Search

Carbohydrates: Good or Bad?


I get this one A.L.L the time, and I’m not even a nutritionist. The nutrition world is in a spin and a heated debate about good carbs, bad carbs, complex carbs, and that trickles down into athletes, to people in rehab, and individuals who are health conscious.


And it matters. It’s hard, when there’s conflicting data and conflicting opinions, because these very real decisions can have huge impacts on people’s lives.


To start with, I'm going to tell you that carbohydrates are not bad. We need them. Our body is composed of them. So no, they're not bad. I will never call any food bad (expect maybe Cyanide? Don't eat that; that's a tangent) I will talk about effects, strategies, and what works for you.


'Carbohydrates' aren't bad. So throw that question out.


A better question is: What carbohydrates support my well being?


Now that we've gotten that sorted, my second point that I want to discuss is that people often confuse carbohydrates with sugar.


These two things are similar, but they aren’t the same. Sugars are of course carbohydrates, but the health effects of getting all your carbs from brussel sprouts versus candy are different. It’s also different when if it’s coming from vegetables vs. grains. Wonderbread vs. broccoli; you can get the same amount of carbs, different health effects.


This is why I don’t think people should be scared of carbohydrates. Because it's about the type, and what it's combined with.


I do think people should be particularly careful of consuming sugar; I did an entire blog post on fats, and how the sugar industry funded research to villanize fats and hide the negative effects of sugar on the cardiovascular system. (read about that here)


Carbohydrates are not sugar. Sugar is a specific type of carbohydrate, energy dense, with a whole host of other things happening.


The next thing people freak out about are bread, and grains, which is somewhat warranted (I say this as someone with gluten and grain allergies, hah). And this will tie in more why I'm cautious around sugar and high sugar foods.


Let’s talk about this somewhat.


There’s a scale, and I largely use the Glycemic Index to help me determine the effects of something, and I also assess nutrient density.


What’s the Glycemic Index (GI)? The GI is a measure of how much an average person’s blood sugar spikes after consuming a particular food. Blood sugar spikes the most when we consume sugary foods, which makes sense; we ingest something, and then our body dissembles it into its parts. Things like proteins and fats of course, have lower GI because when they’re broken down, they’re breaking down into amino acids and lipids. Bread of course, is composed of carbohydrates, which break down into glucose (blood sugar).


There is good research that high consumption of foods high on the GI leads to insulin resistance, and the development of Type II diabetes.


This is different from foods high in carbohydrates, but low on the GI, which actually has protective effects against Type II diabetes!


So what makes a food more like to be high on the GI index versus lower down? Fruits like blueberries, strawberries, and apricots are low (yes, fruits can be low GI even if they’re sweet), vegetables like peas, carrots, broccoli are all relatively low GI. Even whole grain wheat, whole grain pasta, wheat bran, and oats are all low GI foods. This is a great website that has a list of low GI foods if you need an idea!


You’ll notice that a lot of the things that are low GI are what I call complex carbohydrates, which is to say they don’t easily break down into glucose, but are still very nutrient dense. The Keto diet is an extreme example of the “carbohydrates are bad” culture, limiting intake to less than 20% of the calorie in a day.


I don’t think carbohydrates are bad. Our body needs them; more evidence is coming out these days that extreme low carb diets are actually pretty hard on our bodies. The keto diet makes it hard to get all of the nutrients required, an increased consumption in red meat, and are low in the fiber that feed the diverse microbiome of our gut.


It’s the blood sugar spike of high glycemic foods that seems to be particularly triggering, leading to increased insulin resistance and cardiovascular difficulties. High circulating blood glucose can lead to cell death, and is damaging to our peripheral nerves; that’s why diabetic patients often lose sensation and may have toes amputated, because those cells are actually dying.


What’s the short answer here?


Don’t be afraid of carbohydrates. Be cautious of high GI and high sugar foods.


Then what about breads and pastas?


Think about whole grain or modified pastas that aren’t just wheat flour, but are blended combinations can still provide satisfying breads (they often don’t ‘rise’ as much). With other flours blended in, and supplementation of date sugar vs. cane sugar, these grains are more nutrient dense, lower on the GI index, and have more positive health effects!


These grain blends are usually whole wheat, combined with fun flours like Acha (a nutrient dense cereal from Nigeria), or pigeon pea flours, all of which are pretty accessible online. This study also substituted cane sugar for date palm sugar, which also has a lower GI.


Same thing can be applied to pastas; think whole grains, think diverse blends of flours. Aim for more nutrient dense.


What about eating in context? We rarely ever just eat straight bread on its own (I mean, sometimes we do?), but another way to help reduce blood glucose spikes can be to pair carbohydrates with proteins and fats.


Why?


Proteins and fats slow down digestion time, reducing how quickly those carbohydrates are incorporated into your system. So, that morning smoothie of blueberries, bananas, and almond milk? Try adding some MCT oil, and a scoop of protein powder. That does all kinds of good things for you (always good to bump protein powder), but in the context of this conversation, reduces any blood sugar spike.


So if you know you want to eat that snickers, or treat yourself to an ice cream (and you should; sticking to anything rigidly 100% of the time isn’t that sustainable), do it! And, eat some protein and a healthy fat with it. If I want a snickers or ice cream, I’ll usually pair it right after dinner, so that the protein I’ve consumed helps delay digestion. Or, I eat that ice cream and eat avocado toast with a salmon burger before/after (fats + protein).


TLDR?


  1. Don’t be scared of carbohydrates, be cautious of sugar

  2. Don’t be scared of carbohydrates, be cautious of high glycemic index foods

  3. Avoid white grains and heavily processed grains; opt for diverse and nutrient flour blends that include whole grains, ache, pigeon pea flour, cava.

  4. Eat your sugars in combination or closely timed with high fat/high protein foods to promote satiety and reduce GI.


To be clear, I’m not a nutritionist. This blog isn’t meant to substitute any medical advice, and this is a synthesis of current research, and experimented with in my own body. If you have questions, feel free to reach out to our friends at Well Balanced Nutrition to help weather the storm of the complex nutrition world.

0 views0 comments