The Truth About Carbohydrates
A large portion of my client population includes individuals with weight loss goals. That’s not surprising, as the topic of weight loss never ceases to consume magazines, media, food marketing , etc. There is always a new diet, supplement, or exercise that promises weight loss. If any of these were truly effective, would we have need for a new one? What about carbohydrates?
When I meet with clients, before making recommendations, I like to get an idea of what they consider to be a healthy diet. I often ask them to tell me what food choices they believe would help them facilitate weight loss. Regardless of age or gender, I get pretty much the same response, “ Well…when I really want to lose weight, I just cut out all carbohydrates and then the weight falls off.” Is a truly “low carb” diet healthy? Are those who claim to be following a “low carb” diet actually following one?
Carbohydrates, by definition, are:
“any of a large group of organic compounds occurring in foods and living tissues and including sugars, starch, and cellulose. They contain hydrogen and oxygen in the same ratio as water (2:1) and typically can be broken down to release energy in the animal body.”
Carbohydrates include a wide variety of foods, much more than just bread, pasta and rice. Fruits are carbs, vegetables are carbs, dairy products, beans and legumes are all carbohydrates!
What matters when it comes to carbohydrates is how quickly they hit your bloodstream. The type of carbohydrate determines this. I’m sure you’ve heard about “simple” vs “complex” carbohydrates. Let’s explore what that really means.
Simple carbohydrates (mono and di-saccharides) have one or two starch units linked together and don’t require your body to work very hard to break them down. Complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides) contain multiple units of starch linked together and take longer to be fully broken down.
Your Body on Carbohydrates:
As soon as carbohydrates hit your tongue and you begin to chew, an enzyme in your saliva (salivary amylase) begins to break up the saccahrides (starches) into more simple carbohydrate chains for easier digestion. The food passes through your stomach and once it reaches your small intestine, pancreatic amylase, released by the pancreas breaks carbs down further. Simple carbs (monosaccharides) such as fructose, and galactose are absorbed across the intestinal wall. They are converted to glucose in the liver and can further be converted to glycogen and be stored in muscles for energy. However, when consumed in excess, they can be stored as fat. Fiber, from more complex carbohydrates, doesn’t get absorbed. It passes through your colon and later gets excreted.
Simple vs Complex Carbohydrates and the Diabetes Implication
Simple carbohydrates are quickly digested, which causes a flood of glucose in the blood stream a quick burst of energy, a rapid rise in blood sugar, followed by a crash. This rapid rising and falling of blood sugar levels can really put insulin on over-drive to the point that your body becomes resistant to its effects. Think about it: Insulin is the hormone that helps your body pull sugar out of the blood stream into your cells to use as energy. However, when you continue to consume large amounts of simple carbohydrates/sugars, insulin can’t keep up! Your cells can become “insulin resistant” and this can lead to diabetes (in very simplified terms).
Simple carbohydrates are also problematic because they don’t have the satisfying fiber that complex carbohydrates do. Because they’re not as filling, you’re more likely to consume over-sized portions in order to feel satisfied. As stated before, if you consume in excess of your needs, the excess is stored as fat.
On the other hand, complex carbohydrates take longer for your body to break down. This is due to their composition. They have longer chains of sugar units and therefore have to travel further along the small intestine before they are broken down and absorbed. Because they take longer to break down, they keep you satisfied longer. This helps keep your appetite in check and can prevent over-eating. Additionally, the fiber is beneficial for facilitating regular bowl function, which leads to a healthy gut. ☺ Soluble fiber, found in foods including oatmeal and fruit, can help maintain a healthy cholesterol level.
Let’s talk about the role of carbohydrates in a healthy diet.
Carbohydrates are your body’s primary fuel source. You need them for cognitive function, muscle building (yes..protein isn’t the only macronutrient you need to build muscle), hormone regulation, appetite regulation and overall energy. You might notice that when people try to fully eliminate carbohydrates from their diet, they feel “foggy brained” and/or fatigued.
Oatmeal, quinoa, buckwheat and millet are excellent vessels for a satisfying breakfast bowl when paired with satiating eggs, nuts, or nut butter and some berries. They provide a variety of nutrients in addition to slow digesting carbs. It’s important to remember that carbohydrates are not isolated to just mean grains. You can follow a grain-free diet and still consume carbohydrates. More starchy vegetables such as winter squash (acorn, butternut, hubbard, pumpkin, etc) contain Vitamins A and C in addition to fiber. Sweet potatoes and regular potatoes (with skin) provide fiber, potassium, and are excellent carbohydrates to pair with a protein for a post-workout recovery meal. Beans and legumes provide filling fiber, some protein and iron and can make a nourishing, plant-based meal. Fruits can provide a quick burst of energy mid-day. Milk is an excellent source of replenishing carbohydrates and some protein. This is a popular recovery drink among athletes because the carbohydrates (in the form of lactose: a naturally occurring milk sugar) are quickly absorbed.
What you might have noticed is that all of the carbohydrate examples listed above are whole-food sources. They are not processed and are closest to their natural state. This means that they haven’t been stripped of nutrients. Problems arise with any food product when it is chemically altered. Donuts, candy bars, white bread or wheat bread that doesn’t have “whole” in the ingredient list, refined flours and pastas, processed cereals, all are very far from their original state and therefore don’t provide the same nutrient value to your body as foods in their whole form.
So, what does this mean?
You don’t have to cut out all carbs to lose weight. You just need to choose the right types: complex. According to David Ludwig, MD, PhD, a professor in the department of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and author of Always Hungry? Conquer Cravings, Retrain Your Fat Cells, and Lose Weight Permanently, “while a low-fat diet high in processed carbohydrates can program the body for excessive weight gain, a diet with moderate amounts of minimally processed carbohydrates, along with healthful fats, does not.”
They key words there are “moderate amounts” and “minimally processed.”
Don’t fear carbohydrates if they are in their natural state. If you were to truly cut out carbohydrates all together you would be limiting your diet to just meat, poultry, fish, eggs and oils. Vegetables, fruit, dairy, beans, etc .would all be untouchable.
Talk about nutrient-deprivation and a diet that is unsustainable! A diet that includes fiber-rich carbohydrates can facilitate weight loss because it helps regulate hunger and lends more variety to your meals. When you do consume carbohydrates, be mindful of portion size, as with any food. A good rule of thumb is to have ½ cup cooked serving. To prevent rises in blood sugar, have these carbs in the context of a balanced meal with protein and healthy fat.
Here are some examples of balanced dishes that have slow-digesting complex carbs in addition to protein and healthy fats. They’re sure to satisfy and provide what your body needs to maintain a healthy lifestyle!
Quinoa and Kale Protein Salad from foodiecrush.com
Quinoa, chickpeas (garbanzo beans) and pistachios add protein and healthy fat to this simple and seasonal kale salad, making it a favorite side dish or vegetarian main meal.
SERVES: 6 SERVINGS
- 2 cups cooked quinoa
- 2 cups chopped kale (ribs removed)
- 1 15 ounce can garbanzo beans, drained
- 5-6 clementine oranges, peeled and sliced
- ⅓ cup chopped pistachios
- ⅓ cup pomegranate seeds
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 tablespoon pomegranate molasses
- 1 tablespoon fresh orange juice
- 1 garlic clove, pressed or minced
- 2 teaspoons sumac, divided
- 1 teaspoon dried mint, crushed
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ cup chopped fresh mint
- In a salad bowl, combine the cooked quinoa, chopped kale, garbanzo beans, orange slices, pistachios and pomegranate seeds.
- In a small bowl or jar, combine the olive oil, pomegranate molasses, garlic, 1 teaspoon of sumac, dried mint and kosher salt and a few grinds of freshly ground black pepper.
- Dress the salad with the vinaigrette and toss so everything is evenly coated. Dust with the remaining 1 teaspoon of sumac and freshly chopped mint. Season with additional salt and pepper to taste. Salad can be served immediately or saved for up to 2 days.
Avocado and Turkey Stuffed Sweet Potatoes recipe courtesy of the Haas Avocado Board
This twist on a loaded potato provides protein and healthy fats which provide slow-digesting energy to prevent blood sugar spikes.
1 Fresh Avocado, halved, seeded, peeled, cubed
4 medium sweet potatoes
1tablespoon olive oil
1/2cup diced onion
1/4cup diced red bell pepper
1 clove garlic, minced
3/4teaspoon ground cumin
1/2teaspoon dried oregano
16 ounces lean ground turkey
1can (14 oz.) petite diced tomatoes in juice
1/4cup grated cheddar cheese (optional)
- Heat oven to 400F.
- With a fork, pierce sweet potatoes all over several times. Place on a baking sheet lined with aluminum foil; bake until soft and fork tender, about 45 minutes.
- Heat oil in a deep skillet over medium heat. Add onion and pepper; cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic, cumin, oregano and salt.
- Add turkey; cook, stirring and breaking it up with a spoon, until no longer pink, 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in tomatoes. Reduce heat to medium-low; cover and cook 20 minutes.
- Remove from heat and stir in avocado. Slice baked sweet potatoes lengthwise just until open. Fill with turkey mixture. Top with cheese, if desired. One serving=1 medium sweet potato.