Most clients I've spoken with about nutrition recently have been putting a lot of emphasis on avoiding carbohydrates. In some cases, this may be appropriate; reducing added sugars and refined carbs can improve one’s diet quality, and reducing excess calories from these sources can help with weight management, as well.
The concern I have is when these individuals treat all carbohydrates the same way, categorizing them all as “unhealthy” foods.
There are lots of arguments to dispute this idea, but perhaps my favorite approach is to explain the diet of the people who populate the world’s “Blue Zones”.
For those who are unfamiliar, the “Blue Zones” are areas of the world where people live much longer than average, with an especially high percentage of them living to age 100 or older. There are several common lifestyle traits among these populations, but I’d like to focus on their diets. There are five verified Blue Zones in the world, and here’s what they eat:
Inhabitants of Sardinia, Italy eat what would best be described as a plant-based diet with lots of whole grains and beans. They regularly drink goat’s milk during the day and red wine in the evening. Sardinians don’t eat meat most days of the week.
The Blue Zoners in Okinawa, Japan use sweet potatoes as the base of most of their meals, with rice, tofu, and stir-fried vegetables also being commonly consumed.
The American Blue Zone, located in Loma Linda, California, features a diet especially rich in fruits and vegetables. Most of their protein intake comes from beans, nuts, and soy.
On the Nicoyan Peninsula of Costa Rica, inhabitants base their diets around corn, beans, fruit, and squash.
Unsurprisingly, residents of the Greek island of Ikaria – which is located in the Mediterranean Sea – eat what is best described as a quintessential Mediterranean diet. A typical day includes plenty of fruits and vegetables as well as potatoes, beans, and some fish.
What’s the common thread here? These populations all eat diets rich in plant foods with a particular emphasis on fruits, vegetables, and beans. Ironically, in our carb-phobic modern world, the healthiest among us are mostly consuming foods made up primarily of carbohydrates!
It’s important to make the distinction that the carbohydrate-rich foods eaten in the Blue Zones are also nutrient-rich foods with plenty of fiber. The carbs these people are choosing aren’t refined or processed, nor do they have added sugars.
The narrative that “carbs are bad” is misleading at best and damaging at worst. Rather than focusing on excluding carbohydrates, take a look at the list of “Blue Zone” foods above and work on replacing added sugars or processed carbohydrates with foods like sweet potatoes, beans, fruits, and vegetables. If the healthiest people in the world are eating them, odds are we should be as well.