Carbohydrates have gotten a lot of bad press lately. With the popularization of high protein diets like Atkins, a lot of people have gotten the impression that all carbohydrates are bad. I have to agree that the standard american diet is WAY too high in carbs. After all, until recently the food pyramid recommended up to 11 servings of whole grains a day! Yikes! I think that’s enough to make anyone gain weight and develop blood sugar issues. But do we really need to swing the other direction and eliminate carbohydrates completely? Let’s take a look at some basic information about carbohydrates, and I think the whole issue will become a whole lot clearer.
Carbohydrates come from many sources, not just from the bagel shop down the corner. They are of course found in sweets, grains, potatoes, rice, and fruits, but they’re also found in vegetables and most dairy products. (Clue number one: if they’re found in vegetables, they can’t all be bad!) You’ve probably heard carbohydrates referred to as either complex or simple. Complex carbohydrates are made up of three or more sugar molecules, and simple carbohydrates are made of one to two sugar molecules. Since your digestive tract can only absorb sugars in their one molecule form, complex carbohydrates take longer to break down and therefore don’t cause as much of a rapid blood sugar spike as simple carbohydrates do. Complex carbohydrates include vegetables, whole grains, and legumes. Simple carbohydrates include those found in milk, fruits, white bread, and processed foods.
Remember when we talked about your pancreas and its role in balancing blood sugar? All that talk about glucagon with the hard hat and insulin saving your brain from hypoglycemia? Well, here’s where its gonna come in handy. (See, I promised it would get interesting!) When you eat carbohydrates, your pancreas releases insulin to regulate blood sugar. If you eat refined, simple carbs, you get a big spike in blood sugar that will inevitably end in a sugar crash if you haven’t also consumed some fat and protein. If you eat a complex carbohydrate like some broccoli or a sweet potato, you will still get a spike in insulin. Again, balance is key. If you’ve put some butter on your sweet potato and had some protein like chicken or fish along with your carbohydrates, your insulin response is balanced. Without the fat and protein, even if you’re eating complex carbohydrates, your insulin will still rise higher than it should and the result will be hypoglycemia, though not as bad as with the refined carbs.
So you see that its important to eat carbs as part of a balanced meal, and not just by themselves. But, wouldn’t it be easier to just eliminate them entirely, and then you don’t have to worry about an insulin spike? Some people think you can. But I think this is a very bad idea. First off, if you truly want to go zero carb, you have to eliminate vegetables. I think we all know that this can’t be healthy, as vegetables are some of the richest sources of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants on the planet. Plus, while sugar is definitely unhealthy in its refined forms, you do need unrefined sugar in the form of carbohydrates to carry on basic functions. So you can’t eliminate them completely. What about very low carb diets? Again, caution is the word of the day. Some people claim to do very well on very low carb diets, while other people feel jittery, lethargic, and depressed. This is where you have to become your own personal investigator to find what works for you. If you’re following the standard american diet, with lots of processed foods and quick snacks like granola bars and candy, you’re probably eating too many carbs. If you’ve transitioned to a more whole foods diet and do most of your own cooking, you’re probably not eating as many carbohydrates as the average person (unless you’re Italian and eating homemade pasta every night! So tempting, I know…) I personally tried a month of cutting out all grains. I’d been on a healing diet for about 4 months and was still having some issues with bloating. I wanted to see if grains were causing it. While the bloating did disappear, other problems crept in. My energy levels dropped, and I was hungry a lot. I wasn’t getting enough sugar to fuel my basal metabolic rate, and I ended up adding some grains back into my diet. It was a helpful experiment because I learned which grains bothered me and which ones didn’t, but for me, the low level of carbohydrates I was consuming became problematic.
Not only do we need carbohydrates to provide fuel for our cells, we need it for something else thats perhaps equally important: serotonin. For any of you ladies who have ever spent a night with a big tub of Ben and Jerry’s and a sappy movie after a breakup (I know it isn’t just me, come on now…), this is why. When insulin is released in response to carbohydrates, it gives you a bump in serotonin levels. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good, content, happy. (Think Prozac.) So you’re down in the dumps, depressed about your breakup, and even if your brain doesn’t recognize the link between your favorite flavor of Ben and Jerry’s (Dublin Mudslide, anyone?) your body knows what its doing. You eat the ice cream, get a bump in serotonin, and suddenly the world doesn’t seem so bad after all. But it isn’t just for self medicating in times of depression. Consuming too few carbohydrates on a normal basis, being stressed, being underweight, all these things contribute to a low level of serotonin. Eventually your body can’t handle it anymore, and you binge on whatever carbohydrates you can get your hands on. It isn’t that you have no self control, its that your body is trying to balance out your neurotransmitters, and cravings are the result. It’s an adaptive mechanism, and while it isn’t the healthiest habit to have, its the best method your body has to force you to consume carbohydrates when your stores get really depleted or your mental state gets imbalanced.
So how do you know what your ideal level of carbohydrates are? Well, again, experimentation and guidance from your healthcare professional are key. I’m not a physician, and while I do believe everyone can find the level that’s best for them, I certainly can’t give out an arbitrary number and claim it’ll work for the grand total of 4 people that read this blog, much less the 6 billion people that inhabit our world. If you really must have some additional guidelines to follow, the closest I’ll get to a recommendation is this: read Dr. Schwarzbein’s book The Schwarzbein Principle. I know, I know, I just said last week that fad diets from the book store don’t work. But this isn’t a fad diet. It’s a whole foods, eat them as they come from the ground kind of book, and that kind of advice has been around since Adam and Eve. Another handy tip, start with some protein and fats and add carbohydrates as a side, not the main course. Carbohydrates don’t signal fullness until they’ve gone all the way through your digestive tract. At that point, the entire box of donuts could already have disappeared! Proteins and fats signal the brain much earlier in the digestive process, and you begin to feel full before you’ve binged. That’s why you can eat an entire box of girl scout cookies, but not a dozen eggs.
I hope this information has helped you on the path to your own nutritional plan. It certainly isn’t the final word on carbohydrates, as there’s much more to learn. Consider it an overview and guidance on how to plan your meals. I’d love to hear from you on how this impacts your eating habits, and what you may be interested in learning about in future posts! This is also a part of Real Food Wednesday at Kelly the Kitchen Kop.