Let’s face it. Eating should be simple. You bring food to your mouth, chew, and swallow. Yet, at some point, society began to overcomplicate things, and before we knew it, a full blown war on the correct way to eat erupted throwing guilt bombs into every mouthful.

Lately, this war’s biggest target is carbohydrates. Instead of enjoying traditional staples like bread, oats, rice, and tortillas, we’re left questioning whether we should ever so much as look at a slice of bread again, or—the horror!—a cookie. The most common controversies over carbs revolve around a couple of ideas involving weight gain, brain health, and illness, with some designating carbs the root of all evil. Unfortunately, this controversy stems from observations and sensationalized media headlines, not actual data. With that in mind, let’s break down the truth about carbs.

Before diving deeper, it is important to consider, what exactly is a carbohydrate?

We all know that carbs are tasty components of many favorite snacks and meals. But scientifically speaking, carbohydrates can be divided into three types: sugars, starches, and fibers that are found in food and are mainly broken down into glucose in the body and used for energy production. They’re what give you the energy to continue cooking a big holiday meal for loved ones after your dog sneaks the main dish off the table and you have to start over. More specifically, they are molecules made of hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen. The word “carbohydrates” literally means “watered carbon.”

Where did they come from?

Carbs themselves have been around since before your great(x1000) grandparents, however, the word “carbohydrate” didn’t exist until around 1858. Before then they were known as starches and sugars. Starches stemmed from the water resulting after draining rice and were used to stiffen fabric and make turbans, while sugar originally stemmed from sugarcane and was offered to the Gods of India during Vedic sacrifices (1).

Culturally, carbohydrates have played a role in societies for centuries, and in fact, have been a staple of the many famous Blue Zone Regions. The Blue Zones are geographic areas (Examples include: Okinawa, Japan; Icaria, Greece; Ogliastra, Italy) that serve as home to some of the oldest people in the world and have low rates of chronic disease. 

Carbs, Culture, and You-1

Not an exhaustive list of all Blue Zones.

Ketogenic diet proponents will use examples of the traditional Inuit culture, whose population was free of many degenerative diseases and obesity and whose diet is made up of 90% of fat with very few carbohydrates present (2). Unfortunately, they fail to account for cultures like the Kitavans, whose diet is made up of 70% carbs, mainly from sweet potatoes, and it’s population offers similar health markers (3). Crucial sidenote: sweet potatoes are delicious.

Carbs, Culture, and You-2

So what does this indicate about carbohydrates?

These cultures demonstrate that balanced health and wellness can be achieved by including things like carbohydrates into overall diet composition. However, It would be remiss to mention the above cultures and not look at the types of carbohydrates that are being consumed. In these cultures, carbohydrate sources tend to be more of the whole grain, unprocessed varieties vs. added/refined sugars. Perhaps then, the quality of the carbohydrate indicates more about the health effects of the carbohydrate than the carbohydrate itself. Many health experts agree that this could be the case and encourage complex carbohydrate choices (4). Basically, no one is saying it’s a good idea to eat cupcakes at every meal, as much as you might want to. Or to use donuts in place of burger buns, which just seems like a bad call to begin with (thanks America).

How are carbohydrates used in society today?

These days carbohydrates have widespread uses across the world and within societies. Often, we consume carbs because, let’s face it, they taste good and give us energy. Whether it’s baking brownies to share in a social gathering with friends or eating a side of toast with your salad, carbs provide enjoyment. Without carbohydrates it would be hard for the brain to function and the body to feel good enough to want to move, which is kind of important.

Some modern societies, like Southeast Asian culture, include rice as a staple to the diet. In fact, in this culture, rice is considered sacred throughout the growing, harvesting, cooking and eating process. It even shapes societal order and religion within. For women, it is strongly associated with fertility and is proliferated with ceremonies and rituals to encourage prosperity and the continuation of the human species (5).

Carb Controversy

What does it all have to do with you? Through our 4-part carbohydrate series we want to provide you with facts about carbohydrates. Our hope is that you can move forward with the knowledge and confidence to make educated decisions for yourself. Eating a balanced diet with minimal processing shouldn’t be difficult. We promise. In our next article, we’ll discuss some current diet trends and look into their claims about carbs.

Read Introducing: The War on Carbs Series.

Read Part 2: Digesting the Carb Controversy.

Read Part 3: Do You Actually Need Carbs? 

Read Part 4: How to Harness the Power of Carbs

 

 

Sources:

1) Bhattacharya, M. (2018, November). A history of the evolution of the terms of carbohydrates coining the term ‘glucogenic carbohydrates’ and prescribing in grams per day for better. Journal of Public Health and Nutrition, 1(4), 93-100. A history of evolution of the terms of carbohydrates coining the term 'glucogenic carbohydrates' and prescribing in grams per day for better nutrition communication

2) Gadsby, P., & Steele, L. (2004, January 19). The Inuit Paradox. Discover. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from The Inuit Paradox

3) Hall, H. (2013, September 10). What Can We Learn from the Kitavans? Science Based Medicine. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from What Can We Learn from the Kitavans?

4) Harvard Medical School. (2015, July 1). Carbohydrates---Good or Bad for You? Harvard Health Publishing. Retrieved April 28, 2021, from Carbohydrates — Good or Bad for You? - Harvard Health!

5) Meneses, R. (2004, July 5). The Art of Rice: Symbol and Meaning in Southeast Asian Village Tradition. UCLA Asian Pacific Center. The Art of Rice: Symbol and Meaning in Southeast Asian Village Tradition

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Kylee Van Horn

Kylee Van Horn, RDN is an endurance sports dietitian and freelance nutrition writer who takes a balanced, sustainable approach to fueling for performance.