To Carb or Not to Carb? (Macronutrients Part 1)

junkfood

This seems to be a common question when people are looking to make changes in the way they eat.  Let’s start out with clarifying exactly what carbohydrates really are.  When most people think of carbs in terms of their diets they think of bread, but this macronutrient group is much more encompassing.  It would be difficult to avoid it completely, and you wouldn’t want to either, as it should be enjoyed equally with its other macronutrient friends, protein and fat.

macronutrients-chart-child-draw

The American Diabetes Association breaks it down for us in terms of starches, sugars, and fiber.  Foods high in starch include things like beans, potatoes, and grains.  Sugars can be naturally occurring such as those in milk or fruit, or added during processing like the syrup in canned fruit, or refined sugar used to make a cookie.  Fiber is the indigestible part of plant foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and legumes. As you can see, carbohydrates come to us in all different forms. Some of them are natural and desirable sources of energy, and other processed ones can and should be avoided for optimal health.

  • For more information specific to wheat production in modern times and how the nutritional values have been affected you can go HERE.

I believe the bigger picture is avoiding processed foods in general, not just processed carbohydrates. The Whole 30 book “It Starts With Food” provides a very detailed sciency explanation of how processed foods work in your body, your brain, and on your hormones, and why you may want to consider avoiding them. Here is my overly simplified explanation.

Our brains were created with ancient biological signals that tell our bodies what we need to do to be healthy and stay alive.  For example, we recognize three basic tastes: sweet for a source of energy, fatty for a dense source of calories, and salty as a means for conserving fluid. The trouble for us in modern times is that these ancient signals still remain intact but the sources of these flavors have changed drastically.  This often causes us to gravitate towards highly processed foods that are tasty and easy, but hardly good sources of real nutrition. Our brains still respond strongly and instinctively to these 3 flavors.  Major food producers know this and take advantage of it.  Today’s processed foods are full of things like corn syrup, MSG, artificial sweeteners, colors and flavors.  Processed foods are cheap to produce and have HUGE profit margins.  They light up the pleasure centers of the brain, but don’t do much more good than that.

The second part of this problem is that you will want to continue to eat and over-eat these foods because your ancient signals are telling you your body still needs nutrients.  Not only do we gain weight this way, but our hormones get out of whack causing conditions like diabetes, insulin resistance, leptin resistance, and systemic inflammation.

The good news is this: If you are eating naturally occurring, single ingredient, non-processed foods that are nutritionally dense, the ancient signals will tell you when you’ve had enough.

Now that we have the technical stuff out of the way, what does all of this mean for YOU in the real world and in your kitchen?

Number one, for us this meant less eating out and more eating at home because when I cook I know EXACTLY what is going into the food I prepare.  You can never be sure at a restaurant.

The first thing I had to do was learn how to shop. The rule of thumb is to stick to the perimeter of your grocery store first. Here is where produce, meat, and dairy will be presented as close as they can come to how nature intended. You may still need to pick and choose depending on how strict you want to be. I try to find organic, locally grown produce, but I don’t sweat it if they don’t have that.  We generally avoid dairy but occasionally milk in coffee needs to happen, so I look for milk not treated with bio growth hormones. Meat, chicken, and fish I like to get freshly cut and non-packaged directly from the butcher or local fish-monger.

Once you move into the center aisles of the store you have to be much more careful.  This is where all the processed and prepackaged stuff lives, so now you have to know how to read a nutrition label. The main thing I look at is the list of ingredients, specifically I look for sugar. I was shocked to learn how many things include sugar, so if you’re trying to avoid it you need to know how the food industry tries to hide it.

Labeling laws require ingredients to be listed according to weight, but “sugar” isn’t the only name sugar goes by. According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, added sugars show up on food and drink labels under the following names:

Anhydrous dextrose, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, crystal dextrose, evaporated cane juice, fructose sweetener, fruit juice concentrates, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, liquid fructose, malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, pancake syrup, raw sugar, sugar, syrup and white sugar.

That’s just the beginning!  There are many other less common names for different types of processed sugars. This means that if a food or beverage item contains 5 different types of sugars, the manufacturer can essentially “hide” how much sugar is actually in their product by now being allowed to put each individual type of sugar further towards the bottom of the list.  If they were required to list them all together simply as “sugar”, it would often be one of the first 3 ingredients.

sugar-display-web-v4

If I don’t know what an ingredient is, the magic of smart phones gives me access to GOOGLE and I can find out what it is immediately.  Nine times out of 10 it turns out to be some form of sugar or other preservative.

  • You can get more information on reading FDA nutrition labels HERE.

Now that I was stocking my kitchen properly, we had to face withdrawals.  This was a fact.  It wasn’t easy, but once we instilled new habits, our taste buds started responding differently so now we don’t tend to crave things like bagels for breakfast. This will happen for you, too, I promise!

HERE is a great video of a guy who detoxed from alcohol and added sugar for 30 days.

More good news is that as people become aware of these issues and more light is shed, consumers begin to make different choices.  As we make different choices, the food industry is forced to respond by changing what they provide.  Alternatives to traditional pastas are much more common.  My local grocery store now has pre-riced cauliflower “risotto” as an option in their produce section.  Grass-fed meats are more easily available so we have alternatives to the common factory farmed variety.

Forming new habits is not an easy thing, but the bottom line is that our health is important and worth the pain and sacrifice it takes to get to something new and better.

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