Some of us are carnivores, people who crave steaks, ribs and other bloody meat, and some of us are carbivores, my definition of people who crave chips, cookies and candy. But too many carbs, especially the processed ones, do us more harm than the few minutes of pleasure we get from eating them. It’s not about abstention from them; it is about making informed choices.
Carbohydrates (carbs) are those foods that contain sugar, starch and/or fiber. Some grow naturally in the environment while others are manufactured. Naturally occurring carbs inherently contain more fiber, vitamins and minerals than manufactured carbs. Manufactured carbohydrates are often times more manipulated to enhance shelf life, taste, advertising appeal and texture. These are the kinds of manufactured carbohydrates I’m referring to in this article. It’s the degree and intent to which these “man-made” carbs are manufactured that is the issue when it comes to health.
Naturally Occurring Carbs
Naturally occurring carbs include fruits and starchy veggies, legumes and whole grains, and some dairy. The amount of carbohydrates found in fruits can vary depending on the kind and the ripeness. A cup of grapes has 28 grams of carbs, while a cup of raspberries has 15 grams. Less ripe fruits have more resistant starches in them that are not digestible while riper fruits have more of their starch converted to easily digested sugar, raising their carb load and their impact on blood sugars. Starchy veggies include all potatoes, corn, peas and winter squashes. Think of veggies that are denser and sweeter. Lower carb veggies are less sweet and have a higher water content like celery, zucchini and broccoli.
And like those resistant starches converted in riper fruit, the same thing happens when grains are cooked longer. Soft pasta has a higher carb load than the less boiled al dente pasta.
Milk has the natural occurring sugar, lactose, which adds about 12 grams of carbs per cup. Cheese and plain unsweetened yogurts, especially plain Greek, have less lactose, therefore fewer carbs.
Manufactured carbs include things like certain breads and pasta, candy and baked goods, chips and crackers, and ice cream and fruit-filled yogurt. In particular I want to focus on the manufactured carbs that strip the good, naturally occurring benefits out of the product and then try to add other ingredients to artificially enhance a product.
For example, Barilla Plus pasta tries to appeal to the health conscious consumer by advertising on their food label “multigrain”, “protein, fiber and ALA Omega-3”. When you look at the complicated food label you can see that what they’ve done is take wheat flour (only part of the wheat berry) and blended it with flour from lentils, chick peas, flaxseed(tha t’s how it gets to promote the ALA omega 3), oats and barley, and enhanced the fiber artificially by adding oat fiber, enhanced the protein by adding egg whites, and enhanced the nutrients by adding vitamins and iron. There are 16 ingredients in this product. Now compare that to Luigi Vitelli organic pasta which contains only one ingredient – whole wheat durum semolina flour grown organically – and you can see what I am talking about. Not only is the Luigi pasta higher in naturally occurring fiber but there is no food manipulation going on. A food shouldn’t brag on the front of the box when there are 16 ingredients in it when only one truly good ingredient is needed. You don’t need to mess around with mother nature to try to enhance a product.
Another example is oatmeal. Oatmeal comes as quick cooked, old-fashioned, steel-cut and in its pure form, the “grout”. You can find quick cooked that has added fiber to make consumers think they are getting a really good thing but they really aren’t in this case. Quaker Oats High Fiber Instant Cinnamon Swirl Oatmeal is made from precooked and dried oatmeal, a created fiber called maltodextrin, sugar and sugar substitute, caramel coloring and vitamins and minerals to make it sound really healthy. Keep in mind that maltodextrine is a type of manipulated fiber that doesn’t provide the same health benefits of naturally occurring fiber. This cereal gets high ratings for taste but in a man-made, less healthy way. The less processed the oatmeal grain – which starts with the grout, the more naturally occurring fiber, vitamins and minerals you will get. You’re better off eating steel-cut oats flavored with a teaspoon of honey and cinnamon than a quick cooked sweetened oatmeal if you are really trying to take care of your health.
In general, look at the number of ingredients in a label when you are comparing similar foods. The fewer the ingredients, the less man has manipulated it, and the more nature leaves its imprint.
Good Carbs, Bad Carbs
I think of carbs as the body’s gas pedal. When you eat a lot of manufactured carbs, especially ones made with white flour and lots of sugar, the body’s rpm’s go really high. This causes blood sugars to go really high and the pancreas to have to work really hard to take care of the extra blood sugar. Getting back to the car metaphor, carbs are the gas pedal and the brake pads are the pancreas. Eating foods that are highly processed, laden with sugar and stripped of the bran and germ of the grain is like pressing down hard and fast on the gas pedal and the pancreas, like the brake pads of your car, gets worn out.
Not “whole” foods
These kind of carbs in the picture at left, are what cause the insulin spike and when consumed frequently, keep blood insulin levels high creating the cascade of events mentioned in the previous post.
Getting back to the gas pedal metaphor, choosing mostly intact carbs with little processing like whole grains, fruits and beans it’s like gently putting your foot on the pedal to accelerate. When you choose these kinds of carbs you get a more gradual blood sugar rise and put less stress on the pancreas. And because they are high in fiber you stay fuller longer – which is like getting more mileage for the same amount of gas. Furthermore, the best payback that I hear from my clients is that they have more energy. With fewer blood sugar swings there are also fewer times during the course of the day where they have trouble focusing and feel sleepy.
How Many Carbs Should You Have?
Last post I talked about reducing carbs to the lower end of the Institute of Medicine acceptable range of around 45% of total daily calories. How many grams of carbohydrates does that amount to for a day? First you need to calculate your recommended daily caloric needs that considers your age, sex, height and activity level. The Mayo Clinic has a nice interactive calculator you can use here.
For me to maintain my current weight considering my activity level, I would need 2100 calories daily. To determine my daily carbohydrate needs Based on the points made in my last post, I will multiply the 2100 calories by the 45% and then divide it by 4 since there are 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate.
2100 X .45 = 945 945/4 = 236 grams
If I divide the 236 grams over my three meals it works out to about 80 grams per meal. If I were to have a snack containing carbohydrates I would reduce the carbs in the meals accordingly. You can look at the food label under total carbohydrate to see how many grams a serving has. For those foods that do not have a food label The Calorie King Calorie and Carbohydrate Counter Book is a nice resource. Keep in mind that many prepared food items contain more than one serving. The Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese in the above picture actually contains 5 servings in the box. Many people would either eat the whole box or split it with someone.
How To Begin
- Cut out or reduce your soda intake. A 12 oz. coke has 55 grams of sugary carbs. Try seltzer water with natural flavoring or tea.
- Reduce the amount of chips you ea. A serving of Stacy’s pita chips has 19 grams of carbs. Measure your portion and put it on a plate, do not eat out of the bag. And don’t think that just because pretzels have little fat and are low in calories are a good choice. Most pretzels are make with white flour. Eating a few servings of those is just like putting the pedal to the metal.
- Switch to black coffee or coffee with whole milk with less sugar or use Truvia. A vanilla Frappuccino at Starbucks has 68 grams of carbs.
- Eat your fruit instead of drinking it so you get the fiber. Juice glasses use to be 4 ounces, now they are 8 oz – that’s 30 grams of quickly digested sugary carbs.
- Cut out the donuts and muffins (unless it’s my high fiber, high protein recipe) and eat a breakfast with more protein and fiber from whole grains and fewer carbs- like my frittata with 2 pieces of whole grain bread. Or something more simple might be a cup of plain Greek lowfat yogurt, with 1/2 cup of thawed frozen berries and some chopped nuts.
- If you are a candy lover switch to one small piece of dark chocolate which is lower in carbs (4 gms) and has heart healthy flavonoids. A candy bar like 3 Musketeers can have 42 grams of sugary carbs.
Most of us love our carbs whether they are sweet, salty or crunchie. Everything in moderation has to be defined. It can’t be permission to indulge without discretion. Next post I’ll discuss tips to make this process easier.