4 carb myths that are bad for your health

Still following the food pyramid and buying bread based on color? Time to boost your carb IQ — and do the same for your overall health.

Laura Quaglio
Healthy grains

Nutrition researchers recently shared their report card on the quality of the American diet. Among the not-great findings: Low-quality carbohydrates make up 42% of an average adult’s daily calories. And people over the age of 65 are not making a move to improve. 

If you’re wondering why that’s a bad thing — or why you should care — we get it. Many hear “carbohydrates” and think “oh, only people with diabetes need to worry about carbs.” That’s one of the biggest carbohydrate myths out there, says Alice H. Lichtenstein, director of the Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University.

“It is important for everyone to have an understanding of carbohydrate quality, so they can make smart food-purchasing decisions and ultimately improve the overall composition of their diet,” adds Lichtenstein. “The focus should be on unprocessed or minimally processed carbs.”

It’s not just your diet at stake here: Making better nutrition choices can have a big impact on your overall health, says Zhilei Shan, M.D., Ph.D., from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, who led the 2019 report-card study, which was published in JAMA

Time to bust some myths! These four carb beliefs are ready to be retired. Learn the truth, then try our easy tips for upgrading your personal healthy-eating report card.

Myth #1: Carbs Are Carbs — It’s the Amount That Counts

Truth: Quality is more important
Carbohydrates are your body’s most important energy source. Your body breaks them down and turns them into glucose (aka blood sugar), which fuels your cells, tissues and organs. Your brain also leans on carbs to help with proper cognitive function.

But not all carbs are equal. Sugar, for example, is a carb. But we can all agree that cookies aren’t exactly health food. So Dr. Shan suggests thinking in terms of “low-quality” and “high-quality” carbs. 

High-quality carbs contain fiber and lots of other nutrients. They live in foods made from whole grains, as well as whole fruits and vegetables, beans and legumes. 

Low-quality carbs contain little fiber and not many nutrients. These include foods higher in added sugars (like sweets and sugar-sweetened beverages) and foods made from refined grains (like white bread, white-flour pasta and most cookies and pastries).

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Remember what we said above about people thinking only those who already have diabetes need to worry about the carbs they eat? Not so. A 2020 study in JAMA Internal Medicine (also led by Dr. Shan) found that sweetened cereals, white bread and other low-quality carbs can cause spikes in blood sugar that may contribute to insulin resistance. Eating too many low-quality carbs too often may lead to the development of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other metabolic problems, says Dr. Shan. 

“Because low-quality carbs are associated with disease risk, taking in higher-quality carbs could mean better health,” he says. 

In general:

  • Limit low-quality carbs. 
  • Increase your fruit and vegetable intake by having them readily available for meals and snacks.
  • Make sure more than 50% of your grain foods are whole grain (not refined).

Myth #2: All Carbs Should Be Eaten in Moderation

Truth: Some types of carbs are fine to enjoy often
Carbohydrate refers collectively to fiber, starches and sugars. Starches fall into two categories: refined and whole (unrefined). Sugars also fall into two categories: naturally present and added. All three carb types come primarily from plant foods, and most plant-based foods contain some of each.

Here’s how all of that breaks down for mealtime:

Fiber is found only in plant foods. The body can’t digest fiber, so it helps you feel full after eating and keeps things moving through the digestive tract. The recommended daily intake of fiber for women age 50-plus is 21 grams; for men in this age group, it’s 30 grams. 

Unrefined starches exist in beans, corn, peas, potatoes, brown rice and other whole grains. These foods also contain other good-for-you nutrients. 

Refined starches such as white flour, white rice and products made with these foods contain little fiber and should be avoided. 

Naturally present sugars live in fruits, dairy foods and certain vegetables (sweet ones like beets, tomatoes and squash). You shouldn’t shun these foods, because they contain a wide array of nutrients. In fact, 50% of your daily food intake should be made up of fruits and vegetables. And dairy foods are a good source of protein.

Added sugars refers to the sugars present in processed foods like candy, baked goods and some beverages. They’re hardly nutrient powerhouses. Hence, no more than 10% of your daily sugar intake should come from the added type. 

To keep tabs on what you’re ingesting from packaged foods, look for the Nutrition Facts label. This will show you the serving size of the food, how many total carbohydrates it contains and how many of those carbohydrates are from fiber or sugars (including added sugars).

Myth #3: You Can Tell a Whole-Grain Food by Its Brown Color

Truth: Manufacturers make it tricky to know what’s what
You can’t always believe your eyes. Many baked goods today are made from white whole-wheat flour. They do have fiber, but they’re not the earthy color of the whole-grain breads that most of us are familiar with. 

On the flip side, some foods that don’t have much fiber or whole grains can be tinted brown so that they appear to be comprised of whole grains. The names of foods are confusing, too: “Wheat bread,” for example, doesn’t mean a product is made with whole wheat. 

So how can you know what you’re really eating? You can look for the Whole Grain Stamp from the Whole Grains Council on the package, which shows the grams per serving. But your best bet is to check the ingredients list and nutrition label to be sure.

Myth #4: Most of Your Diet Should Be Grains

Truth: Veggies should have a more prime spot
When you were a young adult, the USDA Food Pyramid was the talk of the town. It recommended that people eat six to 11 servings of grains per day.

A pasta-lover’s dream, but based on updated nutrition knowledge, it’s vegetables and fruits that we’re encouraged to eat more of today. The American Heart Association says six servings of grains is plenty for most healthy adults — and at least half of those should be whole grains that are higher in dietary fiber.

To help older adults see how carbs and other foods fit into a healthy diet, nutrition scientists created the MyPlate for Older Adults. It’s a visual representation of a dinner plate, which is divided into sections to show you how the food groups should be generally proportioned throughout the day. 

Grains should take up no more than one-quarter of your plate at each meal. Veggies and fruit need more real estate: They should stretch out to make up half of your plate. MyPlate for Older Adults also has sections that highlight two additional areas where many older adults may miss out (healthy fats) or fall short (fluids). 

Help Boost Your Health IQ

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