I’m trying to lose weight. Are carbohydrates OK to eat?
With summer quickly approaching, it may seem like everywhere you turn, there’s a diet plan or quick weight-loss fix being offered. While different approaches work for different people, many weight loss plans tell you to shun carbohydrates. The message can be misleading, and weight loss isn’t as clear-cut as avoiding all carbohydrates.
First, let’s clear up a common misunderstanding. Carbohydrates are not just breads, pasta, rice, and other white foods. It’s a class of food that refers to any of a large group of organic compounds including sugars, starch, and cellulose (that’s fiber).
Next, it’s important to understand that everyone needs carbohydrates — they are our primary source of energy. Our brain runs solely on carbohydrates, which is why you might feel light-headed or be unable to focus when you haven’t eaten recently, and why we crave sugar (the quick-acting carbs), when we are starving. In addition, our muscles need carbohydrates to function properly. Many carbohydrate foods contain fiber, which is important for digestive health. Most people, even those trying to lose weight, should get between 45% to 55% of calories from carbohydrates. Athletes, especially endurance athletes, require more — up to 65% of calories. If you don’t eat enough carbohydrates, your body will use protein from your muscle for energy. This can actually hinder weight loss (and your performance) since the more muscle you have, the more calories you burn at rest.
Foods like white rice or pasta are digested very quickly, leading to a rise in your blood sugar followed by a drop.
Now, let’s talk about which foods have carbohydrates. There are two types of carbohydrates: complex carbohydrates that come from whole foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains, dairy, and beans) and simple, refined carbohydrates that are generally processed. For both weight management and overall health, the majority of the carbohydrates in your diet should be complex ones. Yes, this includes some grains! These foods not only contain health-promoting vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients, but they also have fiber, which slows digestion and keeps you feeling full for longer. Believe it or not, you don’t have to feel hungry all of the time to lose weight.
Refined carbohydrates, on the other hand, can make weight loss more difficult. Foods like white rice or pasta; cookies, cakes, and candy; sugary beverages; and chips, pretzels, and other salty snacks are digested very quickly, leading to a rise in your blood sugar followed by a drop. This leaves you feeling hungry soon after eating these foods. In addition, because these foods are highly processed and lack fiber, they are easy to over-eat. Think about the likeliness of eating an entire bag of potato chips in one sitting versus the same portion of broccoli — it’s much more difficult to binge on vegetables.
Research shows that people lose weight when they consume fewer calories than they expend, whether that’s in the form of a low-fat, low-carbohydrate, or high-protein diet, or a balance of all three. The key is to choose quality carbohydrates — the same goes for protein and fat. Make half your plate non-starchy vegetables (leafy greens, peppers, carrots, cucumbers, etc.), and for a quarter, choose either a starchy vegetable (potato, corn, peas, and winter squash) or a whole grain (oats, quinoa, brown rice, farro, etc). The remaining quarter should be a lean or plant-based protein. Limit those carbs from sugary beverages, sweets, and refined grains to occasional treats.
After all, even when you’re trying to lose weight, food should be still enjoyed, and the occasional cookie is OK too!
About Ask Mickey: At Bon Appétit, we know there’s a lot on your plate that you worry about. Making good food choices helps you avoid unwanted pounds, work or study (and sleep!) better, and form long-lasting healthy eating habits. In the Ask Mickey column, Bon Appétit Management Company registered dietitian nutritionists offer tips on “chewing the right thing” and answer your nutrition questions. (Mickey, aka Michelina, is a particular feisty Italian grandmother who continues to inspire us.) Email your questions and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.