What is the truth about carbs? What are good and bad carbs? Should we eat “low carb”? Lately I’ve been seeing the articles that come out saying all different things about carbs. Let’s drop the good and bad terms and focus on what is nutritious and what isn’t. The truth about carbs is that it is good for your body to consume them, because they are a macronutrient, just like fat and protein and are necessary for body function. However, the type of carbohydrate you consume does matter. There are two main types: complex and simple. Your health could be at stake if you don’t understand the implications of eating too many simple carbohydrates.
The Truth About Carbs
Complex carbohydrates include starchy vegetables and certain grains. Their chemical make-up is more complex than that of a simple sugar and therefore takes longer to digest. These are good for you because they provide nutrients and fiber. They keep you satisfied longer and do not raise blood sugars quickly or as high. Vegetables are the best source of complex carbs and you should never worry about eating too many nutritious vegetables. Here are some examples of good sources of carbohydrates:
- Sweet potatoes
- Sprouted breads
- Brown rice
Fruit is a tricky one. Fruit provides you with some nutrients and fiber yet it is more simple in nature due to fructose. If you are drinking its juice, you won’t get the fiber that makes it better for you and easier for digestion. If you do “juicing” make sure to get fiber from other sources.
You probably think, isn’t whole wheat food what you mean by complex? Not necessarily
Whole grain includes the germ, bran and endosperm. Simply put, that means all the fibers and nutrients are left in. Wheat flours or white flours are stripped of some and all nutrients, respectively, and the product will be fortified with vitamins instead. The bran and germ may be taken out. This makes breads taste better and more chewy, which people like. “Multi-grain” can include any combination of flours and does not mean it is whole grain. Whole grain examples include quinoa, farro, barley, and buckwheat.
Whole wheat breads tend to be loaded with other junk. Unless you make your own bread, it’s best to be limit your intake. There is also the concern for gluten and its health effects, but that is another story. See the ingredients in this “healthy” wheat bread.
Altering Complex Carbohydrates
Unfortunately, now we are seeing starches get chemically altered into a simpler form, such as when corn is made into high fructose corn syrup. This causes quick digestion which leads to hunger and more cravings. You can find many of the forms of altered starches in your processed foods, which happen to give these foods a sweet flavor. Why is this bad? An overload of fructose causes the liver to convert more into fat, prevents a hormone from telling you that your full, and tells cells to burn sugar instead of fat.
These include what most Americans tend to eat: white breads, pastas, bagels, juices, sodas, crackers, cookies, etc. Even whole wheat processed breads are not necessarily good for you. I’m sure you know all these foods are bad for you but do you realize how they can affect your body if you eat them every day?
Let’s take for example what a typical person might eat in a day:
- Cereal with orange juice at breakfast
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwich for lunch
- Spaghetti at dinner
They have just repetitively loaded their body with sugars (glucose) that are overwhelming the insulin response. They may experience mood changes or crashing throughout the day after the sugar high has worn off. Their hunger will not be satiated and will crave even more sugar. Health effects are bound to occur sooner rather than later.
Gluten Free Foods
You may be surprised to know that even your packaged, processed gluten-free foods are full of simple carbohydrates. Just because they are gluten free does not mean they are healthy. If you are truly eating gluten free, you should stick with vegetables and fruits and avoid those boxed products that are equally bad for you. Over consuming rice flour, potato flour, cornstarch, and tapioca starch, for example, can spike blood glucose as well, leading to all the same problems.
Implications of High Simple Carbohydrate Diets: The Truth About Carbs
This is the most basic way to explain long term what can happen:
Eating simple carbohydrates → blood sugar spikes → inflammation → disease
Inflammation affects every system in the body. You don’t always realize it’s happening. Inflammation can be happening in the blood vessels, damaging the walls and collecting plaques. It can be damaging the nerve impulses to the brain. It can show up in your joints and then you have arthritis. We wouldn’t attribute arthritis to our high carbohydrate intake would we? It’s just old age, isn’t it? These things do take years to show up so you may feel fine now.
Research has shown high carbohydrate diets are associated with disease. It is not the fat in our foods, it is the excess sugar carbohydrates. If you continually eat a lot of glucose, you will become insulin resistant and need more insulin to get rid of the glucose. Now eventually the body will tire out and not be able to do this but also glucose will continue to rise as insulin production slows and diseases of eyes, kidneys, blood, and nerves can develop. All of these problems are related to the insulin response. I just want to touch base on a few diseases and their associations. I encourage you to look even further into it.
As I described before, increased insulin resistance and excess glucose is what leads to diabetes. Diabetics say they have to constantly “keep blood sugars up” to remedy their hypoglycemic state, but this is just contributing further to the problem. Or if they eat too many sugars, they have to give themselves extra insulin. Yeah, you’ll feel better for a bit but you still have diabetes.
This is due to higher calorie intake with less nutritional value, increased insulin resistance which leads to increased fat storage. Insulin suppresses important hormones that help in fat burning and muscle growth. Then the body is less able to lose the fat. It also leads to converting glucose into triglycerides which can turn into fat.
Again with the inflammation. Insulin resistance can decrease your cognition and ability to think. For another day, healthy fats are what contributes to brain health.
Higher carbohydrates are shown to lower HDL, which is an important marker for heart disease. This number should be high. Heart disease is associated with carbohydrates rather than the previous thought being fats. This could be due to high carbohydrate intake allowing less beneficial fat intake for daily calories. Regardless, sugar is running through the bloodstream, damaging blood vessels. This allows deposits to form easily.
I’ve seen in many articles out there new ways to lose weight involving carbs. There’s people and research on both sides saying what works and what doesn’t. For example, they say wheat bread is healthy because the study showed it was better than white, so it must be good. Just a simple result as such does not make something absolute if comparing two lesser items. We can say however, that a processed bread overall is not ideal. I’ve seen ideas about carb cycling and eating a certain amount certain times of day. This all just makes things more complicated. If you truly want to lose weight and change your life, only a lifestyle change will work. Eat nutritious foods and don’t count anything. You’re exhausting yourself. Maybe some of these worked for someone else but it was likely temporary. Do what works for you.
A few resources:
Grain Brain by Dr. David Perlmutter
Wheat Belly by Dr. William Davis
Fresh Idea: The truth about carbs is that the health effects are detrimental if they are consumed excessively in the simple form.