We argue about the what. We scream about the when. And, we rarely if ever agree on the how often. It’s the nature of consumption. But, one thing that we can all agree on is that Carbohydrates (also known as carbs) are the devil. Or are they?
The anti-carb crusade began with the world’s first dietary journal, William Banting’s “Letter on Corpulence,” in 1863. Continued with Dr. Atkins, and still rages today with the burgeoning popularity of the Paleo and the Ketogenic diets. Today, we’re going to cut through the clutter and get to the truth at the bottom of the cookie jar once and for all.
Carbs = Sugar
Let’s kick off this convo by clearing up a common misconception. A carbohydrate is more than just a synonym for sugar. On the biological level, a carbohydrate is a molecule that consists of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. In food, carbohydrates act as a vessel for energy.
When used in the context of nutrition science however, the word carbohydrate typically refers to starchy food. Think pasta, cereal, bread and rice. So, yes, carbohydrates do contain sugar, but the whole Carbs = Sugar philosophy is an oversimplification.
All Carbs Are the Same
Carbohydrates can be broken up in to two distinct categories: Simple and Complex. Now, we can dive right in to the biological composition of each carb type, but to be honest, I want you to make it to the end of this article without falling asleep.
The real difference between Simple and Complex carbohydrates is in the way that our bodies digest them. Simple carbohydrates are made up of just one or two sugar molecules, and are digested rapidly. Complex carbohydrates are, well… more complex. And take longer to digest.
You Don’t Need Carbs
We can survive without them, but carbs are the body’s main source of fuel, and typically make up about 45% of the average human diet. Carbs promote strong intestinal health and encourage waste elimination. And, carbs are a large part of essential fruits and vegetables. You can do without the cupcakes and waffles, but bananas, green peas and sweet potatoes still hold an important place in your dietitian’s cookbook.
Avoid Carbs After a Workout
This belief holds that starving your body of its desired energy can stimulate fat loss and help you stay lean. Though there are many schools of thought on this subject, I tend to agree with my friend Jim Stoppani, Ph. D. Stoppani argues that carb loading immediately after a workout aids muscle recovery.
So, if you want to wake up feeling fresh and gym ready, replenish your energy stores with some complex carbohydrates as soon as you put down the weights.
Cutting Out the Carbs Is a One-Way Ticket to Skinny Town
We’re always looking for that one, easy to follow rule that’ll help us steer our ship towards a healthier lifestyle. For many, that rule is cut out the carbs and watch the pounds melt away.
The thing is, cutting back on the carbs doesn’t exactly guarantee a smaller waist. There are plenty of low-carb super foods that’ll cause you to pack on the pounds if you eat too much of them. Nuts, cheese, and heavy cream are all loaded with calories. So, if the goal is weight loss, it’s important to monitor your intake of these fatty foods too.
White = Bad
I was having a conversation with a friend of mine the other day, and she insisted on her hard and fast diet tip: to avoid everything white. It’s easy to remember, and generally correct, but the “white equals bad” rule does require a little bit of explanation.
When we refer to “white food,” it’s important to distinguish between good white and bad white. Stay away from refined/processed white food like flour, pasta, granulated sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. On the other hand, egg whites, onions, cauliflower and white beans are free and clear.
No Grains, No Carbs
If you’re goal is to eliminate carbs, you’re going to have to cut a lot more than just breakfast cereal and spaghetti. Apples, potatoes, beans, strawberries, carrots… they’re all packed full of healthy, complex carbohydrates. Sure, they’re a far cry away from cookies and cakes, but it just goes to show you the importance of carbohydrates in a well balanced diet.
Low Carb Diets Are Healthier
Thinking about going low carb? Low carb diets all start with a low carb induction phase, which involves reducing your carbohydrate intake from 45% of your overall diet to about 8-15% of your overall caloric intake. I’ll sidestep the particulars, but the point is, dramatically starving your body of carbohydrates can cause irritability, fatigue, low blood pressure and even difficulty concentrating.
More importantly, most people have a really, really difficult time keeping up with their high maintenance, low carb diet. As a result, the carbs begin to creep their way back in to their lunchbag, and so the weight makes a comeback too.
Balance is essential. Cut back on carbs if you’d like, but do so in a way that’s sustainable and realistic.
Carbs Cause Inflammation
This is another instance of complex versus simple. To put it simply, refined sugar, and white, processed carbohydrates have been linked to inflammation. But complex, low-glycemic carbs like steel cut oats and fresh fruit is all good. It’s really, really important to distinguish between complex and simple carbs.
Carbs Cause Diabetes
Both simple and complex carbohydrates can cause a spike in your blood sugar, and in turn, affect the level of insulin in your bloodstream. But there has been no scientific evidence that has linked an excess of carbs to any form of diabetes. In fact, carbs are typically a dietary staple for diabetics that need require a quick, flash in the pan blood sugar boost to get them through the day.
A Carb Is a Carb
Another common misconception is that carbs only act as a quick little sugar boost. Sure, things like cookies and refined white bread make your heart beat a little faster, but a lot of carb heavy foods are also packed with valuable vitamins and minerals.
Corn, for example, is a fantastic source of fibre and vitamin C. Bananas are loaded with potassium. And vegetables like Green Peas are a powerful anti-inflammatory.
Gluten Free = Healthy Me
It’s time to take a closer look at the craze that’s sweeping the nation: the gluten free diet. For the uninitiated, gluten is a protein commonly found in grains like wheat, rye and barley that can cause an allergic reaction to those who, well… are allergic to it. For those that aren’t allergic to gluten, a gluten free diet doesn’t really do a whole heck of a lot. It doesn’t help you lose weight, and the idea that a gluten free diet is a healthier option is generally unfounded.
All Carbs Raise Your Blood Sugar
Again, not all carbs are created equally, nor do they affect your blood sugar in the same way. Simple carbs can cause a significant, instant spike. Complex carbs draw out the process a little more. But, there’s still much more.
The glycemic index was designed to chart how different types of food affect blood sugar levels. Food is categorized by its “glycemic” level. So, if you’re curious, or just bored at work, key in the glycemic level of your lunch. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds.
Refined Carbohydrates Have No Place in a Well Balanced Diet
There’s a reason that nutritionists incorporate cheat days in to every basic meal plan. Sure, refined carbohydrates like cookies, cake, and pizza can be dangerous when consumed irresponsibly. But, as a reward, they can act as a powerful motivator. Work hard, maintain your discipline, but don’t feel too bad when you reach for the cookie jar on Friday.
Carbs Are the Enemy
Say it with me… carbs are not the enemy! Complex carbs promote digestion, fruits and vegetables are full of fibre, vitamins and minerals! And a quick bowl of (healthy) cereal can help repair your muscles after a day at the gym. That being said, if a low-carb diet is what you’re into, enjoy it!