Carbohydrates are about as controversial as politics these days. There is the school of thought that carbs are bad for you and should be avoided almost entirely, or you risk developing obesity and diabetes. Yet the Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests that you should get about half of your daily calories from carbohydrates.
Low-carb diets can also actually be dangerous, according to a Polish study presented at the European Society of Cardiology. It found that people who avoid carbohydrates have a greater risk of premature death, as well as a higher risk of developing heart disease, stroke and cancer.
So what is the truth about carbohydrates? As usual, it lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes. We all need some carbohydrates in our diets, but that does not mean it's a good idea for half of your calories to come from sugar- and fat-laden carbohydrates like cookies and French fries. At the same time, it is certainly not healthy to avoid carbs altogether, as this Polish study shows.
People who ate the least amount of carbohydrates had a 32 percent higher risk of premature death compared to those who ate the most carbohydrates.
The risk of death from heart disease rose by 51 percent; the risk of stroke rose by 50 percent; and the risk of cancer increased by 35 percent. A review of seven other published studies also showed an increased risk of overall deaths, cardiovascular deaths and cancer deaths among people who ate fewer carbohydrates than those who ate more carbs, further confirming the results.
A low-carb diet that is high in cholesterol and saturated fat is no healthier than a high-carb diet full of sugar- and fat-filled junk food and lacking in fruits and vegetables.
“Low carbohydrate diets might be useful in the short term to lose weight, lower blood pressure, and improve blood glucose control, but our study suggests that in the long-term they are linked with an increased risk of death from any cause, and deaths due to cardiovascular disease, cerebrovascular disease and cancer,” Banach said, in a statement.
Healthy carbs are found in foods like fruits — all of them. Whole grain bread, whole grain pasta and cereal are healthy carbs. So are starchy vegetables, like potatoes, sweet potatoes and other root vegetables. Milk and dairy foods contain a healthy sugar, or carb, as well.
Unhealthy carbs are found in highly processed foods like white bread and other foods made with refined flour, like crackers and pasta, or sugar- and fat-laden snacks such as cakes and cookies.
Moderation should be your goal. A low-carb diet may be a wise choice if you are trying to lose weight and get your blood sugar under control — just make sure the carbs you do eat include fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and choose nuts, legumes, low-fat dairy foods and lean meats for protein. Even if you aren't restricting carbs, the same advice applies: Eat more of the healthy carbs, and limit the refined, junk food carbs.