The Carb Debate: What to tell your friends when they ask about CARBS
By Amy Sprouse
Your friend on the left is trying the Keto Diet.
Your friend on the right says they might become a Fruitarian.
You’ve seen dozens of online articles and research explaining how reducing carb intake leads to weight loss.
Yet many populations throughout the world base their diet on rice and noodles and have a very healthy BMI.
So what’s the bottom line with carbs?
In the midst of today’s food environment, where so many low-quality carbs and bad food combinations are commonplace, I’m not surprised that many diets target carbs as the “bad guys.”
But before we start second-guessing our sweet potatoes, lentil beans, apples and wild rice, let’s review carbohydrates for a minute.
Our bodies are built to run off of carbohydrates. The mitochondria inside our cells responsible for energy production are designed with glucose as their primary fuel source. (Glucose is the unit that carbohydrates are broken down into). The body CAN run off of ketones, and outside the brain, fatty acids can also burn for fuel. But if we were designed to run primarily off of protein and fat, mitochondria would be designed to primarily use amino acids and fatty acids, instead of glucose.
However, this focus on glucose does NOT mean that we are designed to live off of sugar. While healthy carbohydrates are ultimately broken down into sugar/glucose molecules, eating simple sugars directly (like what is found in soda and baked goods) and refining carbs wreaks havoc on the body, and drains the body of essential minerals and enzymes.
So the question isn’t are carbs good or bad. The question is what makes a carb good for the body, and what puts a carb on the “enjoy rarely” list.
Grouping all carbohydrates together is like grouping all music from the 70’s music together; you’re going to get some golden masterpieces mixed in with some NASTIES.
So let’s talk about it….
MY TOP 3 CRITERIA FOR PICKING THE RIGHT CARBS
Is it in its natural form?
I ask myself, would a Native American harvest this? An apple, romaine lettuce, wild rice, quinoa… these things are straight from Mother Earth. My general policy is, if I can pick it or identify all of the ingredients as they would be found in nature, I will be happy to try it out and see how my body feels.
For me, that includes my mother’s delicious homemade bread made out of almonds, eggs and flax seeds. 😊
“Whole grain” Kellogs cereal? Not so much. Sugar is often the second ingredient and the flours they use are often still processed anyway.
95% of common bread products—unfortunately these also don’t make the cut in my books. Genetic modification of grains as well as the deterioration of our gut microbiome due to antibacterial products has made many of us—if not most—sensitive to gluten now, especially when the proper enzymes haven’t been activated through sprouting or fermentation (like sprouted Ezekiel or sourdough bread). If gluten-containing bread is being eaten in our home, it’ll be made from sprouted grains or sourdough. But for the record, my family and I do better avoiding gluten altogether. Hear my mom Karen Urbanek speak on why many of us have gut sensitivities and how to get over them here.
A huge reason the natural form makes a difference is this:
Carbohydrates in their natural form contain the enzymes, nutrients, and natural chemicals our body needs to break it down. HOW COOL IS THAT, it’s like nature pre-packaged its food with digestive enzymes or something.
Plants contain enzymes that help them decompose—that’s why produce will rot. This is GREAT for our health. We need enzymes to break everything down.
Because processed carbohydrates lack active enzymes, they REQUIRE enzymes from our body’s limited storage of enzymes, depleting that storage and sometimes not breaking down properly altogether, causing digestive, immune, and energy level issues.
So my first step is looking at the carb and deciding if it's in the form Mother Nature intended to give it to me or not.
Is there FIBER?
Listen, I’m gonna write a song about fiber soon. Who could say enough good things about fiber?
Carbs include three categories: sugar, starch, and fiber. Fiber is that stringy stuff (easy to identify in vegetables) that is not broken down or used for energy the way sugar and starches are, so it's typically considered “calorie free”. That’s not the biggest reason it’s awesome though.
Fiber slows down how fast sugar molecules enter the bloodstream! (That’s great because extreme blood sugar spikes are unnatural).
If I eat an apple that has 20 grams of sugar, and drink a beverage that has 20 grams of sugar, the difference is this: the fiber that accompanies the sugar in the apple will slow down how fast that sugar enters the bloodstream, whereas the sugar in the drink (with no fiber) BOOM enters the bloodstream like little kids pouring out of classes on the last day of school. NO REGULATION. It's unnatural. And our bodies freak out, and it causes weight gain.
Any time I over-consume sugar and start to feel super sick and headache-y, I get some fiber in my system ASAP, and it usually helps a ton. For example, one holiday after a slice too many of my grandma’s berry pie…. I thought I would die of sugar overload… so I whipped out a celery/cucumber/carrot smoothie and chugged that down, and it relieved my pain and bloodstream catastrophe a noticeable amount.
In addition to sugar regulation, fibrous material absorbs toxins, provides food to the healthy gut bacteria, regulates cholesterol levels, and acts like a snow plow to help us have regular bowel movements as it moves through the intestinal tract. It’s healthy to poop multiple times a day. Thank you FIBER!
Now, about those countries where rice and noodles are a base in their diet…
My friend Jaely Hawley from Brazil, where rice or noodles is a staple in every meal, says “Our meals always include vegetables and a huge green salad. Legitimately, half the plate is salad, and the rest is mixed between your carbs and protein. If there aren’t tons of vegetables, there’s something wrong.”
I just returned from living in Taiwan for 17 months, where same thing is true—rice and noodles are a staple in their diet, and their meals include many vegetables. Half the food on the table will be a vegetable dish often times. And they do NOT eat sugar.
Do you see a trend here? High-fiber diets are our friends. Carbohydrates are processed better by the body when the fiber content of the meal is high.
What is the nutrient content?
Some carbs are still “natural” but don’t have much to offer, if anything. Corn meal, potato flour, any processed wheat flour, tapioca flour… these don’t contain many phytonutrients or fiber and still break down to sugar/glucose molecules like everything else, not offering much benefit to the human body.
I’m looking for vitamin and mineral rich veggies, fruits, seeds, ancient grains, beans and legumes. They say eat the rainbow because every color will contain different nutrients. My focus is on high nutrient, high fiber, naturally occurring carbohydrates.
Bottom line: some carbs might be "natural," but are still empty calories, so be careful not to get carried away just because it has "natural ingredients" on the label. Seek out carbs exploding in nutrients instead.
So what is on my personal list of Good vs. Rarely carbs?
**NOTE: This list is my personal list. Everyone’s body is different. You need to listen to your body for what carbs make your body happy and not. For example, my little sister loves oat groats, but normal oatmeal hurts the stomach of her and many of my friends. There were many stretches of time I didn’t feel good after eating any kind of rice or sweet potatoes, but then a couple years later I was fine with it again. Just listen to your body and health care providers carefully, and make your own list!
- All leafy and colorful vegetables
- Fruit (I still watch my overall intake because of the sugar content)
- Whole grain rice (wild rice, black rice, jasmine rice, soaked and rinsed brown rice, etc.… 5 minute rice is processed and does not count)
- Lentils and garbanzo beans (best if soaked a day and rinsed before cooking)
- Quinoa, Buckwheat, Amaranth, and other seed-grains
- Other soaked and rinsed beans and legumes
- Potatoes (sweet potatoes, red and yellow potatoes)
“Rarely (if ever!)” carbs:
- Sweet beverages (soda, sweetened tea, and like 99% of every drink at the gas station)
- Baked goods
- Processed vegetables (like potato and corn products)
- Unsprouted grain products (breads, pastas, and baked goods)
- Desserts and sweet treats
- Milk and most yogurts (high in sugar, deactivated enzymes)
**If I was fighting cancer or candida, I would almost eliminate sugar altogether, staying low on even the healthy sources of starchy vegetables, grains, and fruit. (Cancer cells have many times the amount of sugar receptor sites as normal cells. Sugar feeds cancer cells very literally).
If you do want to do the Keto diet, Karen recommends keeping it under 6 months. “It can help people lose weight and get control of their health, so if my clients want to do it, I tell them 3-6 months max. I tell them to be very careful with their sources of fat—too many animal products can be dangerous. Stick to the healthiest fats.”
“If someone wants to lose weight, they should listen to my weight loss series.” (That can be found on i2h2e.com by the way).
Well, that’s a wrap for now. Carbohydrates are one of the most controversial topics in the diet world today, but I hope these few insights can help you create the best personalized diet plan for yourself.
Comment with any questions or contributions! Happy eating till next time…
TNC Student, Epidemiologist
How the Body Uses Carbohydrates, Proteins, and Fats (the carb section explains why excess carb consumption leads to weight gain—very clear explanation)