High Carb Diet: The Surprising Case for Optimal Health
Updated: Dec 29, 2021
High carb diet for optimal health?
Most of the dieting world would have you believe that carbs are evil. They’re the source of obesity. The source of malnutrition. The source of the disease.
Although most of their intentions are in the right place, low-carb advocates can, at times, be misguided.
I’ll provide 4 arguments why a high carb diet is the most optimal diet for your health.
The healthiest diets rated by leading health organizations and the majority of dietitians are high carb diets.
The healthiest populations in the world eat high carb diets.
The healthiest foods you can eat are high carb foods.
You can lose weight, and maintain a healthy weight, on a high carb diet.
First, some definitions.
What Is A High Carb Diet?
When we say high carb diet, what do we really mean?
The context matters.
Some may use the phrase high carb diet¬ when comparing it, relatively, to another diet. Therefore, the high carb diet is simply higher in carbs than the other diet.
For example, the Atkin’s diet, the ketogenic diet, and the paleo diet are all popular diets that are often considered “low-carb” diets.
But when compared to each, some are clearly higher in carbohydrate consumption than others.
A low-carb Atkin’s diet may manifest in around 40% of your calories coming from carbohydrates, while a ketogenic diet, whose practitioners are looking to remain in a constant state of ketosis, may be consuming perhaps 5% or fewer of their calories from carbohydrates.
Popular “low-carb” diets, show some are higher in carbs than others.
This “comparative” definition is perfectly acceptable. However, it is not universal. It depends on which diets are compared.
A more universal way may be to generally compare where your calories come from.
For example, a baseline could be that your calories are equally obtain from all three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrates, and fats.
Equal distribution of proteins, fats, and carbs.
This diet would be 33% of calories from protein, 33% from carbohydrates, and 33% from fats.
Using this as a baseline, a high carb diet would be one where the majority of its calories from carbohydrates.
1. The Majority of Calories in the Healthiest Diets come from Carbs
Health researchers, dietitians, and clinicians helped score and rank the best diets for U.S. News and World Report.
Tied for first place were the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Diet.
These are some of the most heavily researched diets in the world, routinely demonstrating positive effects on weight management, chronic disease risk reduction, and longevity.
Both diets derive the majority of their calories from carbohydrates.
Both average around 55% of their calories from carbs. About 25-30% come from fats (most vegetable oils), and 15-20% come from proteins.
These diets fall in line with other recent research on the carb consumption and overall mortality.
The large study showed that eating a majority of your calories from carbs (50-55% of calories) resulted in the lowest risk of mortality.
Interestingly, the source of carbohydrates mattered, too (which we’ll get into more, later).
To quote the study, “results varied by the source of macronutrients: mortality increased when carbohydrates were exchanged for animal-derived fat or protein…and mortality decreased when the substitutions were plant-based.”
2. The Healthiest Populations in the World eat High Carb Diets
Known for finding healthy, long-lived enclaves throughout the world, the Blue Zones project has studied the diets of these healthy communities.
One food group common to all of these healthy communities is beans.
From Costa Rica to Okinawa, the healthiest beans are a major part of their diets and are carbohydrate-rich foods. Often, 50-75% of their calorie content are carbohydrates.
And the women of Okinawa are the some longest lived in the world. The majority of their calories come from purple and orange sweet potatoes. Potatoes can by over 90% carbohydrates, rendering a very high carb diet.
Ikarians in Greece often eat whole-grain sourdough bread alongside vegetable-rich meals.
In fact, in these healthy regions, the majority of calories tend to come from vegetables. The Seventh Day Adventists from Loma Linda, California live, on average, a full decade longer than the average American. Some eat fish. Many are vegetarians.
Which brings me to my final point.
3. The Healthiest Foods are High-Carb
The healthiest diet plans are heavy in various plants.
The healthiest, longest-lived communities in the world eat most of their calories from plants.
Many popular diets are trending towards the idea of eating whole foods that are minimally processed.
When looking at the average carbohydrate content of 279 foods from the U.S. Food Database, the average carbohydrate content clocks in at 67%.
Fruits and vegetables are high carb foods.
Mounds upon mounds of research continues to extoll the health benefits of fruit and vegetable consumption.
Yet only 1 in 10 Americans eats the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables, daily.
Adding more fruits and vegetables to your diet will improve your nutritional health while inherently pushing your dietary intake ratios into that of a high carb diet.
Carbs have been vilified. But some of the healthiest foods – fruits and vegetable – are mostly high carb foods.
But not all carbs are good.
Not All Carbs are Created Equal
While high carb diets rich and fruits and vegetables are good for your health, some high carb foods should be reduced or eliminated.
One big culprit?
Sugars are carbohydrates, but not the good kind.
And in America, as in many parts of the world, we consume far too much of it.
The World Health Organization recommends eating fewer than 10% of your daily calories from sugar. Ideally, less than 5%.
Refined carbohydrates should also be reduced or avoided.
Refined carbohydrates are processed in such a way as to remove most of the micronutrients and fiber present in foods like grains.
This adds low-nutrient calories to your diet, but also removes much needed fiber.
Fiber is very important for overall dietary health and also helps attenuate the negative effects often associated with sugar consumption. This is one of the reasons why fruits are both high in sugar and healthy for you.
When is a High Carb Diet Too High?
Yes, a high carb diet can get too high.
The study mentioned earlier showed that diets that obtained over 70% of their calories from carbohydrates had a higher mortality rate than in the 50-60% range.
Very often, extreme diets first appear to have merit.
But over time, obscure and sub-optimal health conditions seem to always present themselves and show that a more balanced diet is better for overall health for most people.
This is true for carbs, too. If a diet becomes too heavy in carbs, this begins to look like an extreme diet as well.
A “high-carb diet” doesn’t mean an only carb diet!
It means the majority of your calories should come from carbs. Generally, this means over 50% of your calories.
4. You Can Lose Weight and Maintain a Healthy Weight on a High Carb Diet
You can lose weight on a low-carb diet.
I won’t argue that.
But you can also lose weight on a low-fat diet.
You can also lose weight on a high-protein diet.
In fact, you can lose weight on most diets.
In the short-term…
The problem, however, is that many of these dieters regain weight over the long-term.
These diets are often difficult to maintain.
Over time, it is easy to gradually slide back into your original dieting patterns.
And although these other diets may lead to weight loss, they aren’t necessarily healthy.
They may be missing key micronutrients.
And some research suggests low-carb, high-fat diets can lead to poor cholesterol levels associated with increased risks of cardiovascular diseases.
Diets like the Mediterranean Diet and the DASH Diet are rated highly, in part, because they are easy to stick with long-term.
These whole-foods based diets rich in fruits and vegetables are less extreme and easily maintained over the course of a lifetime, which is required to reap the benefits of a healthy diet.
Bottom Line: Eating Most of Your Calories from Carbs Can Be Good For Your Health!
Eating too many carbs is not unhealthy.
A high carb diet means the majority of your calories come from carbs. But an extreme diet (over 70% carbs) is just like any other extreme diet – unhealthy.
And eating excess added sugars and refined carbs should be avoided or eliminated.
But the over-arching goal of this post was to be provocative with respect to high carb diets.
Carbs have been unfairly vilified.
And many forget that the healthiest foods (fruits and vegetables) are mostly carbohydrates.
And the healthiest diets, and the healthiest populations, typically derive the majority of their calories from carbohydrates.
The body is adaptable, and fortunately does not require strict adherence to precise macronutrient ratios.
Good health can likely be achieved with varying amounts of carbs, fats, and proteins.
However, when the balanced gets too extreme, it rarely results in optimal health.
Mind your fruits and vegetables, and bask in good health with a high carb diet