Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs Pet Peeve
Today I would like to shed a little ray of sunshine on a pet peeve that I have harbored ever since learning about the popular “low-carb” diets which don’t even deserve to be named here (I think we all know who they are). As consumers, we are so terrified that the excess sugar calories will be converted to fat that many of us have become convinced that we are better off eating “protein-rich,” aka saturated fat-laden foods such as steak or eggs as opposed to simply switching our focus to healthier sources of carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
To be fair, the aforementioned foods do have their merits. Meats are excellent sources of iron, and eggs have more than their share of lutein, but they also come with artery-clogging doses of cholesterol, zero fiber (the number one nutrient we are short on in Western diets), and only a few second-hand phytonutrients to their name, which in turn were borrowed from the plants that those animals originally consumed. The trouble is that while we should absolutely be avoiding processed sugars, there is no reason to lump other carbohydrates into the same “bad food” category to the point where we begin focusing on other tasty, yet ultimately unhealthy food sources. If we want more iron, why not focus on protein-packed lentils and beans? If it’s lutein we’re after, there’s always savory corn on the cob, and crisp orange bell peppers — no cholesterol, no problem! We need to start thinking about carbs in terms of nourishing whole foods versus the sickly sweet processed sugars with which they are forced share the umbrella term, “carbohydrate.”
To begin addressing the carbohydrate taboo, it is important to first recognize that our bodies are made to handle carbohydrates. Glucose, the exquisitely essential molecule that our bodies make from the carbs we eat, is the main currency of our moment-to-moment functioning. Our muscles draw on glucose in the blood, and have their own stores of carbohydrate-derived glycogen to use when we need a burst of physical energy. Our liver stores glycogen as well — enough to last us about a day — so that we can maintain our blood sugar levels. Even our brain prefers glucose despite the fact that it has the ability to run on ketones, a product of the fat we eat, and one with some very intriguing effects that might be fun to investigate further another time.
The fact of the matter is that while we are versatile in our ability to utilize a variety of energy sources, our cells biochemically prefer, and function most efficiently on glucose. Fat or lipid metabolism is our body’s long-term approach. It is the backup plan for when winter hits and we are drawing on our reserves. Protein in turn is essential for creating new structures and molecules that help us with growth and repair. Carbohydrates on the other hand, are the simplest way we have of ensuring that our blood glucose levels remain stable, which is a continual necessity for life. Without it, as some diabetics know all too well, we experience some highly unpleasant effects. We may feel confused or irritable, and in more serious cases we may fall into a coma or experience seizures, which can be fatal.
The trick then, is to maintain our glucose level without letting it get so high that our cells are overwhelmed and become insensitive to insulin to the point that we become type-two diabetics, and without letting it get so low that we cease to function whenever we have gone a few hours without eating. Luckily, our bodies are generally excellent at this type of homeostatic maintenance with nary a thought from us as long as we are eating a fairly healthy diet and are not taking in a huge excess of calories. Having temporarily high blood sugar levels, such as after a large or sugary meal, isn’t great for us, but we can tolerate it reasonably well as long as that is not a regular occurrence. The real trouble is when we habitually over-consume, which does not allow enough time for our body to use up all of the energy we are feeding into it.
This brings us to the second important fact about carbs: despite the fact that our bodies break them down into the same set of simple sugars, they are not all created equal. Processed sugars are those which have been broken down for us and are already in their simplest form, ready to be absorbed almost immediately into the bloodstream. Complex carbohydrates on the other hand take a little longer to digest, and are therefore slower to enter the bloodstream and less likely to cause the spike in blood sugar levels that leads to cravings and increases our chances of developing type-two diabetes.
There are many wonderful resources describing the difference between complex and simple carbohydrates, but one of the easiest rules of thumb is that if it is in the same form it was when it grew out of the ground, then it is probably complex, or has enough fiber along for the ride that it is still good for you. Alternatively, if it came out of a plastic wrapper or cardboard box, chances are that it has some simple sugars or harmful sugar-mimicking chemicals added in, but it never hurts to check the label to see what else is in there. Interestingly, you’ll notice that foods in the produce section of the grocery store don’t even come with nutrition labels, so you know there are no sugary additives hiding there!
Now that we have our facts straight, we are still left with one very important question. What about all the natural sugar found in fruit? You may have heard that fructose is bad for you (as in the infamous high-fructose corn syrup), but did you know that this only holds true for processed fructose? It turns out that the fiber in whole foods such as fruits and vegetables counteracts the otherwise fast absorption. So fiber makes fruit act like a complex carbohydrate even when it technically isn’t one. This means that we don’t need to worry about the sugars in apples or bananas. We can eat mango and pineapple to our heart’s desire as long as we aren’t removing that fiber through juicing or similar processes.
Unless your doctor has recommended otherwise, there is no reason to limit fruits, veggies, or whole grains for fear of carbohydrate intake as long as they are within a healthy caloric intake — which incidentally, is much easier to maintain when you include more of these fiber-rich foods in your diet. This is especially true given all of the nourishing vitamins and minerals these foods are so abundant in, and really, why would you want to take a laboratory-made vitamin pill when you can just eat a bowl of fresh, sweet, juicy goodness?
Nature has already added in everything we need, but we are reduced to guesswork when it comes to making supplements. There are bound to be human errors involved, not to mention intentional marketing motivations driving their composition as well. I don’t know about you, but I’ll stick to the real food except in cases where good evidence suggests doing otherwise. Fortunately for us, the best sources of these antioxidants, vitamins, and disease-fighting phytonutrients are healthy carb-rich fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, all of which are readily available for most of us if only we are mindful enough to choose them over the seductive yet disease-promoting alternatives.
To conclude this brief nutrition rant, I hope that today’s exploration has helped quell some of the fears surrounding carbohydrates. In future articles, I look forward to exploring many other nutrition topics: the good, bad, and the ugly. For now though, I hope you enjoy this harvest season’s bounty and remember that all fruits and vegetables are essentially carbs, so they can’t all be bad! Until next time, be well.