Carbohydrates… So irresistible yet so fattening…Not to mention that they are non-essential and increase the risks of diseases like cancer, neurological disorders, heart disease and diabetes! That must be true, right?
I mean with the innumerable articles on the wild, wild web claiming that carbohydrates make you fat and sick, there must be some universal truth that all carbohydrates are bad. (I really don’t like classifying a food as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but unfortunately that’s how most of us seem to view foods nowadays…) But then you have others (including dietitians) claiming that carbohydrates are crucial for optimal health and should make up the bulk of your calories! So which is which? I’ll set the record straight in this article. Plus I’ll also help you figure out how many carbohydrates YOU want to be eating. So keep reading and spread the word.
The world of nutrition is rarely black and white. And lumping all carbohydrates together in the ‘villain food group’ is kind of like saying that all the Baldwin brothers are the same. Keep scrolling to get what I mean.
‘Bad’ carbohydrates a.k.a. ‘refined’ carbohydrates
The following are examples of refined carbohydrates:
- Products containing high fructose corn syrup, any form of sugar or syrup
- All desserts
- Breads and crackers made from grains
- Most cookies, cakes, muffins
- Most commercial sauces (most of them contain some form of added sugar)
- Sweetened beverages like sodas and commercial fruit juices or smoothies
- Most breakfast cereals
Refined carbohydrates are unhealthy because (just to name a few reasons):
- They cause blood glucose levels to increase and this glucose reacts with proteins in the body to form advanced glycation end products (AGEs). These AGEs prevent cells from functioning normally and render them more vulnerable to oxidative damage – this, in turn, increases inflammation in the body.
- Chronically high blood glucose levels will force the body to produce more insulin – this can cause the cells to become insulin resistant. In fact, consumption of refined carbs has been linked to a greater risk of diabetes.
- The more insulin your body produces, the greater your risk of cancers.
- They trigger the release of various hormones including leptin, a hormone that makes you hungrier.
- They increase triglyceride levels which increase the risk for heart disease.
- They can worsen gout and depression.
‘Good’ carbohydrates a.k.a. ‘whole’ carbohydrates
To put it simply, whole carbohydrates are those your grandmother would recognize. These include:
- Acorn squash (30g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Butternut squash (44g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Breadfruit (60g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Cauliflower (5g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Jicama (12g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Plantain (8g of carbohydrates per cup, cubes)
- Pumpkin (46g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Rutabaga (12g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Sweet potatoes (37g of carbohydrates per 1 large)
- Taro (46g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Yam (37g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Yuca (78g of carbohydrates per cup)
As you can see, wheat flour didn’t make the cut. But this doesn’t mean you have to forego pizza. Try the following recipe and let me know what you think.[youtube id=”XaCYSX5WE5M”]
- Banana (1 medium: 27g of carbohydrates)
- Grapes (16g of carbohydrates per cup)
- Orange (1 medium: 18g of carbohydrates)
- Pear (1 medium: 27g of carbohydrates)
- Strawberries (12g of carbohydrates per cup)
Here are some reasons (just to name a few) why you might want to consider consuming a diet that includes carbohydrates from real, whole foods:
- Quality carbs can improve cortisol levels (you’ll see why this is important in myth # 4 below) as well as increase GABA, the calming hormone.
- High quality carbs improve sleep quality and help reduce stress.
- The diet will provide you with microbiota-accessible carbohydrates – inadequate consumption of this type of carbs can lead to various inflammatory diseases. That’s because, without these carbs, your body will be unable to produce sufficient short-chain fatty acids that help control inflammatory processes in the body.
- These carbs are beneficial for fertility.
Myth 1: Carbohydrates are inherently fattening.
To understand why this is a myth, it will help to understand the basics of carbohydrate metabolism – don’t worry; I’ll keep it very short and sweet (pun not intended).
You see, when we eat carbohydrate-containing foods, the body will break down the carbohydrates into various types of sugars including glucose. As blood concentrations of glucose increase, the pancreas will secrete insulin which will then allow glucose to enter the cells (especially in the liver and muscles) where the glucose will be used as energy.
Now, another function of the hormone insulin is that it is involved in body fat storage. And this is why low-carb advocates will tell you that carbohydrates make you fat.
But that’s over-simplifying stuffs since, again, not all carbohydrates are equal. If you’re still not convinced, then consider an apple and one plain, old-fashioned doughnut (both contain about 25g of carbohydrates).
Which one do you think will cause your blood glucose levels to increase faster? The doughnut? That’s correct because, unlike the apple, the doughnut does not contain much fiber (4.4g vs. 0.8g of fiber to be precise). And as you probably know, fiber helps delay glucose absorption in the bloodstream.
Which one is more likely to keep you full? That’s right; thanks to its higher fiber content, the apple is much more satiating than a piece of doughnut. Plus processed foods such as donuts tend to contain various types of additives that really mess with the hunger-suppressing hormone leptin.
Myth 2: Humans are not supposed to eat carb-rich diets.
Those who perpetuate this myth will usually back their claim with the argument that traditional hunter-gatherer societies consumed very low carb diets. This is exactly what we call cherry-picking – while it is true that some populations did get only 3% of their total energy intake from carbohydrates, others got as much as 50% of their total calories from carbohydrates depending on the latitude where they lived.
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