The truth about carbohydrates has been trapped in a labyrinth of erroneous information for decades. The average person, even the average health and nutrition conscious person, is admittedly confused about carbohydrates on some level.
In this era of food subtraction, low-calorie, low-fat and low carbohydrate dieting, the benefits associated with eating a “whole food” diet including plenty of “whole” carbohydrates have been largely overlooked, despite the fact that the whole foods approach to eating has been shown to be superior to all other dietary lifestyles when it comes to preventing coronary heart disease. (1) For example, the difference between a healthful whole-foods lifestyle including plenty of “whole” carbs and conventional dieting when it comes to heart disease can be greater than 70 percent, far greater than the benefit offered by medications such as aspirin, beta-blockers, cholesterol-lowering drugs or any other pills on the market for that matter. Low-carb diets are not only unhealthy but can actually be dangerous; complications such as increased cancer risk, lipid abnormalities, impairment of physical activity, osteoporosis, kidney damage, and even sudden death can all be linked to long-term restriction of carbohydrates in the diet.
Unfortunately, a lot of health and weight conscious people still think low-carb is the way to go. Sure, some carbs (I call them “empty carbs”) are terrible for your health and waistline, but other carbs are slimming and nutritious. Understanding that not all carbs are equal is essential to clean eating.
Knowing how to distinguish between “good” nutritious carbs and “bad” carbs is as simple as learning the difference between empty carbs and “whole” carbs. If you are serious about clean eating you need to be serious about the carbs you eat. Choosing the right ones and avoiding the bad ones makes a BIG difference. Trust me.
“Whole” Carbs are GOOD Carbs
“Whole” carbs are carbohydrate foods in their most natural and unrefined form. In other words, foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains (such as oatmeal, quinoa, amaranth, barley, etc), corn, peas, legumes, beans, potatoes, etc. are all “whole” food carbohydrates. In fact, these “whole food” sources of carbohydrates are brimming with all sorts of good-for-you stuff such as fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, vitamins, etc. These are the carbs you definitely do NOT want to avoid. Instead, these are the good nutrient-rich carbs you want to actively try to increase your intake of (especially vegetables and fruits!!)
The Ultimate “Clean” Fuel
Our brain and muscles cells are designed to operate on carbohydrates. In fact, glucose, a carbohydrate, is the primary fuel for your brain and muscles and your body does just about everything it can to make sure you have enough glucose available at all times. Carbohydrates are also nature’s “cleanest” burning fuel source for your body. Carbohydrates burn “clean” because they turn into glucose, water and CO2, which you breathe out with every breath. If your body doesn’t get enough of them, it senses starvation and sends “FEED ME” signals pretty loud and clear.
It is absolutely true that if you restrict carbs your body will turn to fat reserves for fuel—but it also turns to protein in metabolically active muscle too. The problem is stored fat and protein do not burn clean. Toxic byproducts of protein and fat metabolism called ketones and aldehydes will make you miserable and sick. These toxic byproducts make your skin smell, cause bad breath, cloud your thinking and do nothing to promote health. Your body turns to protein and fat as a mechanism of survival all in an effort to get the “clean” carb fuel in the form of glucose it needs. Yes, you might lose weight temporarily on a carb-restricted diet…but only a portion of the weight is actually from fat. The rest of the weight loss is from water (low carb diets are dehydrating) and metabolically active lean muscle mass.
The Anti-Aging Superfoods!
“Whole carbs” compe packaged all sorts of nutrients (including fiber) as well as a supporting cast of antioxidants and phytonutrients that fight aging and disease on many levels. While oxygen is essential to life, some unstable oxygen molecules (free radicals), can attack cell membranes and even damage our genetic code (DNA), thus lighting the spark that can begin a deadly cancer cascade. Yet “whole carbs” contain a broad spectrum of anti-aging antioxidants such as vitamin C and A, lycopene and many others that can actually neutralize the damaging effects of free radicals and fight cancer and other diseases at the cellular level…before disease begins. The powerfully protective phytonutrients present in “whole carbs” such as chlorophyll, flavonoids and carotenoids have additional anti-aging, antioxidant properties that not only help plants in nature defend against bacteria, insects and bad weather but also help YOU, the plant-eater, fight inflammation, slow aging and prevent disease. And so for all these reasons, plant-based unrefined “whole” carbs lay the foundation for Clean Cuisine. In other words, the bulk of the calories you eat should come from clean carbs.
The Bad News Bears
Empty carbs are a whole other story. These guys remind me of that Billy Bob Thornton movie, “The Bad News Bears.” They aren’t team players and they cause a terrible cascade of trouble whenever they are eaten. The good news is they are pretty easy to identify. Contrary to popular belief there are really only three empty carbohydrate foods you need to watch out for:
- Refined flour
- White rice
Yup, that’s pretty much it. The basic list of bad carbs is really not all hard to memorize. The bad news is the vast majority of the carbohydrate-containing foods the average person in modern society eats are made with refined flour and / or sugar (luckily not that many people are passionate white rice enthusiasts.) But, foods like regular pasta, most breads, most breakfast cereals, pretzels, standard pizza dough, cookies, cakes, bagels, muffins, crackers, and so forth are all examples of foods that typically contain refined flour, sugar or both.
Besides the fact empty carbohydrates are just what their name implies—carbohydrates that provide “empty” non-nutritious calories—they also directly contribute to diabetes, obesity, heart disease and the symptoms of numerous inflammatory conditions (including MS, fibromyalgia, asthma, allergies, arthritis, etc). Empty carbs can contribute to inflammation because if they are not burned for energy they are converted by your body into pro-inflammatory saturated fat, thus making symptoms of inflammatory conditions such as MS, asthma, etc. worse.
Here’s the skinny on empty carbs…
Empty Carbs are Fattening
Fake, empty carbs are enemy number one when it comes to obesity. When you eat empty carbohydrates, your blood sugar level spikes so your body produces a lot of insulin to bring your blood sugar back down. The problem is, insulin is your body’s principal fat storage hormone; it forces your liver to convert the excess sugar in your blood into fat, then causes your blood to deliver this fat to your fat cells, literally packing them with fat. This is obviously an undesirable scenario on many levels. Making a bad situation worse, high circulating levels insulin prevents your body’s fat stores from being used as an energy source. This combination of increased fat storage and decreased fat release contributes greatly to obesity. It’s a catch-22 that you can stop by avoiding empty carbohydrates.
Poor blood sugar control is another problem closely associated with eating empty carbohydrates. As already explained, empty carbs force your body to produce a lot of insulin; the problem is, excessive amounts of insulin can drive your blood sugar level down too low. When your blood sugar level gets too low you feel hungrier than nature intended for you to be. This means you feel hungry even though you really don’t need to eat more food. If you are hungry, chances are you’re going to eat—and if you eat more food than your body needs you’ll gain weight. If you do this routine a lot, you’ll weight…and if you are genetically predisposed you could gain a very, very lot of weight.
Good “Whole” Carbs are Slimming
In comparison, the good “whole” carbs are nutrient and fiber-rich and possess a synergistic set of anti-aging, weight-reducing properties. In fact, a multicenter study of 4,451 people published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found the slimmest people actually ate the most carbs, (from “whole” plant sources such as fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) while the heaviest people at the fewest carbs (2). This research actually concluded your odds of getting and staying slim are best when carbs comprise up to 64% of your daily calorie intake, obviously a far cry from the typical low carb diet!
The nutrients in whole carbs work on many levels to keep you slim. For starters, nutrients help curb food cravings and supply your body with the nutrients it needs (such as chromium and B vitamins) to burn fat and support a healthy metabolism. And the fiber in whole carbs is probably your most reliable ally when it comes to shedding pounds and attaining a trim physique. Fiber-rich foods are slowly absorbed, so they help you feel full longer. This has been proven to result in ultimately eating fewer total calories over the course of the day. The slower the food is absorbed the less impact the non-fiber carbohydrate calories have on your blood sugar level, which means less of the “fat storing” hormone insulin will be secreted. And, because your body has to work hard to digest fiber, many additional calories are burned through a process called thermogenesis—the generation of heat energy that occurs following digestion. So, in a way, fiber consumption boosts your overall metabolism.
Bottom line is, you don’t want to shun away from carbs. You just want to learn to select carbs in their nutrient-rich “whole” form. Luckily, there are lots of yummy “whole” carbs to choose from:
- All fruits
- All vegetables
- Flour-free whole grains (such as oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, black rice, amaranth, barley, etc), flour-free sprouted whole grain breads (such as Food for Life brand in the frozen section) and sprouted whole grain cereals (again, we like Food for Life brand).
1. Hu FB, Willett WC. “Optimal diets for prevention of coronary heart disease.” JAMA. 2002 Nov 27;288(20): 2569-78.
2. Merchant AT, et. al. “Carbohydrate intake and overweight and obesity among healthy adults” J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Jul;109(7):1165-72.