Everybody has heard of carbohydrates. Most people also know that they give our body the fuel (energy) it needs to function. Somewhere along the line, the Atkins Diet came along and told us that carbohydrates are the enemy.
A typical diet reduces calories, but is still high in carbohydrates (and thus sugar). As a result, many people constantly cycle between sugar “highs” (where excess sugar is actually stored as fat in the body) and sugar “lows” (where you feel fatigued and ravenously hungry – for more carbs and sugar). For many, it’s really hard to lose weight that way.
What people missed in the Atkins Diet, however, was that Dr. Atkins referred specifically to carbs from sugar, not all carbs. Yet the damage had been done, and people started to equate carbohydrates with fats, believing that only athletes should eat them, as anything less would mean that the unused energy created with the carbs would be transformed by our bodies into fat. However, this isn’t exactly true either. It is time to set the world to rights when it comes to carbs and determine what the truth is once and for all.
What Are Carbohydrates or Carbs?
The first thing you have to do is gain an understanding of what carbs are.
Carbs, or carbohydrates, are molecules that have carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms. In nutrition, “carbs” refers to one of the three macronutrients. The other two are protein and fat. Dietary carbohydrates can be split into three main categories.
This already shows some of the complexity of carbs, and why it is impossible to make sweeping statements like “all carbs are bad”. What shows this even more, and what actually makes it marginally clearer, however, is gaining an understanding of those three categories. They are sugars, starches, and fibers.
Sugars is another word that we have learned to associate with “bad”, in the same way as carbohydrates and, of course, fats. However, all three of these things are not always bad, it just depends on where you get them from and how you use them. Sugar, in fact, is an essential element of our overall health.
Our bodies all need sugar (or glucose) to function, which in my mind is why we all should eat sugar, or at least foods that convert into sugar. The bottom line is that you need glucose. Carbohydrates are the foods that give you immediate glucose and you ideally need these regularly within the day to keep your blood sugar levels constant. And this means adding small amounts of lower GI, higher fiber carbohydrates to each meal.
So what does this mean? Very simply put, it means that eating a sweet fruit like a banana is absolutely fine. Eating a spoonful of refined white sugar, on the other hand, is not OK. Yes, both will give you the glucose you need, but only the banana will actually provide you with the slow release, sustainable energy that you need.
Starches are found in things like potatoes, and they have also gotten a bad name. We often hear that we should avoid starchy vegetables, because they are low on nutrients. Potatoes, for many, are a no-go area. Again, however, this is not entirely true, and it all depends on the source. Starch has a very important role to play in our overall healthy diet.
Defining a “safe starch” as “starchy food which, after normal cooking, lacks toxins, chiefly protein toxins,” the Jaminets encourage healthy non-diabetics to consume approximately 400 calories per day (or 20% of daily caloric intake) of safe starches, prioritizing glucose over fructose. While acknowledging that a high-carbohydrate diet leads to all kinds of metabolic disorders, the Jaminets also argue that a diet too low in glucose can lead to problems like nutrient deficiencies, kidney stones, and lower mucus production, which impairs the immune system.
Safe starches are a topic of high debate. As always, however, it is about using your own mind and common sense, and not seeing the world in black and white. It seems obvious to the vast majority of people that eating nothing but starches (such as a 100% potato diet) would be bad for one’s health. So why is it so difficult to accept that eating a diet that is 100% free of starches is bad for us? Everything in health and nutrition is about finding a healthy balance, after all.
Last but not least, there are fibers. We need fibers to have regular bowel movements, but they tend to be high in calories. Did you know, for instance, that a slice of white bread, which is considered to be unhealthy, is much lower in calories than a slice of healthy, wholegrain bread? Those of us who know this tend to choose the white bread – it is lower in calories, after all. However, it is also much less nutritious, does not help in digestion, and basically doesn’t keep you healthy. Dietary fiber is, in fact, an essential part of a healthy diet.
Dietary fibre is actually a form of carbohydrate that does not get digested by enzymes in our small intestine, and so its sugar units are not absorbed into the bloodstream. Dietary fibre is therefore known as ‘non-glycaemic’. However, fibre has important effects on other nutrients within the small intestine and through effects on the large intestine, where few other nutrients arrive intact. It has a range of valuable health effects.
Some of these health benefits include helping digestion and the absorption of natural glucose, giving the “good bacteria” in our body to help our body stay healthy, allows our body to rid itself of toxins, and lowers the chances of getting cancer by improving regularity.
So are carbs good for of us, or not? They are absolutely good for us. However, this does not mean that the anti-carb brigade is nothing but a conspiracy theorist. What they say is absolutely true, but only if people forget to balance their diet, and take in more carbs than they can handle.