To potato or not to potato? Carbs have a bad reputation. Some nutrition pros swear by the benefits of cutting them out, while others implore us to get a daily dose. What’s a healthy eater to do?
The science of good nutrition can be confusing; it’s easy to get overwhelmed by the flood of info a Google search can invite. Dr. Mark Hyman latest book, aptly titled Food: What The Heck Should I Eat?, was born out of this very dilemma.
We’re talking about “slow carbs” with functional medicine pro, Dr. Hyman to help us better understand the difference between a variety of carbs and how they affect our bodies..
The low-carb frenzy hit its zenith in the early 2000s and has since ebbed and flowed in popularity. I’ve seen patients get impressive results doing very low-carb diets, but eventually many become burned out and regain the weight as the novelty of eating bacon and other formerly forbidden foods become monotonous.
Traditional thinking suggests carbohydrates are bad for you. I have something surprising to say that might go against everything you’ve heard: Carbs are the single most important thing you can eat for health and weight loss. In fact, I often say my plan is a high-carb diet.
But wait, you say, don’t carbs contribute to insulin resistance, heart disease and other health concerns? Some do, but the truth is more complicated. Carbohydrates encompass a huge category. A hot fudge sundae and cauliflower both fall into the carbs category, yet they are entirely different foods.
What Are Slow Carbs?
Almost all plant foods fall into the carbs category. These are what I refer to as slow carbs, which are low-glycemic and don’t spike your blood sugar or insulin. These slow carbs come loaded with nutrients, fiber and amazing molecules called phytochemicals.
When you eat a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables teeming with phytonutrients — carotenoids, flavonoids and polyphenols – they help improve nearly all health problems, including dementia, diabesity and aging.
Ideally, about 75% of your carb intake should come from non-starchy veggies plus low-glycemic fruits. By volume, most of your plate should be carbs. Note I said volume, not calories. Many plant-based carbs actually have very few calories.
Slow Carbs + Our Blood Sugar
Carbs are necessary for long-term health and brain function. but not the doughnuts, breads, bagels and sweets we typically think of as carbs. These are highly processed foods, stripped of their nutrients and fiber. When I say carbs, I mean real, whole plant foods containing all the vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients that create health.
The important difference is in how carbs affect your blood sugar. Calorie for calorie, sugar is different from other calories that come from protein, fat or non-starchy carbs such as greens. Sugar scrambles all your normal appetite controls, so you consume more and more, driving your metabolism to convert it into lethal belly fat. To drive home the point that not all calories – or carbs – are created equally, refer to my past blog in which I illustrate that, while both soda and broccoli fall into the carbs category, 750 calories of soda and 750 calories of broccoli behave entirely differently once they enter your body.
Here’s a quick refresher: Your gut quickly absorbs the fiber-free sugars in the soda. The glucose spikes your blood sugar, starting a domino effect of high insulin and a cascade of hormonal responses that kicks bad biochemistry into gear. The high insulin increases storage of belly fat, increases inflammation, raises triglycerides and lowers HDL, raises blood pressure, lowers testosterone in men and contributes to infertility in women.
High-fiber, low-sugar “slow carbs”, such as broccoli, are slowly digested and don’t lead to blood sugar and insulin spikes. These slow carbs reduce cancer risk and increase your body’s ability to detoxify. Therein lies the key difference. Slow carbs like broccoli heal rather than harm.
The Benefits of Slow Carbs
More Nutrients. You may not realize this, but there are no essential carbs. There are essential fats (omega-3s) and essential proteins (amino acids), but if you never had any carbs again, you would survive. That being said, good-quality slow carbs that come from plant foods provide unique benefits, including high levels of vitamins and minerals, fiber and special plant compounds with healing properties called phytonutrients or phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are medicinal molecules such as curcumin in turmeric, glucosinolates in broccoli, anthocyanidins in berries and black rice, and so on.
Balanced Blood Sugar. Many of these foods are high in fiber, which helps buffer out their sugar content. That is one reason why eating a cup of blueberries has a dramatically different impact than putting four teaspoons of sugar in your coffee. Both have about 16 grams of sugar, but the nutrients, phytonutrients and fiber in blueberries help buffer out that load, whereas the sugar-filled coffee simply raises your insulin levels and plummets your blood sugar, leaving you running for a muffin or other quick sugar fixes.
Feed Your Flora. Besides stabilizing blood sugar by slowing the absorption of carbs, fiber feeds the friendly flora in your gut and scrubs your intestines, thus supporting a healthy digestive tract. Try to gradually increase your fiber intake to 30 to 50 grams a day. That becomes easy when you focus on viscous fiber from legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, vegetables and low-glycemic-load fruits.
Ditch The Diets. When you focus on these low-glycemic-load plant foods, your weight normalizes. You feel better without the sugar crashes. You reduce your risk for numerous diseases.
Which Foods Should I Eat?
To simplify things and help you make optimal choices when it comes to carbs, I have divided them into four categories: green, yellow, red and forbidden.
Green Carbs: Eat These Foods Freely
Slow-burning, low-glycemic vegetables should be the basis of your diet. Fill your plate with broccoli, asparagus, spinach, chard, kale, cabbage, bok choy, and more. These are truly an unlimited food!
Seaweed is another smart choice. Some weeds are good for you, and the weeds of the sea are among my favorite. If you’ve never tried them, be adventurous. Kombu, nori, hijiki, and wakame are all extraordinarily high in minerals, protein and healing compounds.
Yellow Carbs: Eat These foods in Moderation
Whole grains. Brown, black, and red rice; quinoa; amaranth; buckwheat; and teff are delicious gluten-free grains. Black rice has as many anthocyanidins as blueberries and a low-glycemic load. Called forbidden rice, it was once eaten only by Chinese emperors.
Fiber-rich, phytonutrient-rich legumes are underutilized in our culture. They slow the release of sugars into the bloodstream and help prevent the excess insulin release that leads to insulin resistance. Try red, French or regular lentils; chickpeas; green and yellow split peas; soybeans (edamame is a great snack); pinto, adzuki, black, navy, and other beans.
Dark berries. Blueberries, cherries, blackberries, and raspberries are filled with phytonutrients. The richer the color, the more “medicine” you get. Eat as much as one-half cup a day. Organic frozen berries can be used in your protein shakes.
Stone fruit. Plums, peaches, nectarines, and their variants are known as “stone fruit.” They are healthy and full of fiber and healing chemicals. Enjoy up to two pieces of these fruits each day.
Red Carbs: Eat Limited Amounts of these foods
Starchy, high-glycemic cooked vegetables. These include winter squashes, peas, potatoes, corn, and root vegetables such as beets. Starchy vegetables raise blood sugar more quickly, so they should be consumed in smaller quantities (up to one-half cup a day) and ideally in the context of other foods that reduce the overall glycemic load of the meal.
High-sugar fruits. Melons, grapes, and pineapple contain more sugar than the fruits listed above, so they should be limited to a half-cup treat once a week, and avoided altogether if you are on a low/no sugar protocol.
Forbidden Carbs: Avoid Processed Carbs Completely
Gluten-containing whole grains. Stay away from wheat, barley, rye, oats, spelt, kamut and triticale.
Processed foods (including “low carb” foods). Avoid highly processed, factory-manufactured Frankenfoods. Many of these processed foods will have health claims such as “low carb,” “no sugar added,” or “high fiber.” Always stick with real, whole, unprocessed foods. Remember, if it has a health claim on the label, it is probably bad for you.
Dried fruit. They have a high-glycemic load.
The Chalkboard Mag and its materials are not intended to treat, diagnose, cure or prevent any disease. All material on The Chalkboard Mag is provided for educational purposes only. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, exercise or other health-related programs.