Confused about carbohydrates? Not sure if you should be eating them? Not sure what a healthy carbohydrate is? Let’s take a quick look carbs and if are you eating the right ones.
Carbohydrates are a controversial topic in most dietary circles. Many claim that carbohydrates are to blame for our surging epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Others claim that carbohydrates should make up the majority of our caloric intake. What are we to believe?
What is a carbohydrate?
A carbohydrate is an organic compound consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen that can be broken down in the body to release energy. When we talk about carbohydrates we are talking about foods that contain carbohydrates:
- starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, squash, and parsnips
- whole fruits
- grains such as wheat, rice, oats, and corn
- refined sugars, juices, and syrups
What most people do not understand is that a carb is not a carb. There is a huge difference in the nutrition that you receive from carbohydrates from whole vegetables and fruits versus processed foods like grains, refined sugars, and juices. There is also a huge difference in the way these different carbohydrates affect our bodies.
But I thought grains were good for me?
We have been taught for years and years that grains, especially whole grains are the epitome of good health. Guess what? NOT TRUE!
Did you know that grains are actually a processed food? Think about it: grains must go through a complicated process of harvesting, threshing, milling, pounding, more processing, packaging, etc. before they hit your dinner table. The refined, processed grain products like pasta, breads, bagels, cereal, donuts, crackers, etc. that we see in stores today are almost completely void of any nutritional value and can wreak havoc on our digestive and metabolic systems.
Whole grains contain anti-nutrients, called lectins and phytic acid, that keep our bodies from easily digesting and absorbing the nutrients in them. The phytic acid in whole grains binds to minerals like zinc, calcium, iron, and magnesium, so not only are the nutrients of the grains not available to us, they strip us of nutrients already in our bodies.
Lectins in grains cause damage to the lining of the digestive tract, making us more susceptible to leaky gut. Leaky gut has been associated with acne, allergies, depression, weight gain, autoimmune issues, anxiety, joint pain, diabetes, IBS, autism, and much more.
If you look at the nutritional values of grains, you will see that they are really just a nutrient-poor food source pushed onto us by the modern agricultural business, whose real business is production not health. Conventional grain production entails the use of practices that damage the earth through the use of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Because of unnatural farming practices used, our soils are becoming depleted and our bodies are too.
I know that not everyone desires to remove all grains from their diet. If this is you, I HIGHLY recommend learning about properly preparing grains in order to make them more digestible. Read more about that HERE.
So what is a healthy carb?
Before I get into what a healthy carb is, let’s take a quick look at how carbohydrates affect the body. Basically, when you eat a carbohydrate-rich food, your body has to break down the food to release the carbohydrate then break it down again to convert the carbohydrate to glucose, which is the form that your cells use for fuel.
Glucose floating in your bloodstream triggers your pancreas to produce and release a hormone called insulin. Insulin then transports the glucose to your cells (lowering your blood sugar level) to be used as fuel for the body. Pretty cool, huh?
The problem arises when we eat a diet loaded with nutrient-poor carbohydrates. Yes, our bodies need fuel but did you know that the body stores excess glucose not used by the liver and muscle cells as fat? So eating excess carbohydrates will expand the waistline.
Not only that, but the constant overload of carbohydrates and glucose in the bloodstream leads to another problem: insulin resistance. Insulin resistance is a metabolic issue in the body and signals a damaged metabolism. Because the more we eat excess carbohydrates, the more insulin our pancreas produces and releases. The cells start to become overloaded with insulin and begin to tune it out, leaving the glucose in the bloodstream unable to enter our cells. This results in chronic high blood sugars, an inflammatory process that significantly increases your risk for type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Not good!
So is eating carbs bad? NO!
It’s all about how much and what kind. Our bodies are designed to have a balanced diet of healthy fats, good quality proteins, and carbohydrates.
Now I know that low-carb dieting is all the rage. And I also know that many people thrive on this sort of diet. The idea behind the low carb-diet is getting the body into ketosis, a state in which the body is burning fats as fuel. People who may benefit from a low-carb diet include:
- folks who have high blood sugars, diabetes, or insulin resistance (as it reduces blood sugar levels)
- folks with SIBO or gut dysbiosis (as a temporary diet to help the healing process)
- folks with neurological issues like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, or epilepsy
- folks who are overweight or obese
- women with PCOS
- anyone with a traumatic brain injury
However, there are many folks who do not thrive on a low-carb diet. Here’s a list of folks who may benefit from a moderate amount of carbohydrates in their diet:
- folks who require a moderate amount of healthy carbohydrates to maintain their activity and energy levels
- folks with hypothyroidism (Insulin is needed for the conversion of t4 hormone to active T3 hormone, and insulin levels are generally low on a low-carb diet)
- folk with adrenal fatigue (Cortisol appears to increase on a low-carb diet)
- pregnant women (to ensure proper fetal development)
It is also interesting to note that long term low-carb dieting is associated with altered gut flora and a reduction in the diversity of the gut flora. (source) Remember that 80% of your immune system stem from the gut and altered gut flora has been associated with many health issues like diabetes, obesity, skin disorders, autoimmune issues, and digestive issues.
Not all carbohydrates are created equal
When it comes to carbohydrate consumption, it’s all about eating the right foods. We are surrounded by processed commercial foods like breads, cereal, pasta, crackers, etc. that offer us NO real nutritional value. Many of these foods cause digestive damage, elevate blood sugar levels, trigger autoimmune reactions, and create inflammation in the body.
It’s important to understand that whole-food carbohydrates do not affect the body in the same way as processed and refined carbohydrates. I’m talking about starchy tubers and vegetables, whole fruits, and even unprocessed sweeteners like raw honey. Think roots, winter squash, tubers, potatoes, beets, carrots, pumpkin, bananas, plantains, etc. There are also many nutrient-dense, non-starchy vegetables that add small amounts of carbohydrates to your diet like leafy greens, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, asparagus, zucchini and celery.
These foods not only contain carbohydrates, but they are loaded with fiber, minerals, and nutrients that nourish and fill us up. The body is intuitive. If you are feeding it empty calories of nutrient-poor, insulin-spiking foods, it will cry out by being more and more hungry. Eat real foods and your body will be full, happy, and satisfied.
Combine these whole food carbohydrates with good amounts of healthy fats and good quality proteins, and your body will get everything that it needs to not just live but to thrive.
How much carbohydrate do I need?
The answer to this question is individual. We are all have different chemical make ups and have different nutritional needs. What’s important is to assess your overall health and personal needs.
- Do you have an existing medical condition that may affect your need for carbohydrates like diabetes, obesity, adrenal fatigue?
- Do you exercise or train heavily? What is your level of activity?
- Are you pregnant?
- How do you feel on a low-carb diet? Do you feel better with more carbs?
There is no magic number here. Just eat REAL food. Eat plenty of healthy fats and protein. Eat a moderate amount of carbohydrates from whole food sources (vegetables and fruits), and see how you feel. Once you ditch the processed, insulin-spiking foods, your body will start to feel nourished and satisfied. Your body will tell you what it needs and unhealthy cravings will start to fade away.
The goal here is balanced nutrition and steady blood sugar levels. Evaluate how you feel. Make small changes. Find what works for your body. And remember that this can change day to day.
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There you go. My take on healthy carbohydrate intake. If you made it this far, thanks for reading. Now you have my permission to stop obsessing about carbs. Just eat plenty of good, real food. And remember to smile. Life is good!
Want to learn more?
- 3 Step Process to Determining Your Ideal Carbohydrate Intake
- EAT THE YOLKS by Liz Wolfe
- Do Carbs Kill Your Brain?
- Females, Carbohydrates, and Hormones
- EAT THE YOLKS by Liz Wolfe, NTP
Photo credit: depositphotos @Williamedwards, @elenathewise, @nupix