Oh, carbohydrates. There’s always a lot of noise around carbs and all the “bad” things about them. If you’re feeling confused, I don’t blame you. I’ll take you through five common claims you may have come across and had questions about. Nuance matters, so let’s get into it.
*A quick note: you’ll probably see me use sugar/carbohydrates/carbs interchangeably.
fruit is not healthy
Usually, people will say fruit has too much sugar aka carbs and has a high amount of a certain type of sugar, fructose.
Amount of Sugar
The amount of carbs you need in a day varies greatly depending on the individual. Activity levels, chronic conditions like diabetes, health goals, age, etc. will impact this.
Below is a brief list of the amount of carbohydrates in a couple fruits and other foods for comparison. For reference, if someone had diabetes, the recommendation is around 45-60g of carbs per meal, and I’m only giving you this as a general idea, so you can gauge these numbers.
Serving of Food
Amount of Carbohydrates
1 cup strawberries
1 cup grapes
1 cup (8oz) Coca-Cola
1 peanut butter & jelly sandwich
The “too much sugar” argument just doesn’t stand up.
Benefits of Fruit
Fruit is also packed with other nutrients like fiber, vitamin c, antioxidants, potassium, magnesium, plus other vitamins and minerals.
The fiber in fruit is a prebiotic aka food for the good bacteria (probiotics) living in our gastrointestinal tract. Just like our bodies need fuel, so do the bacteria to help maintain a healthy gut.
Recommended Fruit Intake
We should also talk about the point that many adults don’t regularly eat enough fruit.
The daily recommendation for daily fruit intake is around four servings per day. Here are a few examples what one serving size looks like (1).
1 medium fruit about the size of your fist - apple, orange, peach, banana, etc.
½ cup of fresh, frozen, or canned fruit
¼ cup of dried fruit
Based on 2019 data from the CDC, only about 12.3% of adults met the daily recommended intake for fruit (2). We always take epidemiological data (used to assess health risks in the population) with a grain of salt, but still, those numbers are terribly low. The fear mongering around fruit and carbs is obviously not going to help increase this number.
Fruit does contain fructose, a naturally-occurring sugar, as well as other carbs like glucose, sucrose, and fiber (3).
Another common form of fructose is high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) which is most commonly used as an alternative to table sugar aka sucrose in products like soda. This is an added sugar which you’ll generally see denoted on nutrition facts labels.
These sources of fructose are not the same because HFCS is in liquid form and doesn’t come with all the additional benefits that fruit has. Do not be scared away from fruit.
Bottom line: If you only ate fruit, it would be unhealthy.
oatmeal is not good for you
You’ve maybe seen discussion about oatmeal containing a compound called phytic acid, which can
be considered an anti-nutrient because it can bind to certain minerals like iron, magnesium, calcium, which prevents them from being absorbed.
Impact of Phytic Acid (PA)
Yes, PA is a compound naturally found in cereal and grains. Anti-nutrient means it can bind to minerals our body needs and prevents them from being absorbed. There is some data that suggests PA has anti-cancer properties by acting as an antioxidant (4).
It’s important to distinguish the impact of PA in industrialized vs non-industrialized nations. Non-industrialized nations rely heavily on cereals and grains as a primary food source and have little variety of foods compared to industrialized nations (4). This puts them at high risk for developing mineral deficiencies which can greatly impact health. But here in the industrialized world, it's pretty low risk.
Could you be impacted if you are a vegetarian or vegan? It’s fairly unlikely if you are eating a wide variety of foods. If it’s a concern for you, don’t just go cutting shit out of your diet. Talk to your primary care doctor about having labs done check for mineral deficiencies.
Benefits of Oatmeal
It’s a whole grain containing fiber, which can help decrease the “bad” cholesterol which increases our risk of heart disease. Fiber is also critical for promoting gut health.
It’s an inexpensive and nutrient-dense food.
The bottom line: If you only ate oatmeal, it wouldn’t be good for you.
carbohydrates make you tired
Maybe you’ve heard of this or experienced it yourself, that after a meal containing carbohydrates, you feel sleepy or you crash.
Carbs Are Fuel
In my last blog about craving sweets, I talked about the fact that carbohydrates are the main fuel source for the body and primary fuel source for the brain. They can use other forms of fuel, but they aren’t as efficient and aren’t ideal long term.
If you aren’t eating carbs or eating enough, you probably aren’t going to feel that good and are likely to feel drowsy. Your car isn’t going to run if there is no gas in it. It sounds cliche, but it’s a cliche because it’s true. Please eat the carbs.
Other Things Can Impact Alertness
These are some other scenarios to explore that might impact your brain and cognitive function:
Did you eat a really large portion of carbs?
Did you eat other foods with the carbohydrates that had protein, fat, or fiber to help satisfy you?
Are you regularly eating fruit and vegetables?
These contain vitamins and minerals that are critical for metabolism aka the process of our body converting the food we eat into the form of energy the body can use (glucose).
Did you eat until you were uncomfortably full?
Are you trying to use willpower to eat a low carb diet?
Did you eat a lot of quick acting carbs like soda, fruit juice, sugar-containing coffee drink?
Did you eat regularly throughout the day or were there large gaps between meals?
What was your caffeine intake like? Was it really high in the morning?
Have you moved your body at all throughout the day?
Did you do a session of really deep work? Or did you multitask trying to do seven things at once?
Did you have a stressful or emotional experience?
Did you restrict most of the day and then binge on food later in the day?
Did you drink enough water?
Even slight levels of dehydration can impact cognitive function.
Did you notice any quick changes in your mood?
Large or quick swings in our blood sugar, no matter the type of carbohydrate, is not going to feel good in most people.
What was the previous night of sleep like? How does your overall sleep pattern look?
Do you have other chronic conditions such as ADHD, depression, anxiety, anemia, etc.?
The bottom line: Eating too little carbs, eating too many carbs, and tons of other factors can make you tired.
carrots have too much sugar
There’s no nuance here. If you ate this entire 1-lb bag of baby carrots in one sitting - which I’m going to assume most sane people would not - it would be about 40g of carbohydrates and 135 calories. For a lot of people, that amount of carbs at a meal isn’t enough. Not to mention, the other nutrients carrots have like fiber, vitamin A, and so on.
The bottom line: Next time I hear someone say this, I’m going to scream. Eat the carrots if you enjoy them.
potatoes are unhealthy
People claim that potatoes are exceptionally high in carbohydrates because they are starchy. I’m also going to group green peas and corn with this because those are also on the starchy vegetables list.
Just because a food is white or starchy, doesn’t mean it doesn’t benefit the body. If we’re talking about someone managing diabetes, yes, the amount of carbs eaten at one time can be important.
There was also the craze where sweet potatoes were a substitute for white potatoes. Trends don’t make foods good or bad. If you like sweet potatoes, eat them. If you like white potatoes, eat them. Check out the nutrient comparison between the two - not very different. Obviously, sweet potatoes are higher in vitamin A (the orange color), but both varieties have fiber, potassium, vitamin C, and some B vitamins.
(1 cup diced)
(1 cup diced)
Potatoes are very budget-friendly, and I would argue the GOAT when it comes to versatility. Fries, mashed, hash browns, chips, baked, twice baked, scalloped, soup, tots, etc. Absolute legends.
Okay, I’m sure plenty of you had traumatic pea experiences as children, and that’s valid, but hear me out.
Peas are an underrated source of plant protein and source of fiber. One cup of green peas has 21g of carbs, 7g of fiber, 8g of protein, and several vitamins and minerals.
If you’re looking for some pea recipe inspiration - check out my recipe book Fully Half-Assed Recipes, where I have a super simple pasta dish with peas and olives.
Yes, we have a lot of corn in our food system because of government subsidies. Corn is also delicious and has beneficial nutrients for our body. Two things can be true at once, people.
An ear of corn has around 17g of carbs, 2.5g of fiber, 3g of protein, and some vitamins and minerals.
Slather on the butter and eat that ear of corn if you enjoy it.
The bottom line: If you only ate potatoes or starchy foods, it would be unhealthy.
part 1 recap:
Eat fruit. Don’t only eat fruit.
Eat oatmeal. Don’t only eat oatmeal.
Eat carbohydrates. Don’t only eat carbohydrates.
Eat carrots. Don’t eat only carrots.
Eat potatoes. Don’t only eat potatoes.
Stop believing bullshit claims that don’t provide any nuance or talk about the larger picture and factors that impact how we eat.
I hope you’ll return for part two where I’ll talk about wheat, carbs being addictive, carbs and weight loss, and more! If you have any specific carb questions, put it in the comments section, and I’ll try and include it in part two.
If you’re tired of being confused or scared about what to eat and want to create a better relationship with food, let's talk. I offer a package of personalized nutrition coaching sessions to help you shut out the noise and build confidence when it comes to making decisions about food and your health. For the month of February, I’m offering $100 off the total cost of the package.
All photos are my own
All nutrition facts data from: USDA Food Data Central https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/
This blog is for educational and informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical advice, diagnosis or treatment of health conditions, or a client/provider relationship. Always consult with your healthcare provider.