Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Carbs

Say it with us: Carbs are your friend.

While at a rookie camp for an NHL team, I asked the players what they eat at Chipotle. A few of them raised their hands and said, “I usually get the bowl.” Wrong answer. So I asked, “Why in the world don’t you eat a burrito?” Their response? Because of the carbs.

Most of my clients are athletic, fit individuals seeking advice on how to improve their diet for performance and overall health. They are usually at a point of feeling stuck — i.e. they’ve plateaued in terms of their body-composition goals or performance. And usually, the first thing I notice when I look at their food logs is the serious lack of carbohydrate in their diet. When I press them on it, they usually tell me they avoid carbs because they think they’re bad for health or will make them fat.

I’m here to set the record straight, for my clients and for you. Carbs aren’t evil. I repeat: Carbs. Aren’t. Evil. I can say this with absolute confidence, as a registered dietitian.

Don’t believe me? Here, five reasons why carbs — well, certain carbs — are super important and necessary for hitting your health and fitness goals.

1. Carbs are absolutely nonnegotiable for athletes.

The prime source of fuel for participants of stop-and-go sports is glycogen. Glycogen is the stored form of carbohydrate in your muscles. Short bursts of playtime require this energy source to move the body at top performance. It’s almost like keeping a savings account at your bank. You need to take in carbohydrate several hours before using it so it can be made into glycogen. When you are ready to use it, it is available for withdrawal. If you don’t have it, you are running on fumes, creating slowed reaction time, added minutes to a run, or, more susceptibility to injury. Going back to my NHL players, if they for the bowl instead of the burrito, which means skipping the carb-laden tortilla they are just relying on lettuce, protein, and additional veggies to fuel their very active bodies, and that’s most likely not sufficient. They need the burrito. (Yes, a dietitian just told you to go eat a Chipotle burrito.) By the way, stop-and-go athletes aren’t just ice hockey players. I’d also include those who participate in basketball, soccer, rugby, lacrosse, field hockey, tennis, track-and-field, interval running or training, and Spin class.

2. Carbs can be healthy (if you choose the right ones). 

The most important thing to understand is that a carb, no matter what, is four calories per gram. A carbohydrate comes in many forms, and they can all be consumed in a healthy, balanced diet, but I try to focus on complex carbohydrates, which provide fiber and more nutrients. Fiber creates that feeling of fullness and satiety. Easy ones are 100 percent whole-wheat flour, oatmeal, peas and beans, green veggies, buckwheat pancakes and brown rice. The point here is to avoid things with added or simple sugars that increase carbohydrate intake and overall total calories for the day. Examples would be candies, excess table sugar in your coffee, sweetened coffee drinks and holiday desserts. Liquid calories are also perilous and easy to over-consume. Buying a bottled smoothie can give you many added sugars. Instead, make a fresh smoothie of fruits and veggies at home to save tons of calories: You aren’t adding the extra “stuff” and just focusing on fiber and fructose (the sugar found in fruit).

3. Carbs can help with weight loss.

Ever heard of Volumetrics? Perfected by Barbara Rolls, professor and chair of nutritional sciences at Penn State University, Volumetrics helps you get more bang for your nutritional buck when it comes to eating. It means consuming a diet that is high in fiber, includes lots of complex carbs and whole grains, heavily features fruits and veggies, and favors foods with a higher water content (and lower calories) — all in an effort to aid in satiety. A perfect example: You could snack on six handfuls of mini pretzels and consume 600 calories. Or, you could eat the same number of calories from apples, which would mean downing between five and six (!) of them in one sitting. Of course, you’d never do that because apples are super filling, and that’s thanks to the fiber, water content, and complexity of fructose, which creates bulk. When consuming carbs, go for ones that come ensconced in the extra nutrition. You’ll wind up eating fewer calories and feeling fuller to boot. Sounds like a win-win.

4. Carbs are crucial for your brain. 

Think of your body like a brand new beautiful car. You want to provide it with the best fuel possible. The ideal and best fuel source for your brain is carbohydrate. Without it, you feel a little spacey, less focused, maybe even dizzy and tired. When you fuel your brain with carbohydrate, you keep yourself at your mental best. So it’s a really good idea to keep good-for-you carbs handy in your desk, car or purse. Examples: dried figs (without added sugar), dried edamame, baby carrots (Dip with hummus if you’d like!), cherry tomatoes, apple, citrus fruit, popcorn (it’s an excellent whole grain, but go for air popped), frozen grapes (if you have an office freezer) and Kind bars.

5. Carbs can keep you lean.

Many of my clients want to create lean muscle tissue, whether it is by reducing overall body mass or increasing it. The key to doing so is by eating lean, clean protein; healthy fats; appropriate calories; and, you guessed it, carbohydrates. When the body does not have sufficient amounts of carbohydrate, it will rely on muscle tissue for fuel. So when someone who exercises regularly just consumes protein and fats, the body pulls what it needs from somewhere else — and that somewhere else is muscle. All the hard work in the gym is thrown away if the body has to rely on muscle for fuel. Interestingly, this is when fat mass can increase, since there is less lean mass and fat mass accumulates faster. If you want to create a leaner body with good metabolism, make sure good complex carbohydrates are consumed throughout the day. You don’t need huge amounts, but you should aim to portion some out for each meal and snack.

If I could sum up what to do, I would say that complex carbs combined with lean proteins will absolutely keep you in great overall health. Here are some examples of meals and snacks that balance healthy fats, carbs, and protein:

  • 1 cup oatmeal, ½ cup blueberries, 1 cup skim or soy milk OR 1 cup Greek yogurt
  • 1 handful dried edamame with 1 orange or 1 string cheese
  • 1 cup lentil soup with whole-wheat pita stuffed with spinach, tomatoes, hummus, and grilled chicken
  • 3 egg-white omelet (with veggies), 1 slice 100 percent whole-wheat toast, 1 cup strawberries
  • Volumetrics pasta: 1 cup whole-wheat pasta for every one to two cups veggies. That’s right — pasta is fine! It is just the amount that can trip you up. By adding bulk to your pasta, it can help you from overeating unnecessary calories and keep you fuller longer with the fibrous veggies. Add a lean protein (tofu, grilled chicken, salmon, etc.) to balance it out.


Jenna Stranzl is a registered dietitian in Philadelphia and consulting sports nutritionist for athletes of all types including the PGA Tour golfers, NY Islanders NHL organization, Vincera Institute, and Velocity Sports Performance Cherry Hill. To find out more about Jenna’s services and blog posts, visit jennastranzl.com.

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