In Defense of Carbs

I’m getting tired of the bad rap given to carbs these days. I hear it from my clients, I hear it at book club, I read about it in magazines: everybody seems to have jumped on the bandwagon of “I’m avoiding carbs”.

Does this have something to do with an innate need we have to make part of our food the bad guy? It’s like we have to find some outside source to blame for the state of our health, not to mention those extra few pounds we can’t seem to shake.

Even the current term for belly bulge points the finger of blame on this part of our diet: muffin top.

Don’t get me wrong, we do have an unhealthy relationship with carbs, but that’s only part of the story. As we discovered with fats after the extreme diets of the 90s, it’s more about quality, sources and combinations than about quantity.

So, let me dispel a few of the myths we’re perpetuating and demystify some of the facts about carbs, so you can let go some of your fear and embrace this vital family of nutrients.

fiber-rich-foods crop1. Carbs is NOT a 4-letter word!

That’s right, it’s actually 5. Like heart, like blood, like brain. Essential to life.

Carbs is short for carbohydrates, molecules that contain carbon (carbo) and water (hydrate). It’s an umbrella that includes sugars, starches and fibres. And just like fats, there are healthy & poor choices.

2. MYTH: Low carb diets are good for you

I wish more nutrition experts, writers and speakers would be more specific in their use of language.

More accurate truth: Low refined &/or white carb diets are good.

Carbs provide our main source of energy.

Depending on your gender, age, build, activity level & health status, 55-75% of your calorie intake should come from carbohydrates – or, to put it another way, carbs provide the fire that keeps your engine burning.

No fire = no heat. And with winter around the corner, heat is just what you need!

To boot, adequate carbs spare the protein in your body for its essential jobs. Which also means the protein’s not “wasted” as an energy source that actually uses energy to make and produces potentially toxic bi-products in the process.

Good carbohydrate sources contain fibre, protein &/or fat to slow their release into your bloodstream and improve their impact on your body.

“Bad” varieties have a high sugar &/or starch content, without the benefits of the above.

To put it another way, your body deals with straight starch as if it were sugar – with blood sugar peaks & dips, stress response and fat deposits.

I keep that word, bad, in rabbit ears because the same food can be healthy as part of a balanced meal, as an occasional food, to boost glycogen stores after exercise, or to fuel the energy needs of a growing child.

Get the full skinny on “good” and “bad” carb sources at the end of the post.

3. MYTH: Whole grains = whole wheat bread & pasta

Bread, pasta, cakes, cookies, crackers, bagels, etc. are all flour products. As such they fall under the heading of refined carbohydrates.

Sure, flour made from the whole grain is higher in nutrients that its white cousin. But the milling that grinds the grain into flour makes the starch more readily available, and can be part of the problem in the way your body deals with it.

4. MYTH: Gluten is the root of all evil

For some it is. About 1% of North Americans are afflicted with Celiac disease, meaning these people don’t have the enzymes necessary to digest gluten, to painful effect.

My own respiratory system cleared remarkably after a colleague suggested I give up gluten a few years back. This was just before the whole gluten-free trend really took hold, which meant that I basically gave up pasta and baked goods entirely.

However, thanks to all the products showing up at the supermarket by the truckload, we’re I’m getting back to eating too many flour products again. And true to my argument about starches and sugars, my nose and lungs reflect the excess when I let the temptation of cookies get the upper hand. Regardless of gluten.

Still not convinced?

Here are a couple more reasons to indulge your craving for carbs this Fall:

5. Carbs improve your mood

November has a bleak quality about it because of the diminished light. Seasonal Affectiveness Disorder (SAD) cripples 10% of the population in northern countries with depression. The decreased exposure to sunlight upsets the balance of melatonin and serotonin in the brain, resulting in varying degrees of symptoms.

Tryptophan in whole grains and squashes converts into serotonin in the body, when the diet is also rich in the nutrients necessary to support that conversion. Good quality protein, B vitamins, certain minerals, all found in…you got it!…whole grains & squashes. Paired with a vitamin D supplement to enhance some other benefits of sunshine, carbohydrates ground you on a mental-emotional level all winter.

6. Carbs help you lose weight

Complex carbohydrates (read: whole plant foods) contain soluble & insoluble fibre. Necessary to keep the blood clear of excess cholesterol and other fatty waste, fibre is Nature’s delicious way to maintain weight and reduce many disease states.

Distinguishing the “good” from the “bad”

Poor carb choices include:

  • Added or excess sugars of any kind – yes, even the “natural” ones

Baked goods, soft drinks, chocolate bars & other candy, coffee chain drinks are obvious no-nos. Even with the organic stuff from the health food store, be wary of packaged cereals, cookies, granola bars, juices.

  • “White” food: white rice, pearled grains (like barley), split peas, flour products
  • Alcohol

Limit whole grain flour products.

“Good” carbs = whole, complex carbohydrates:

  • Starchy vegetables: squashes (spaghetti, acorn, butternut, pumpkin, zucchini), roots & tubers (sweet potato, beets, carrots, parsnips, turnips)
  • Cabbage family (cabbage, bok choi, broccoli, cauliflower, rapini, Brussels sprouts, kale):  Cook to avoid the goitrogenic effect that impacts your thyroid, i.e. your metabolism.
  • Leafy greens (mustard, turnip, collard, Romaine, chard, spinach) – think fibre mixed with minerals
  • All vegetables are full of fibre, plus protein, fats, vitamins & minerals that support the healthy use of carbs in your body.
  • Raw or dry-roasted nuts & seeds, dried fruit: In moderation.
  • Legumes (beans, pulses): kidney, chick, navy, black, lentils, adzuki, mung. Throw a handful into a pot of soup, make turkey & white bean chili or garbanzo & cheese loaf
  • Whole grains – the grains themselves: quinoa, brown rice, barley, millet, amaranth, teff, buckwheat, steel cut or rolled whole oats, rye flakes; spelt, kamut, or wheat berries; sprouted or sourdough breads.

If you have a particular condition, please consult your health practitioner for details on the most effective sources and quantities of carbohydrates for you.

Click here for easy steps to eating more vegetables.

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20 thoughts on “In Defense of Carbs

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  7. It is hard to keep all the proper nutrition info in mind – especially when white processed carbs are so tasty and readily available. Thanks for spelling out the facts in this easy to digest guide.

  8. Cathy, you write so well! This post was so easy to follow and really gave me a lot of “ah-ha’s” about what is good vs bad for me. What about fruits? Are they in the neither really good nor really bad category? Thanks for clearing the air and I’m glad to know that “carb” is not a 4 letter word 🙂

    • Thanks, Krista!
      You’re the second person who’s asked about fruit – glad to know you’re all up on your carb categories!
      Yes, good – see the reply I gave Kelly above.

    • Good question, Andrea. (And good catch!)
      Fruit is definitely “good”. Lots of sugar, but lots of fibre, vitamins & all that colour means lots of bioflavanoids. The only grey area is fruit juice which can fall into the added sugar zone when taken to excess.
      Hope this helps!

  9. Cathy thanks for this great post about complex carbs. Gone are my days of restricting food groups to try and maintain health. I too do not eat gluten as I am super sensitive in the respiratory area like you. Super great educational information. I will share on my page.
    D♥

    • Thanks, Dana.
      Apparently it has something to do with our Celtic roots – something I’ve yet to research more seriously than to know it works for me and others.

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