Not sure what a good carb vs a bad carb is, and tired of trying to figure it out? Who called them good and bad in the first place? Aren’t they all good? Can I have carbs if I’m dieting? When should I have them and how do I eat them? Are you carb confused? I’d say we are unanimously agreed on that score. Even our governing health organizations like The Center for Disease Control (CDC), weighs in about “good” vs “bad” carbs saying “bad” carbs, making this macronutrient all the more sinister. The CDC says “bad” carbs are those containing “refined carbohydrates or “white bread, cakes and cookies” etc. Therefore “good” carbs must contain other, better nutrients, namely “fiber and complex carbohydrates,” like vegetables, grains and fruit.
This naming of good and bad carbs has occasioned an avalanche of confusion of which I was an active participant in my early days of obsessive carb consumption. Take heart though. It’s not our fault. When scientists first focused on carbs in the late 1800’s early 1900’s, they applied the adjectives complex and simple to these carbon + hydrogen + oxygen molecules. But it’s not that simple. There are three kinds of carbohydrates: SUGAR, STARCH and FIBER. Notice the lack of good vs bad here. Sugar itself is a carbohydrate. Sugars can be SIMPLE or COMPLEX, depending on molecular structure. Sugars are SIMPLE carbs, containing one or two molecules of sugar. Starch and fiber are COMPLEX carbs, containing numerous molecules of sugar in complex arrangements. The goal of digestion is to break down all sugars into single molecules because these are the only ones that can be absorbed. Basically, all carbs are plant based foods.
In recent years, cardiologist Dr. Arthur Agatson, created the South Beach Diet, and made the carb issue even more confusing by applying the Good Carb, Bad Carb label to this macronutrient. Now we think of carbs as being villainous. We count them. We shun them. We ignore them. We avoid them. We love them. It’s hard to know what to think about carbs. What we do know is carbohydrates as they were intended to be consumed, whole, nutrient dense, properly prepared and well sourced, are a critical source of energy in the form of glucose. Carbs also help cells communicate with one another and they provide food, particularly in the form of fiber, to the 5 pounds of friendly gut bacteria known as the microbiome.
Where we get into trouble is eating processed carbs that have been stripped of anything nutritional, leaving the body in a depleted state – depleted nutritionally and every other way. With continued simple carb consumption the body becomes accustomed to digesting that source of fuel only. Think of simple carbs as fast acting fuel that is delivered immediately into the bloodstream – much like a needle would inject a drug into a vein. It’s immediate. With such a drastic flood of simple sugars/carbs into the blood, wild fluctuations in blood sugar levels happen, predisposing us to obesity and illness. The body prefers the fastest source of sweet fuel and simple carbs are it unless you teach your body how to digest the other macronutrients – fat and protein – as well as complex carbs.
Complex carbs take a lot of work to digest. Your mouth starts the process while your stomach steps in to get the rest and then the friendlies in your gut take over for some fine dining on what’s left. It’s a long process to churn through a mouthful of brown rice pilaf. The longer it takes to digest a carb the better, keeping blood sugar levels steady and our tummies fuller, while keeping us leaner!
To clear up some of the confusion, when I think of carbohydrates, I always assign a prefix to them depending on their source. For example, you know how much I love greens. When I fix my steamed spinach topped with turmeric eggs breakfast, I think of the spinach as Green Carbs. This would apply to all greens. When I eat my bowl of mixed berries topped with a dollop of full fat yogurt, I think of the berries as Fruit Carbs. This would apply to all fruits. When I make my winter hash with chopped broccoli, onion, garlic, Brussels sprouts and so on, I think of these as Vegetable Carbs. Honey, maple syrup and coconut sugar are fast acting Sweet Carbs. Then there are the Grain Carbs found in breads, cereals, rice and other such foods.
I don’t necessarily think of carbs as bad or good. I do think about where the food I intend to eat has come from and decide whether that works in my Eat Clean lifestyle. Wonderbread? Not so much. Commercial peanut butter? Not so much. Froot Loops? Hardly. What makes the carb bad is how greatly it has been altered from its original source to resemble “food” and how much we eat of it. There are MANY carbs I wouldn’t touch with a ten foot pole. I pretty much avoid cereal and bread, cookie and pastry aisles in the grocery store. These are definitely bad carbs because they do not, in any way, resemble the original plant from where they came. Can you tell where a Twinkie came from?
Now it’s your turn. Think about your next meal. Look at what’s on your plate and ask yourself where those carbs came from. If you are pulling up to a McDonalds, the bun on your Big Mac is loaded with simple carbs that will go, like a straight shot, into your blood. Same with the fries. If a tomato and lettuce managed to find their way onto your burger, those would be complex carbs. If your breakfast consisted of orange juice, Cap’n Crunch and Wonderbread toast spread with Skippy, EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THOSE FOODS are SIMPLE CARBS. Get ready for your sugar overdose!
Let’s turn our carb thinking around. Here’s how:
1. Consider the source. Where did that food you are about to eat come from? 2. Does that food look anything like the plant from where it came? 3. If you can’t tell, don’t eat it. 4. Make sure all carbs you eat are whole, bearing evidence of peel, leaves, stalks, stems, petals, seeds and other roughage. 5. When you eat carbs always pair with a healthy fat to slow down release of glucose into the blood stream. Pair an apple with natural nut butter. Pair raw veggies with hummus and pair a glass of wine with several raw walnuts. Good quality oil with salad greens. Good quality butter with cooked vegetables. 6. Include carbs as a regular part of your diet as they are essential for optimal health. 7. Source grains particularly well as they are the most genetically engineered and altered foods. If uncertain, choose ancient grains such as buckwheat, teff, emmer, farro, spelt, heritage rices like Golden Carolina, kamut. 8. Eat carbs in balance. They should not predominate your diet but should factor strongly. I use the 30% fat + 30% protein + 40% carbs rule. In that 40% carbs, 20% should come from leafy greens while the remaining 20% come from fruit and grains.
Have a healthy respect for carbs and their role in our optimum health. Choose well-sourced greens, grains, fruits and vegetables. Avoid refined foods, foods that have been stripped down to their Tidy Whities every time.
Alternatives to White-Flour-Based Carbs to Ward off Cravings:
- Live Organic Raw Nori Crackers - Marci's Harvest Morning Cookie - Explore Asian's Organic Edamame Spaghetti - Explore Asian's Organic Black Bean Spaghetti - Julian Bakery's Paleo Wraps - Cappello's Cookie Dough - Paleoful's Brownie Mix - Eat Enlightened's Roasted Broad Bean "Chips" - My Cauliflower Crust Pizza - Toasted Chickpeas - Air-popped organic popcorn kernels Remember, I'm always listening Tosca