Common nutritional wisdom tells us to forgo bagels, say no to the breadbasket, and don’t event think about touching that doughnut. For better or for worse, carbs get a bad rap in the health world—we’re taught to avoid carb-heavy foods like the plague if we’re watching our weight. But the truth is, there’s no need to blacklist bread or bananas from your diet. Carbohydrates have a rightful place in a healthy diet, and utterly eliminating them could actually backfire.
In defense of carbohydrates, we offer up six scientific reasons to say yes to the starchy stuff. Pass the breadbasket, please!
You Need Them For Energy
If you think of your body as a car, then carbohydrates are the gasoline that keeps you chugging along. Carbohydrates supply the body with glucose, which is converted to energy to support bodily functions and physical activity.
“A carbohydrate is one of the three macronutrients, the others being protein and fat, in our diet that functions as the body’s preferred source of energy,” says Melinda Jones, RDN, LDN, a nutritionist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
Because they’re the body’s main source of quick fuel, eating too few carbs will make you feel sluggish, drained, and fatigued—a common side effect of high-protein, low-carb diets.
A small word of caution: When we’re talking about carbohydrates, it’s important to emphasize that not all carbs are created equal. There is a huge difference between French fries and, say, a baked sweet potato, so selecting the right kind of carbohydrate is essential to a well-balanced diet. Carbohydrates are divided into two camps: simple and complex. Generally, complex carbs—which include fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and legumes—tend to be the most nutritious.
“Simple carbohydrates are broken down quickly in the body and often contain few nutrients,” Jones says. “Complex carbohydrates are broken down slowly and promote lasting energy.”
A good rule of thumb? For long-lasting energy, load up on unprocessed complex carbs and stay away from processed simple carbs—these carbs are mainly filled with sugars and empty calories and won’t keep you satiated. “The more processed a carb, the more fat, sugar, sodium and the less fiber it will have,” says Reba Sloan, MPH, LRD, FAED, Fellow of The Academy for Eating Disorders.
Carbs Make You Happy
There’s something innately satisfying about digging into a big plate of mashed potatoes. That’s because the term “comfort food” has more than a ring of truth to it—certain foods, especially carb-rich foods, can make you feel happier, studies have found.
Carbs are essential for the production of serotonin, a chemical in your brain linked with happiness. Eating too few carbs can lead to crankiness and mood problems. For example, a 2009 study studied 106 overweight or obese individuals who were either assigned to a low-fat or low-carb diet. Although both diets proved effective in helping participants lose weight, those who adhered to a low-carb diet reported more moodiness and irritably than those who didn’t restrict their carbohydrate intake.
Carbs Boost Your Brain Power
Low carbohydrate stores may cause cognition to diminish. According to a 2008 study, women on a carb-restricted diet performed poorly on a memory-based cognition test; when they resumed eating carbs, their scores improved accordingly.
The brain relies on carbs, broken down into glucose, to function properly. So without enough carbohydrates to supply energy, your brain might start to feel a bit fuzzy. For the ultimate study snack, nosh on a combination of carbs, fat and protein, such as a banana smeared with peanut butter.
Carbs Won’t Necessarily Make You Gain Weight
It’s been drilled into our heads that loading up on protein and cutting back on carbs is a fast track to weight loss. But skimping on carbs can actually be detrimental to your waistline.
“Low-carb diets have not been proven to provide lasting weight loss,” Jones says.
Gram for gram, carbohydrates contain the same number of calories as proteins. Again, though, it’s important to stay away from carbs that are heavily processed or have added sugar (think soft drinks, cakes, cookies, and refined grains).
“Consuming too much of these foods contributes empty calories to the diet, leading to weight gain, spikes in blood sugar, and ultimately a higher risk of developing diabetes or heart disease,” Jones says.
Carbs Are Crucial for Athletes
When marathon runners “carbo-load” the night before a big race, they aren’t just being superstitious. For athletes, carbs are incredibly crucial to any training regimen. In fact, insufficient carbohydrate intake can actually lead to muscle atrophy and decreased performance.
Carbohydrates are considered “protein sparers,” Sloan says. “When carbs are available and used for energy, the body can use protein for its rightful purposes versus using it for energy,” she explains.
Why? Well, as we’ve learned, carbohydrates are the body’s preferred energy source. But if there aren’t enough carbohydrates stored in the liver and muscles during an intense workout, the body will begin to burn protein as an energy source, which can deplete lean muscle mass.
“Without enough carbohydrates, the body will break down protein or fats for energy,” Jones says. “This can eventually lead to muscle loss or a condition called ketosis, which hinders normal body processes.”
Whole Grains Can Prevent Disease
Fiber, which is found in whole grains and plant foods, is a type of complex carbohydrate that promotes satiety, controls blood sugar levels, and maintains bowel health. It can also ward off a number of diseases and conditions, including heart disease, cancer, stroke, and diabetes.
Research has found that soluble fiber basically acts like a sponge for cholesterol, reducing the levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol in the blood. To reap the heart-healthy benefits of fiber, aim to eat 28 to 36 total grams of fiber daily.
The moral of the story? In moderation, carbohydrates won’t damage your health—as long as you stick to the good stuff, aka fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Here are three healthy carb-centric recipes for a well-rounded breakfast, lunch and dinner.