Carbs have gone through a roller coaster in recent history. Fats were blamed for cholesterol, clogged arteries, and weight gain. So carbohydrates entered their heyday, an age of refined carbohydrates rising up to fill in the gaps that appeared as low-fat foods became vogue. Carbs frolicked freely about in the sunshine, carbo-loading turned into a great way to prepare for exercise or even just a big day at work or school, carbs were healthy, and no one questioned any of it for decades.
Now carbs have fallen out of favor, for good reason. Fats were never as bad as we thought they were. Refined carbohydrates are the actually the culprit behind most of the health problems we once blamed on fats, but that doesn’t mean carbs should completely go away.
What is a Carb?
The word “carbohydrate” can be broken down into two parts that mean “carbon” and “water” because the molecules generally contain carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in the right amounts to form equal parts water and carbon. Carbs are used to store and release energy or to provide structure. Monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides are different sizes of carbohydrates, ranging from the simplest sugar to the most complex fiber. Yes, fiber is a carbohydrate.
Do we Need Carbs?
Yes, most definitely yes! Our cells and especially our brains run on carbohydrates. We need those carbs to supply energy, drive metabolism, and keep us moving, breathing, and thinking. If we didn’t need carbs then our bodies wouldn’t crave them and foods with sugars wouldn’t taste so great. How much carbs we get and where they come from matters though. We should be giving ourselves only the best carbs and not overdoing it.
What Happens to the Carbs we Eat?
All carbohydrates, other than fiber, are broken down into simpler forms by enzymes and then absorbed along the small intestine. Fiber isn’t digested, but helps clean our digestive system and feed the beneficial bacteria that live there. The digested carbs are dumped directly into the blood stream to be taken to muscles and the liver. This is where the action really begins. The liver makes sure every sugar is turned into glucose, pretty much the only sugar our cells want to use. The liver and muscles also store a little extra glucose as glycogen for later use.
Problems begin when we get too much sugar absorbed at once. Despite being our main fuel source, sugars are actually quite toxic in large amounts. They oxidize easily and combine with other molecules to form dangerously reactive compounds that damage cellular structures, contributing to cancer and other illnesses.
When the body senses glucose floating freely in our blood, the pancreas releases insulin, which encourages cells to take it up and store glycogen. Our cells have a limited number of glycogen receptors though. Once those are full, the body starts storing anything left over as fat. If we are getting too many carbs, there is a lot to store and we gain weight. Also, when the liver is overwhelmed with simple sugars it cannot transform into glucose fast enough, it starts turning them into triglycerides instead, contributing to fat stores and high cholesterol. Inactivity makes things worse. When we are inactive, we do not use up glycogen like we should, our glycogen receptors are full, and the body has nowhere good to dump the extra sugar. The pancreas keeps releasing insulin, desperately trying to get rid of the toxic sugar, which our cells begin to ignore because there’s nothing they can do with the extra glucose or because the sugar has already damaged their receptors. After enough time of this, the liver is damaged so it doesn’t support the thyroid and the pancreas gives up and stops working too. Weight gain climbs even faster when all these organs don’t function at their fullest, and diabetes becomes a problem.
Too much sugar also poses other risks, since there are a whole host of bacteria and fungi who love free floating simple carbohydrates. Candida thrives off sugar. Cavities are caused by bacteria that eat sugar and secrete acids. Digestive problems often revolve around bacterial imbalances in our intestines. Fiber, on the other hand, helps maintain balance.
What are the Bad Carbs?
Any processed and refined carbohydrate needs to be used only minimally. These are white sugar, white flour, white pasta, white bread, white potatoes, white rice, and all those bagels, doughnuts, pastries, pizza crusts, and desserts that you love. During the refining process these carbs are stripped of their fiber, minerals, vitamins, and many other beneficial phytonutrients, concentrating the carbs to the point where they do exactly what I described above. They overwhelm your system, spike blood sugar, increase fat stores, increase cholesterol, send inflammation skyrocketing, and flood your blood stream with free radicals that attack and damage anything they come in contact with. Avoid sugary drinks, that includes soft drink and juices, and any processed foods as often as possible. They are making you ill, no matter how delicious they are.
What are the Good Carbs?
Vegetables top the list. We often forget that vegetables are a good source of carbohydrates. These come pre-mingled with fiber, water, vitamins, minerals, enzymes, and phytonutrients that slow down the absorption and minimize the effects of sugars. Most vegetables reduce inflammation, bolster the immune system, feed our beneficial bacteria, reduce heart risks, and just make us feel better all around. We should be eating more of them more often.
Fruits are another good source of carbohydrates, but they need to be used wisely. Too many fruits too quickly can spike your blood sugar too. Berries and melons are especially good since they are lower in calories and the fiber and water content slow down absorption while the antioxidants make them worth eating. Processed fruit juices are terrible while fresh ones are a little better in moderation. Dried fruits also tend to spike your blood sugar more than fresh.
Whole Grains are often treated as badly as refined carbs, but they do have a place in our diets. The reason so many grains get a bad name is because so many of them are used in processed foods, we don’t prepare them correctly, and because wheat has been painted as such a villain.
Be careful with processed foods that contain whole grains. Processed foods, even those touting whole grains, are still processed, which destroys much of the nutrition. Processed foods often add unnecessary sugars and fats to the mix as well.
Grains aren’t at their best raw or simply cooked. They contain antinutrients that resist digestion or block certain minerals from being absorbed. Grains should be soaked, sprouted, or fermented to unlock all their potential and decrease the antinutrients that exist in many of them, and that’s true for many seeds and nuts too. This is what ancient civilizations seemed to understand that we have forgotten. We’ve moved away from fermenting foods.
Wheat isn’t the healthiest of grains, this is true, but there’s also a lot of misinformation out there. Gluten-free has become a big buzzword lately, but gluten isn’t really the only problem with wheat. Actually gluten isn’t a problem at all for most of us. Celiac affects only about 2% of the population and gluten sensitivities affect only around 8% of us. Wheat has been modified through selective cultivation to contain more gluten over the past few centuries, a consequence of breeding for bigger yields, faster growth, and better bread. It is very unlike the ancient grains our ancestors ate, which may also be part of why more people have problems with it today. Wheat is also the most likely to be highly processed and refined, contributing to more weight gain and health risks. Wheat should be avoided for that reason, more than gluten, and also because genetically modified (GMO) wheat is about to hit fields in the United States. You should also know that despite gluten-free being a big selling feature on many health foods, some of these are still highly processed and pretty high on the glycemic index too.
Other grains, even those with gluten, can be a healthy part of your life. Barley is one that is too often overlooked. It has remained fairly unchanged for thousands of year. It contains less gluten than wheat, less protein over all, and the gluten in barley causes fewer problems in people with sensitivities, even those with Celiac, though it still isn’t recommended for anyone with Celiac. It is rich in fiber and complex carbohydrates that absorb slowly for sustained energy without sugar spikes and the damage that comes with them. Endurance trainers are beginning to rediscover the benefits of this grain used by the Roman army and the gladiators to fuel their marches and battles. Barley also contains lignans, phytonutrients that have been linked to balanced hormone levels, improved immune function, reduced stress, and maintaining a healthy weight. Lignans also act as powerful antioxidants, lower cholesterol, improve menopause symptoms, and maybe even help us keep our hair longer.