Do Carbohydrates Deserve Their Bad Reputation?

Tracing the History of Carbohydrates Offered in Our Food Supply

By Roberta H. Anding, MS, Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, The Great Courses Daily

Why are carbohydrates so shunned in the diet and nutrition world? Professor Anding provides the history of what’s taken place in our food supply as it relates to carbohydrates to demystify this much-maligned macronutrient.

Brown rice in wood bowl
In the 1900s with rigorous occupations outdoors, we were more physically active than we are today and whole grains dominated what we consumed as food choices. Photo by K321 / Shutterstock

Why Carbohydrates Are Maligned

It used to be that fat was the macronutrient to be avoided at all costs. Now carbs have earned that designation. Do carbohydrates deserve their bad reputation, though?

“I was working with a young man who came into my office and said, ‘I don’t understand why I’m gaining weight. I don’t eat anything,'” Professor Anding said. 

As it turns out, he wasn’t eating anything, but he was drinking 20 sodas a day, at 20 ounces each. That was over 3,000 calories from soft drinks, which accounted for his weight gain. He also had other issues associated with that level of carbohydrates. 

“Although I was not terribly successful with this man, I was able to get him to switch half of his sodas to diet, and his weight actually did come down,” Professor Anding said. “But this example is important because unfortunately, in our culture today, carbohydrate is a maligned nutrient.” 

Carbohydrates get a bad reputation from stories like the one above. Although they are maligned, according to Professor Anding, carbohydrates are a nutritional powerhouse, and your body has so many defenses against having inadequate amounts of carbohydrate that you know it is central to our human physiology. 

Carbohydrates are the exclusive fuel of the central nervous system, of your brain, and for exercising muscle. The trouble with carbohydrates isn’t the nutrient itself. The problem is with with our food selection, and oftentimes, our changing food supply.

History of Carbohydrates

In the early 1900s, we ate a lot of carbohydrates—about 500 grams per day. To put this in perspective, a slice of bread typically has 15 grams of carbohydrates, as does the average piece of fruit.

Clearly in the 1900s, we were more physically active than we are today, but on the carbohydrate landscape, whole grains dominated what we consumed. This included whole-wheat bread, brown rice, and whole oats.

Moving into the early 1960s, a steady decline in the production of whole grains essentially meant that whole grains were disappearing from the American dinner plate. We began refining carbohydrates around the 1940s, and that process of refining removed the outer bran layer. 

In the 1960s, carbohydrates again started to climb. However, in place of whole grains came highly processed sweetened foods.

Since the early 1900s, the consumption of sweeteners has increased substantially, and in recent years, it has been dominated by the creation of high-fructose corn syrup. This shift in the American food landscape has been associated with the development of some chronic diseases, most notably type 2 diabetes.

Therefore, carbohydrates as a macronutrient is not inherently unhealthy. The high levels of carbohydrates consumed in early American history is evidence of this, even when taking much higher activity levels into account. Instead, it is the evolution of carbohydrates from whole grains to sugary substances that is to blame for the bad reputation of carbohydrates.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for The Great Courses Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for The Great Courses Daily.

Professor Roberta H. Anding is a registered dietitian and Director of Sports Nutrition and a clinical dietitian at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital. She also teaches and lectures in the Baylor College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, Section of Adolescent Medicine and Sports Medicine, and in the Department of Kinesiology at Rice University.

About Kate Findley 450 Articles
Kate is a writer, novelist, and blogger living in Los Angeles. She has been writing for The Great Courses since 2017. It incorporates her two favorite things: writing and learning.