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Carb Quality vs. Carb Quantity: Which is Healthiest?

In a world overloaded with carbohydrate controversy and low-carb products, it’s critical to realize that not all carbs are equal

With the promotion of many carb-restrictive diets today, it’s important to fully understand that simply counting and limiting carbs isn’t the only goal.

Recent research from the JAMA Internal Medicine Journal, published by Harvard, continues to prove that the quality of your carbohydrate choices matters most.

The study included about 35,000 adults in the United States ages 20 and older. Researchers focused on determining how certain diets affected a person’s overall longevity and rates or mortality.

What they found was that low-carbohydrate diets that are low in fat can be very healthy, but the quality of the carbohydrates and overall food selection matters most.

  • “In this study, overall low-carbohydrate-diet and low-fat-diet scores were not associated with total mortality,” 
  • “Unhealthy low-carbohydrate-diet and low-fat-diet scores were associated with higher total mortality
  • “Healthy low-carbohydrate-diet and low-fat-diet scores were associated with lower total mortality.

Researchers also felt the same about low-fat diets. 

A low-fat diet was once touted as the optimal approach to health, but even a low-fat diet consisting of low-quality food can be detrimental to your health.

In the battle of quality vs. quantity, quality wins.

But Quality Claims are Confusing

If you listen to society’s conversation about nutrition, it can be very overwhelming and confusing to determine what you should eat and on which macronutrients (fat, protein or carbs) you should focus or limit.

Food marketers are making an increasing number of food claims on packaging and other marketing to respond to consumers’ growing interest in health and well-being.  Many of these claims are gimmicks designed to sway your decisions. 

In 2019, The Journal of Public Policy & Marketing (JPPM) exposed food product marketing by identifying 4 “smoke and mirror” tactics commonly used to confuse and sway consumers.

  1. Claims about “removing negatives.”
  2. Claims about “adding positives.”
  3. Claims about “not adding negatives.”
  4. Claims about “not removing positives.”

The JPPM used breakfast cereals to demonstrate their point because cereal is a category of food in which actual nutritional quality varies dramatically but every box usually contains at least one or two firm health claims. 

Health statements on cereal boxes aren’t based on actual nutrition quality of the product but consistently make claims regarding taste, health, and achieving goals within common dieting fads.

Carbs are not Inherently Evil

Meanwhile, Harvard’s coverage of JAMA’s carb-quality research reminds consumers that carbohydrates themselves are not evil. 

“Carbohydrates give us energy. However, if the energy isn’t used after consumption they’re stored in our muscles and liver for later. Eventually, if unused for long enough, they turn into fat.

When adhered to based on healthy choices, low-carb diets do result in weight-loss but are difficult to sustain long-term.”

There’s no arguing that a low-carbohydrate diet does result in quicker weight-loss when adhered to strictly. 

There are many studies and conflicting findings.

Diet Guidelines Vary

If you’re following the Food and Drug Administration’s nutritional guidelines, it’s recommended that you consume between 45% to 65% of your daily calories from carbohydrates. That equates to 225 grams per day for women and 325 grams per day for men. 

A “low-carb” diet would amount to under 100 grams per day or less.

A ketogenic diet is intended to consist of no more than 20 grams of carbohydrate per day (after subtracting dietary fiber) to put a person into a state of “nutritional ketosis.”

Quality of Food is Most Important

JAMA’s researcher emphasized that both low-fat and low-carbohydrate diets are linked with a lower mortality rate when those diets consist mostly of healthy, whole foods. 

“Our findings show clearly that the quality rather than the quantity of macronutrients in our diet has an important impact on our health,” explained Harvard’s report.  

The debate on the health consequences of low-fat or low-carbohydrate diets is largely moot unless the food sources of fats or carbohydrates are clearly defined.”

Harvard researchers recommend focusing your diet on fruits, vegetables, milk, grains, seeds, and nuts, adding that people who eat fruit at least 5 times per day actually live a little longer than those who don’t — combatting mainstream society’s fear of fruit because of its carbohydrate content. Presumably, one could assume that a person eating that much fruit daily may also be making other whole-food choices daily, too.

Determining the right “diet” for you isn’t easy. It comes down to a variety of factors including religion, culture, tastebuds, health issues, lifestyle, and how your body actually feels when you eat a higher amount of carbohydrates versus fewer carbohydrates. Some people simply don’t feel good when they eat larger amounts of starchy carbohydrate — even if those carbohydrates come from whole sources like oats, beans, and sweet potato.

Every individual responds differently which means the best place to start is by looking at how you feel after eating certain foods or meals and conducting your own small experiments. Consider it a science experiment with the goal of simply improving your health and improving how you feel on a daily basis with an inevitable focus on whole foods, despite the macronutrient quantity. 

Ginger Vieira has lived with Type 1 diabetes and Celiac disease since 1999, and fibromyalgia since 2014. She is the author of 4 books: Pregnancy with Type 1 Diabetes, Dealing with Diabetes Burnout, Emotional Eating with Diabetes, Your Diabetes Science Experiment. Ginger creates content regularly for Diabetes Strong, Healthline, HealthCentral, DiabetesDaily, EverydayHealth and her YouTube Channel. Her background includes a B.S. in Professional Writing, certifications in cognitive coaching, Ashtanga yoga, and personal training with several records in drug-free powerlifting. She lives in Vermont with two kiddos and two dogs.

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