attempt to ban carbs altogether.

Dieting for weight loss: Are all carbs evil? Or are there some better than others?
Low carbohydrate diets can be very effective for weight loss, according to research. Image/Shutterstock

Why do carbs have a bad reputation? Are all carbs the enemy? Or can some of them stay in your diet and actually be somewhat helpful with some of your weight loss goals? Is reducing the amount of carbs important?

Some people have a misperception of what carbohydrates are. One of the keys to dealing with carbs is knowing the quality of the carbs you’re consuming. There is, in fact, a major difference between the white flour-based pasta you eat for dinner and other, whole-grain carbohydrates which are a dietary alternative to the refined carbs we commonly consume.

What are carbs?

Technically speaking, carbohydrates are substances composed of long chains of oxygen, hydrogen, and carbon molecules. Sugar, starch, and cellulose are all carbohydrates.

Relatively high levels of carbohydrates are associated with processed or refined foods. These typically include sweets, cookies and candy, refined sugar, honey, soft drinks, breads and crackers, jams, and processed fruit products and pastas.

When you consume carbs, the body breaks them down into simple sugars, which are absorbed into the bloodstream and used for energy.

All carbs are NOT the same

There is often a misperception that all carbohydrates are the same. The idea is that, because there is an understanding that common carb-heavy foods like pasta, bread, and pizza have a lot of calories, that cutting them out, sometimes completely, will get the results that the dieter is looking for.

Carbs basically boil down to type main types:

Simple carbohydrates: These carbs are digested quickly and create quick bursts of glucose (energy) into the bloodstream. Simple carbs are found in refined sugars and processed foods.

Complex carbohydrates: These carbs are digested more slowly and supply a lower, more steady release of glucose. Complex carbs are better nutritionally than others and are found in mostly unrefined and unprocessed foods.

What are the bad carbs to avoid?

Even though simple carbohydrates are the form of carbs that are the least nutritionally beneficial in terms of dieting, they still don’t fall into the “evil” category according to Janel Reeves, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, as well as a sports and fitness coach in South Florida. Reeves specializes in nutrition coaching for high school and collegiate athletes. She also feels that carbs are essential to people’s diets, although she has cautions about which ones to avoid in general.

“I personally love carbohydrates in general. For any client I work with, carbohydrates are absolutely going to be a part of their diet no matter what their individual goals are,” Reeves said.

When creating a caloric deficit to lose weight, the dieter typically eliminates certain food groups, along with reducing portions, according to Reeves. She said that many people now typically think about cutting mainly carbohydrates out of their diet to accomplish that. Reeves said that this approach works, but mainly because of the reduced calories, rather than the elimination of carbs.

“Regarding weight loss, carbohydrates absolutely can be included in the diet,” Reeves said. “When we think about the best types of carbohydrates to consume in general or for weight loss, those are going to be carbs that are more nutrient-dense.”

The carbs that are higher in nutrients and fiber are considered to be complex. Reeves said these types of carbs are going to help you feel fuller longer, and will have a better effect on blood sugar. But she cautions that we shouldn’t abandon carbs altogether.

“One side effect of cutting out carbs is that your brain does not function at 100 percent like it would if you were fueling it appropriately,” she noted. “Whole grain carbohydrates, consumed in moderation, should be part of a healthy diet. They also promote long-term health.”

Do low or no-carb diets work?

One of the pitfalls of trying a low-carb diet is that many people do so without dietary supervision. Because of this In a 2018 survey of Americans between 18 and 80 years of age, 16 percent reported following some type of low carbohydrate eating pattern.

But often when people put the diet into action themselves, they often lower their carb intake, but they disregard other parts of their dietary plan. For example, if a low-carb diet is high in saturated fatty acids and low in nutrient-dense carbohydrates, it runs counter to dietary strategies recommended by professional organizations.

Findings show that, despite evidence of weight loss as a result of low-carb and very low-carb

diets, long-term sustainable effects may not be any better than a more conventional calorie-restricted, low-fat diet.

The majority of foods, even some vegetables, have some carbohydrates. But most green, non-starchy vegetables are very low in carbs.

Experts say that, if you’re trying a low-carb diet, you should see a dietitian every six months. They can help you determine the right amount of carbohydrate servings, along with distributing those carbs to eat each day, based on your personal needs.

What are good carbohydrates?

Sometimes the simpler things aren’t necessarily the better ones. Complex carbohydrates are an example of just that. They are considered polysaccharides, which means they have three or more sugars. They are often referred to as starchy foods and include:

  • Beans
  • Peas
  • Lentils
  • Peanuts
  • Potatoes
  • Whole-grain breads and cereals
  • Brown rice
  • Oats

A dietary study in 2003 demonstrated that, although weight loss was found to be greater for dieters in a low-carb group compared to a low-fat group, the difference only lasted three to six months. After 12 months, however, the difference in weight loss was not statistically significant.

Dietitian and nutritionist Janel Reeves echoed that information with her advice to those who want to lose weight.

“Simply cutting carbs out of your diet to lose weight is unrealistic, because it’s not sustainable,” she emphasized. “What happens is that a lot of times people end up losing a substantial amount of weight, because of the caloric deficit that they created by eliminating carbohydrates. But then, weeks or months later, they start eating carbs again and then they often end up gaining their weight back.”

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When cutting calories, Reeves emphasizes that people should also convert their consumption of the carbs from simple to more complex varieties.

“I always recommend that people prioritize complex or whole grain carbohydrates.” she said. “When you’re dieting, I also recommend spreading carbs throughout the day. You don’t want to eat all of our carbs in the morning or all of them at night. You want to make sure that your portions are spread out evenly.”

5 sources

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2. Duyff RL. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food and Nutrition Guide. 5th ed. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 2017.
3. Kirkpatrick, C., Bolick, J., Kris-Etherton, P., Sikand, G., Aspry, K., & Soffer, D. et al. (2019). ‘Review of current evidence and clinical recommendations on the effects of low-carbohydrate and very-low-carbohydrate (including ketogenic) diets for the management of body weight and other cardiometabolic risk factors: A scientific statement from the National Lipid Association Nutrition and Lifestyle Task Force’, Journal Of Clinical Lipidology, 13(5), 689-711
4. Guldbrand, H., Dizdar, B., Bunjaku, B., Lindström, T., Bachrach-Lindström, M., Fredrikson, M., ...Nystrom, F. H. (2012, August). In type 2 diabetes, randomization to advice to follow a low-carbohydrate diet transiently improves glycemic control compared with advice to follow a low-fat diet producing a similar weight loss. Diabetologia, 55(8), 2118–2127 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs00125-012-2567-4
5. The truth about carbs. (2016, October 24) https://www.nhs.uk/Livewell/loseweight/Pages/the-truth-about-carbs.aspx
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Scott Luxor, M.S.J.

Scott Luxor is a seasoned journalist who has worked at various newspapers around the country. He has a depth of experience in all aspec

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