Remember in the not-too-distant past when dietary fat was deemed the enemy to both public health and waistlines everywhere? Low fat foods were – and still are in many cases – looked at as healthier, more slimming options. Yet now, we are experiencing a shift in nutrition perspectives so that sugar is edging out fat in the contest for biggest dietary villain.
When one particular dietary element, be it fat or sugar or anything else, is deemed “bad” by the media, it’s easy to fall prey to the belief that the particular food should never ever be eaten. And because carbohydrates are converted to sugar (i.e. glucose) in the body, it is dangerously easy to make the leap from avoiding sugar to avoiding all carbohydrates.
The case for carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are macronutrients – consisting of starches, sugars, and fiber – found in fruits, vegetables, grains, and milk. As I previously mentioned, carbohydrates are converted into glucose in the body, which is a main source of energy during physical activity, as well as the primary fuel source for the brain. Of course, some people may experience great benefits to their health and energy by switching to a state of ketosis (essentially relying on fat for fuel rather than carbs), but then again, we are all different!
Ketosis or not, the truth is, we all need some carbs. Why? Because we all need to eat vegetables and fruits! Veggies and fruits are key sources of phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, all of which work together to support proper cellular function and play important roles in preventing disease.
A 2016 meta-analysis showed that consuming a high amount of leafy greens and cruciferous veggies (like broccoli, cauliflower, arugula, kale, and brussels sprouts) reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease by 15.8% in study populations. Another study, which followed over 65,000 participants over the course of almost 8 years, showed an intake of 7 or more servings of veggies and fruits daily to be associated with a decrease in all cause mortality, especially cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Fast carb vs. slow carb
Perhaps you’ve heard the term “slow carb” before? This term really refers to the speed in which a carb is digested and hits the blood stream as sugar (i.e. glucose). Fast carbs – often simple carbohydrates like sugar, maple syrup, and fruit juice – are digested quickly and lead to rapid increases in blood sugar, where slow carbs – often complex carbohydrates full of fiber, such as whole fruits and leafy greens, whole grains, nuts, seeds, lentils, and starchy vegetables – are broken down more slowly and keep blood sugar levels steady.
One way to tell if a carbohydrate food is fast or slow is by the food’s glycemic load, or the glycemic index of the food multiplied by the grams of carbohydrates in one serving, divided by 100. Foods with low glycemic loads score between 1 and 10, moderate between 11 and 19, and high above 20. Therefore, slow carb foods are those with lower glycemic loads.
Spikes and crashes in blood sugar levels caused by overconsumption of fast (high glycemic load) carbs can mess with our energy levels (we may feel jittery and energized and then completely wiped and depleted), as well as our hormones. Further, elevated blood sugar may cause low-grade inflammation, which is associated with multiple chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
Low carb vs. no carb
Given the above information, it’s clear that not all carbs are created equal. It’s also clear that we all need to eat at least some carbs for optimal health. There’s a huge difference between a low carb diet and a no carb diet! A diet with zero carbohydrates would contain zero fiber (which helps regulate bowel movements and cholesterol) and zero fruits or vegetables. That’s not to say, however, that eating a lower carb diet isn’t possible or desirable.
Most diets considered to be low carb include between 50 grams and 150 grams of carbohydrates per day. Ketosis (relying on ketone bodies from lipids rather than glucose from carbohydrates to fuel the body) can be achieved while still consuming 30 grams to 50 grams of carbohydrates per day. For reference, two cups (one serving) of raw chopped kale has about 12 grams of carbs, while a small gala apple contains about 15 grams of carbs.
How many carbs should I eat?
When considering all the facts on carbohydrates, the big question is always, “how many carbs should I eat?” If you’ve read my blog before, you might know that I don’t typically advocate for counting calories or macronutrients. This is because I find it to be tedious with lots of room for error, and I feel that a much more general, intuitive approach to nutrition serves many people well (myself included). Of course, everyone is different! If you are an athlete looking to enhance your performance, or you are needing to keep tight control over your blood sugar, or you just want to experiment with counting your macros, then you might benefit from a consultation and personalized meal plan.
Otherwise, these general guidelines serve as a good starting point for getting the right carbs into your diet:
- at least half of each meal should be dedicated to fruits and vegetables (more veggies than fruits)
- you can never eat too many leafy greens!
- opt for whole grains (quinoa, wild rice, oatmeal, etc) and starchy veggies (sweet potatoes, peas, pumpkin, squash) when you want to increase your carb intake
- avoid refined carbohydrates (white pasta and bread, chips, baked goods, soda, candy, etc)
If you’re still reading this, thanks for sticking with me! If you take nothing else away from this post, I hope you see that carbs are not the enemy!
Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Leave them below, I love hearing from you! 🙂