Carbohydrates: Which Ones Are Better Than Others
Carbohydrates have been both praised and demonized in society, but what is the real truth? Are they good or bad? How many should we eat and from what sources? I hope to help answer these questions in my final post on the three macronutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. Next week, we'll wrap up my mini nutrition series exploring my favorite brands and products.
We talked about carbs and how they impact our blood sugar back in week 1 of this series when we discussed blood sugar regulation. You can reread that here.
Let’s start with the basics: carbs are made up of strung-together sugar molecules. When we eat carbs, our body recognizes them as sugar in the body, but that doesn’t mean that all carbs are necessarily bad. On the contrary, if carbohydrates come packaged with vitamins, minerals, and fiber (like in vegetables and fruit), they can be amazing additions to our health! These so called “good” carbs are easy to digest, have bio available nutrients, and come from whole foods.
But when these carbs come in the form of refined or whole grains or come alongside vegetable oils and trans fat (like in processed, packaged food products), they are far from healthy. These “bad” carbs are void of nutrients, cause digestive issues, and are refined and factory-made.
This distinction is vital to our understanding of carbohydrates, as vitamins and minerals are needed to metabolize carbohydrates and allow our bodies to turn the carbs into cellular energy. Our cells need energy to keep us going, which is why we feel so great and full of energy when we eat real food sources of energy, and also why we feel so poorly when we consume processed, bad carbohydrates.
Why do we feel so poorly when we consume bad carbohydrates? Let's go back to that blood sugar roller coaster we talked about a few weeks ago.
When we eat any form of carbohydrate, our body breaks it down into glucose - a usable form of energy for the body (otherwise known as sugar). Our body then senses that there are glucose molecules in the blood stream. This signals to the pancreas to release insulin, a storage hormone.
Insulin comes to the scene, "grabs" onto a glucose molecule, and takes it to a cell "door." Insulin knocks on the door of the cell, and if there is room for storage in the cell, insulin acts as the "key" to unlock the door to the cell so the glucose can be stored for later use. Glucose that is stored is called glycogen, and glucose is typically stored in cells in the liver and muscles (this is why it is advantageous to have more lean muscle mass on our bodies!).
When we overeat processed and refined carbs, they "storage units" fill up really quickly. Before we know it, we are out of storage, so the body has to do something drastic to get the glucose out of the blood stream so our blood sugar doesn't stay too high for too long. It does this by calling harder and harder for insulin to force glucose into cells and/or converting the glucose to triglycerides to be stored as fat.
No matter which direction the body goes, the end result is a DRAMATIC drop in blood glucose/sugar, which we feel as a mid-morning or afternoon slump in energy, motivation, etc.
When we constantly are consuming carbohydrates from bad sources (i.e. eating a granola bar, pastry, or sugar-filled yogurt every 2-3 hours), our blood sugar levels become erratic as this process happens over and over and over...
Insulin secretion works in the same manner. If we constantly eat refined sugars or carbohydrates, our insulin receptors stop responding to the call and become insulin-resistant. What ensues is the blood sugar roller coaster: a ride of ups and downs, energy swings and crashes. Now what fun is that?!
So what can we do about it? How can we get off this awful blood sugar roller coaster and achieve blood sugar balance? For starters, make sure all of your carbohydrate sources are from good carbs (see the lists below).
Second, whenever you eat carbs, pair them with healthy sources of fat and protein. For instance, don’t eat that banana by itself; pair it with a bit of almond butter and maybe a hard-boiled egg. This helps prevent an insulin spike and keeps the blood sugar stable.
Third, focus on getting PLENTY of protein and fat at breakfast and lunch. No more carb-y breakfasts (I'm looking at YOU oatmeal!)! These set you up for failure. Instead, foods like eggs/egg bakes, bacon, sausage, leftover meat, omelets, etc set you up for success.
Lastly, try to eat only 3-4 times a day and eat a full meal at each of these times. Eating 6-7 small meals throughout the day may work for some, but it often promotes the blood sugar roller coaster. Instead, eating a solid, balanced meal for breakfast, lunch, and dinner (balanced meaning the meal includes a fair amount of fat, protein, and carbohydrates) will, with time and real food, keep you full, satisfied, and feeling great!
Okay, let’s get to the real food details: which carbohydrates are good and bad? Here’s a quick list:
“Good” Carbohydrate Sources
Vegetables of all kinds (not limited to the lists below! Be creative and adventurous with your veggies!)
Plantains, yams, sweet potato, white potato, parsnips, winter squash, beets, butternut squash, turnips, peas, and pumpkin
Asparagus, artichoke hearts, brussels sprouts, carrots, all forms of leafy greens, celery, broccoli, zucchini, cabbage, all peppers, cauliflower, parsley, eggplant, onions, garlic, green beans, etc
Apples, berries of all kinds, peaches, plums, mango, grapes, bananas, pineapple, melons, citrus fruits, etc
***Note: Yes, fruits are considered “good” carbohydrates; however, there is such a thing as eating too much fruit. Be mindful to keep a heavier ratio of veggies to fruits, and enjoy locally-sourced fruit when it is in season! (See my post here about my opinion on fruit.)
“Bad” Carbohydrate Sources (not limited to the list below!)
Refined grains and products
Whole grains and pseudo grains (see my post on Paleo nutrition for more info!)
Not included on this list are gluten free grains and legumes that are in the gray area. They have an impact on your blood sugar because they are high in carbs, but when paired with fat and protein, they can fit into a balanced diet:
Steel cut oats
Okay, you know the sources and you know how to eat carbohydrates, but how many should you be eating? Basically, we need to eat carbohydrates according to our body’s needs based on our activity and stress levels. If we eat too many carbohydrates, they are stored as extra body fat.
Carbohydrates are extremely valuable when performing and recovering from high-intensity exercise or demanding active lifestyles. However, they are less important when we lead a sedentary lifestyle. Therefore, we need to each analyze our lifestyles and take a hard look at how many carbohydrates we actually need.
Overwhelmed? I can see why! It's a lot of information, and most Standard American Diet meals revolve around refined carbs! But don’t worry. Focusing on real foods takes time. Take it one step at a time, for instance, by replacing the refined carb sources in on your dinner plate with a bunch of roasted or steamed vegetables. Or, maybe try replacing one source of your “bad” carbs at lunch with a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts or some baby carrots and avocado.
You can make a real food lifestyle work for you. Re-read through my posts on the three macronutrients and start making small goals for yourself. Whatever you do, keep your end goal of achieving real food health in mind, and the rest will come with time!
As always, if you want to schedule an in person or phone free 15 minute nutrition consult, you can reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule!
You can find a complete PFC balanced guide + my favorite brands list here.