Carbs have been vilified as the culprit behind America's obesity epidemic over the last decade. If you've embarked on a trendy low-carb diet (like Paleo or keto), then you know the anguish of staring at a beautiful basket of French fries and being forced to resist, lest you send yourself into a downward spiral of self-hatred and regret. How dare you ruin your temple of a body with a delicious-but-evil carbohydrate!
Actually, it's pretty silly to deprive yourself of this important food group. For starters, they're one of only three macronutrients (the others being protein and fat), which means cutting carbs out throws your whole balanced diet out of whack. And your body needs them to, you know, function.
"Ninety percent of the brain's fuel is glucose, so we need carbs in order to not only think straight, but to perform," Jim White, registered dietitian and owner of Jim White Fitness & Nutrition Studios, says. "Also, carbohydrates give us energy. They provide glucose and we [burn] glycogen, which is our tank for fuel in the body."
Not only do carbs give you energy for better workouts; done right, eating carbohydrates can even be part of a well-rounded weight-loss plan. Here's how:
The more complex the better
One of the biggest reasons people demonize carbs is because they're such a broad food group. Junk food like chips and donuts fall under the carb macro group, but so do good-for-you foods like quinoa and oatmeal. To really get a grasp on which carbs to eat, White breaks them down into three tiers.
"The complex carbohydrates, the ones with a lot of fiber, are going to be the best," he explains. "They add fiber, they add antioxidants, they're slow-digesting, low-glycemic." These include brown rice, oatmeal, quinoa, sweet potatoes, beans, fruit, and even some vegetables, and they're the best carbs to choose. The second tier includes common "white" foods such as white rice, white pasta, white bread, white potatoes, and also corn, which White isn't opposed to in moderation. He recommends if you choose these carbs, pair them with a more complex carbohydrate, so a mix of whole-wheat pasta and white pasta is better than white pasta alone.
The third tier (unfortunately) would be the simple sugars and the processed refined carbs that are the tastiest, but should be eaten sparingly. "The ones you really want to watch would be things like donuts, cookies, chips, that have little nutritional value," he says. "That's what [is] going to cause some of your weight gain."
Get your carbs at the right time
It's not just what you eat, but when you eat it that matters. White recommends getting carbs in your body first thing in the morning after you've been fasting all night. "You're depleted when you wake up in the morning," he explains. "You need energy for the day, and that carbohydrate along with a protein and maybe a little bit of fat is going to round out your meal." So yeah, enjoy that (lightly!) buttered (wheat!) toast with some eggs and feel damn good about it.
Exercise will also deplete your body of its energy storage, and it needs to refuel with glycogen. Enter carbohydrates. After a tough workout is an ideal time to get in the majority of your carbs for the day, White says, especially if you are nervous about eating them.
By dinnertime, he usually urges people to stick to a small serving -- unless you're really craving something starchy. "I see a lot of people skip out on their carbohydrates for dinner, and they're starving and they end up going and bingeing on a bunch of stuff they shouldn't," he says. Another reason to incorporate more carbs at dinner is if you hit the gym after work. Otherwise, White generally recommends having most of your carbs in the morning, and tapering off throughout the day.
Stick to a serving size
It is possible to have too much of a good thing, especially when it comes to carbs. Paying attention to serving sizes is key; even though White says you can eat up to 200g of carbs a day and still lose weight, it can add up quickly. He typically recommends a serving to be about half a cup to a third of a cup for women, and about one to one-and-a-quarter cups for men (stupid sexist carbs!) for complex carbs such as brown rice, quinoa, or beans. And if you're enjoying a few pieces of fruit or some whole-grain goodies as snacks, it's easy to go over your carb quota for the day if you're not paying attention.
Carbs and protein team up well
Carbohydrates are delicious all on their own, but they shouldn't be enjoyed by themselves if you want your body to optimize their digestion. White says eating carbs with a little protein and some healthy fat will lower the glycemic load, which won't cause spikes and drops in blood sugar. Also, it adds variety into your diet, and that extra protein is necessary to help build muscle and keep you feeling satisfied. Some good snacks include an apple with natural peanut butter or crackers and hummus.
Adjust the rest of your diet accordingly
At the end of the day, it's all about calories. So if you're planning on indulging in something particularly carb-heavy, White recommends trimming them from the rest of your macros or calories for the day.
"I always recommend to budget your calories," he says. "If you know you're going to have two beers and that's going to be 300 calories, I never recommend skipping meals, but maybe just shaving off the carbs on some of your meals." So if you usually have a cup of oatmeal for breakfast, make it half a cup instead. Trade in your brown rice at lunch for a salad with a protein. It's all about balance, and carbs fit into a healthy diet nicely if everything else is on track. "It’s about those trade-offs," he explains. "People need to stick with the basics, trust in the process, and not deprive themselves."
So there's no magic secret that'll let you down baskets of French fries without repercussions, but you can absolutely get your much-needed carb fix on the regular without screwing everything up if you're smart about it. We'll take that as a cue to enjoy the occasional fry (or two) without guilt.
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