Over the years, there has been a ton of confusion about carbs.
Many diet plans have labeled carbs enemy #1, some people insisting they’re evil, others saying it’s OK to load up, as long as you burn them off with some extreme cardio. Depending on who you talk to you’ll probably get a different response every time.
The truth is we need carbs. In fact, they are essential to our health. Carbohydrates are one of the basic macronutrients, along with protein and fat, that serve as our main source of energy, to help our bodies function properly everyday.
When carbohydrates are digested in the body they are converted to glucose (the sugar in our blood) which then gets used for energy.
But carbs are not only vital for our body. They also fuel our brain.
The brain needs fuel to produce the energy we need for pretty much everything we do – our movement, thinking, creativity, and even sleeping. That fuel comes from glucose.
Because the neurons in the brain cannot store the glucose, they depend on a continuous supply to be pumped in through the bloodstream. How does that glucose get to our bloodstream? From carbs.
See how that works?
But there’s another source, too.. so stick with me and I’ll explain…
So if carbs are so necessary, why the bad rap?
Simply put, not all carbs are created equal.
Side note: I’m not sure about you, but when I hear “carbs” I think of breads and potatoes. It’s not my first instinct to realize that a ton of carbs are found in my vegetables, too – and that I don’t NEED to eat rice, bread, and potatoes at every single meal to get enough carbohydrates to sustain my energy.
Simple vs. complex carbs
You probably already know that carbs can be either simple (the “bad” ones, also known as refined carbohydrates) or complex (the “good” ones).
The “simpler” a carbohydrate is, the faster it gets into our system and the faster the glucose (sugar) reaches our bloodstream.
Complex carbs are made up of longer chains of sugar molecules, so our bodies take a longer time to process them, especially if we select carbs that are also rich in fiber. Fiber is awesome because it slows down the carb-to-glucose pipeline, which keeps us fuller longer and keeps our insulin from spiking.
The time it takes to break down the carbohydrate and actually put it to use provides us with a more steady flow of energy, so complex, not simple carbs, are definitely better.
Examples of complex carbs:
- green vegetables
- whole grains
- sweet potatoes
- unprocessed foods
You are probably also very aware that in the typical American diet, we have been conditioned to eat carbohydrates (mostly refined) at pretty much every meal – from breakfast cereals to granola bars, to bread, rice, fast food, fried food, bagels, pretzels and pizza, just to name a few. We are gaining weight and getting sicker and fatter, not necessarily because carbs are “bad” (we love to name a certain food group the “villain”, don’t we?), but because we are eating too much and the wrong kinds. THIS is why carbs have gotten the bad rap.
Simply put, the refined carbohydrates have little to no nutritional value, and many simple carbs are added to foods (in the form of added sugars) to enhance flavors – just check out the labels on some of the foods you bring home from the market and you’ll see things like high fructose corn syrup in everything from salad dressings to ketchup.
The takeaway? We should steer clear of the simple carbs that basically do nothing for our nutrition, and in fact are doing harm to our bodies – and remember that we do need carbohydrates, just FAR LESS than we might think.
Examples of simple carbs:
- enriched flour (used in white breads, pastas, and even most wheat breads)
- sugary beverages
- many breakfast cereals
- most processed food
The GI Scale (Glycemic Index)
Carbs are also classified according to how quickly the body absorbs them – that is, how quickly and how high your blood sugar rises after you eat them. This classification is referred to as the Glycemic Index, or GI.
The Glycemic Index actually originated from a study where they gave different foods to subjects and monitored their blood sugar for three hours immediately following the meal. The faster the glucose reached the bloodstream, the higher GI number was assigned.
Foods that have higher GI ratings tend to be the simple carbohydrates. They cause rapid spikes in blood sugar. Complex carbohydrates have a lower GI index and are much better for you.
Generally, the lower the better, but you don’t have to be legalistic about it. You should avoid looking at the GI number in isolation, as some higher GI foods (like a papaya, for instance) would still be a better choice over a lower GI, if it were a highly sugary, processed food (i.e. M&Ms). That said, the Index is kind of a cool reference to see how some foods stack up against others.
A better carb lifestyle
When it comes to our macronutrients, most of us tend to eat high carbs, a moderate amount of protein, and we’ve been conditioned to avoid fat like the plague. This has become the Standard American Diet (SAD, as some call it). Not surprisingly, Americans are suffering from more obesity, inflammation, and more chronic food-related disease than ever before.
Think of a traditional breakfast: cereal (carbs), toast (carbs), and juice (carbs). Then a typical snack? Probably some more carbs. Lunchtime sandwich? More carbs. And dinner: Cook at home and you’ll stand a chance of at least balancing out with protein and healthy fats, but if you’re picking up take out? You guessed it, more carbs (keep in mind that the carbs from veggies are perfectly OK, though you’d probably agree that most of us don’t have a problem of eating TOO MANY vegetables).
So, yes, if you are eating like a typical human living in America, you could probably survive on fewer carbs.
So what are we supposed to do then?
Replace carbs with healthy fats
Remember the macronutrients? Carbs, protein and fats are what make are nutrition world go ’round. Well if we reduce one of them, it only makes sense that unless we want to starve to death we had better boost something else.
In fact, more and more research like here, here, and here, points to the benefits of lowering our carbohydrates and raising fats as a healthy, sustainable way to help people get healthier and lose weight.
Did I just say to RAISE our FAT?
Yup, it turns out that our bodies, the amazing machines that God created them to be, are quite able to run on an “alternative fuel”. That fuel is not glucose/sugar-based, but it happens to be fat-based. Yup! The body is able to convert fat into what are called keytones, that our cells can then burn as fuel.
How do we shift from running on sugar to running on fat?
One of the ways we help the process (of running on keytones) along is by reducing the overall glucose we take in to begin with, so the body has a chance to utilize something other than all that sugar we are constantly feeding our faces with. This is a good thing anyway, because the overabundance of sugar in our diet can wreck our metabolism, causing insulin spikes, hormonal imbalance, inflammation, chronic pain and worse.
It’s kind of long and sciency, but basically, when we aren’t constantly loading up on the glucose that comes from the simple refined carbs we eat all day long, our metabolism stabilizes, our hormones get back in balance, and our body can engage the system that allows it to switch from being a sugar-burner to being a fat-burner!
Now, if we can make up the difference of the lowered carbs with more healthy fats and moderate protein we will be on the road to better health, say these studies (and many people who swear by low-carb-high-fat dieting). Increasing the healthy fat also keeps us full longer, which staves off cravings and the urge for mindless eating. Win!
Health professionals are increasingly recommending the LCHF diet – low fat high (healthy) fat, and moderate protein – as a way to correct many of the chronic conditions we see as a result of our (SAD) Standard American Diet. Continued research is needed, but some areas where the LCHF diet has shown promise are with aging, reducing inflammation, obesity, insulin resistance, neurological disorders, and even cancer.
Word of caution: When the researchers refer to higher fat they are referring to high healthy fats (like in the form of avocados, nuts, eggs, fish, and olive oil, NOT ice cream and cookies).
Listen to your body
The LCHF way of eating for many has been a very effective option to treat weight loss resistance and other chronic diseases. It’s also pretty sustainable because rather than being “on a diet”, you are just changing your ratio of macronutrients for a different way of eating. That said, the best advice is always to listen to your own body, and never become extreme in your efforts to get healthy. Make sure you don’t sacrifice one macronutrient at the expense total calorie intake either.
Our bodies are complex machines, and while any “diet” can give you success in the short term, the answer to better health might not be to view carbs as the evil villains people make them out to be, but a create a lifestyle that includes enough carbs, and better carbs, knowing we can thrive with far fewer than we think we’ve been needing. I would encourage you to aim for a healthy mix of nutrients and see if your daily menu can be altered a bit to gain some of the same benefits that the research has been reporting.
Finding the best ratio of carbs, protein, and fat that works for you will be a journey that can take some time, but finding that “sweet spot” is one of the most sustainable weight loss strategies there is. So feel free to fill up on natural whole foods, and be a healthier you just by making a few tweaks to your macronutrient ratio of carbs, protein, and healthy fats. Your body, your brain, and your waistline will love you for it!
Try this super easy recipe for an alternative to mashed potatoes!
The Recap on Carbs:
- We do need carbs, but all are not created equal
- Foods low on the Glycemic Index are best
- Go for the fiber to get the most bang for your buck!
- Reducing carbs with an increase in healthy fats and moderate protein can help you stay in balance and reduce inflammation.
- Listen to your body and test, test, test to find your “sweet spot” for weight loss and optimal health.
“Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well.” – 3 John 1:2 (NIV)