Carbs: Are They Really So Bad?

With all the bad press carbs have received over the past decade or two, it’s time to set the record straight and reinstate the good reputation carbohydrates have enjoyed and deserved for centuries.

I think some of the confusion around carbs may have stemmed from the different terms we’ve been using – simple vs complex, low glycemic vs high glycemic, fast vs slow, refined vs complex and bad vs good.[private]

When did carbs become the enemy? Around the same time potatoes, peas and carrots did I dare say? This was once the majority of our calories came from white flour.

Carbs

At present low-carb diets are all the rage but they are nothing new. In fact, various health practitioners have been proponents of this way of eating since the 1800s. In a time when diseases such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis, adrenal fatigue, cancer and heart disease are on the rise, people are searching for answers—and every food seems to have its day. First, we are told to cut down on our fat, then our protein, then to increase them, and now it’s carbs in the firing line.

It’s no wonder our digestive tracts have had a ‘gut-full’. Refined wheat and its products should be eaten only in moderation, if at all.

As there are so many other grains available to us, it’s interesting that processed and refined wheat – closely followed by white rice in the West – have become the principle grain consumed.

Complex carbs such as kamut, millet, spelt, quinoa, amaranth, barley and rye, legumes, nuts and seeds, and fruits and vegetables are highly nutritious and are often higher in essential minerals, vitamins, complex carbohydrates and protein than animal products.

Simple Vs Complex Carbs

Foods with high carbohydrate content are defined as simple or complex based on their chemical structure. A “simple” carbohydrate with a high GI breaks down quickly during digestion and therefore releases glucose into the bloodstream rapidly. This is what happens when you eat white sugar, white flour and their products – cakes, muffins, bread, pastries, pizza, lollies, cakes, muffins, soft drinks etc.

The more “complex” that structure is, the slower it takes to digest and absorb. Complex carbs are things like legumes, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and fruits and vegetables.

The faster the carbs digest and absorb, the more it spikes your blood insulin levels. This is why diets high in refined carbs have been shown to increase our risk of diabetes and heart disease, mental health issues and obesity – while diets high in complex carbs help do the opposite.

Refined carbs also tend to be highly processed foods that lack any nutritional value, while complex carbs are typically unprocessed, high in fiber, vitamins and minerals.

As refined carbs have been processed to remove the outer fibre of the grain, leaving only the germ, which is primarily sugar – you can eat lots of these before you start to feel full, and the hit of sugar will give you an instant burst of energy leaving you feeling a bit ‘high’ before ‘crashing’. That ‘crash’ signals constant hunger and cravings.

To add to the confusion it turns out that some foods that technically fit the “complex carb” label can actually end up causing a rapid spike in blood sugar levels also.

Glycemic Index

This is why the Glycemic Index (GI) came into being. The glycemic index classifies carbs based on how quickly and how high they raise blood sugar levels when compared to pure glucose (sugar), although white bread is now used as the reference food in its place. A GI of 70 or more is high, a GI of 56 to 69 inclusive is medium, and a GI of 55 or less is low.

This of course is useful for many reasons, the most important being prevention and treatment of a variety of health issues associated with frequent and sustained spikes in blood sugar levels.

A carbohydrate with a low GI breaks down relatively slowly therefore causing a more gradual release of glucose into the bloodstream. This is preferable of course.

Glycemic Load

The problem however, is that the glycemic index does not take into account serving size. Meaning, 25 grams of a high glycemic food doesn’t create the same blood sugar spike that 50 grams of that same food would. So, along came the Glycemic Load to account for the amount of carbs present in each serving as opposed to only considering the food on its own, irrespective of how much of it you ate.

The carbohydrate in watermelon, for example, has a high GI. But there isn’t a lot of it, so watermelon’s glycemic load is relatively low. A GL of 20 or more is high, a GL of 11 to 19 inclusive is medium, and a GL of 10 or less is low.

Which takes me onto another issue. The Glycemic Index only measures foods when eaten in isolation, as when you’ve decided it’s ok to eat that whole bag of crackers on their own, but not ok to have them with anything as that would just increase the guilt, therefore not ok.

Of course eating refined carb foods in isolation is rare, and what you have with them dramatically changes things. For example, there’s likely to be hummus on those crackers, or Napoli sauce with your pasta.

Protein, fat and various other nutrients being eaten at the same time will greatly affect the true GI of a refined carb’ food, and the overall digestion/absorption of the meal.

Still the Glycemic Index has its place, and that is to help us understand that as a general rule, low to moderate glycemic foods should be your carbohydrate of choice. High glycemic foods should be limited – these are sometimes foods.

There are plenty of websites that will help you find the Glycemic Index or Glycemic Load Of A Food.

GI

Daily Requirements

A moderate carbohydrate intake is around 200-300g per day, depending on your calorie intake. It is appropriate for people who aren’t trying to loose weight, are active and simply wanting to maintain their health and wellbeing.

Are Carbohydrates Essential

Since the agricultural revolution, carbs have usually accounted for the majority of our calories. Put simply, protein and fat – specifically the omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids- are essential to our body. Carbs on the other hand are not. Yes, our brain and other tissues do require a small amount, but the human body produces that small amount on its own. The same cannot be said for protein or the essential fatty acids, all of which must be supplied through one’s diet.

Do Carbs Make Me Fat?

Insulin, the fat-storing hormone, is stimulated in excess by the pancreas when too many refined carbohydrates and sugars are eaten. If this hormone remains high, due to excessive amounts of carbohydrates in the diet, then ketosis/lipolysis cannot occur. This state is important for weight loss, as it breaks down fat, instead of glucose, to be used as energy by the body and the brain. But do they make us fat…..

While the “low carb” craze has been no doubt confusing and created all sorts of obsessions, the one thing that usually makes us gain weight in our diet is eating too much (of anything) whilst having a sedentary lifestyle, and too much stress. It’s not the carbs themselves that cause the gain, it’s the excess calories those carbs provided. There are exceptions of course, like in cases of digestive problems such as SIBO, Fructose Malabsorption, certain intolerances and dysbiosis.

There are many studies showing that low-carb diets are more effective and healthier than the low-fat diet that is still being recommended.

What about Phytic Acid

Along with saponins and lectins, phytic acid is considered an anti-nutrient, which means those who follow paleo nutrition have probably eliminated it from their diet. Phytic acid or phytate is something found in many types of plant foods, such as grains, legumes (including peanuts and soybeans), nuts, and seeds. It’s the storage form of phosphorus, an important mineral used in the production of energy as well as the formation of cell membranes. These foods are gaining a bad reputation due to the phytic acid’s ability to bind to essential minerals such as iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium in the digestive tract and inhibit their absorption by the body.

However, the severity of phytic acid’s effect on overall health tends to be a bit exaggerated. Despite being somewhat demonized for its ability to reduce mineral absorption, phytic acid has some redeeming qualities.

Phytic acid can act as an antioxidant and although research in humans is a bit scarce, there have been several studies demonstrating the potential positive effects of phytic acid in fighting cancerous tumor cells. This may partially explain why high-fiber diets tend to be associated with reducing colon cancer risk. Phytic acid has also shown some capacity to reduce cholesterol and triglycerides, and positively impact the glycemic response of certain foods. In some cases, phytic acid seems to have an ability to slow down a potential blood sugar spike following the ingestion of certain high-carbohydrate foods. Again, this may explain why high-fiber foods have been associated with improved blood sugar control.

However, the potential benefits of phytic acid occur in high dietary intake, yet a high intake has also been associated with reduced mineral absorption. So, in order for us to get the best out of phytic acid, we should understand ways we can minimize the negative effects while maximizing the benefits.

One way is by incorporating more vitamin C (ascorbic acid) into our diet. Another is using preparation methods such as soaking, germinating, or fermenting as they can be very effective in reducing the amount of phytic acid present in foods. Some methods are better for different foods. In the case of nuts and legumes, soaking and germinating are most successful, but for grains and cereals, all three are effective. And lastly, try eating foods that contain phytic acid away from foods that are richer in minerals. From a practical standpoint, one could accomplish this by eating meals of protein and fat separate from meals of carbohydrate and fat.

Conclusion

Complex carbohydrates are essential for a healthy body and mind. They are loaded with B vitamins, which nourish the nervous system amongst their many virtues. They provide sustaining long-term energy, proteins for tissue building and fats for lubrication and tissue support. This type of diet is also high in fibre, which allows efficient elimination. Unless it’s processed junk food, cutting an entire food group out of your diet is rarely a good idea.

The body is much more unique and complex than we can truly understand, and the food we eat tends to have many different functions once it’s inside of us. Every person – though sharing similar nutritional needs – is going to respond differently. Keep an open mind and always – listen to your own body. It will tell you what it likes and doesn’t’.

Janella Purcell 2015.

Table of Glycemic index and load values

The average GI of 62 common foods derived from multiple studies by different laboratories
High-carbohydrate foods GI
White wheat bread* 75±2
Whole wheat/whole meal bread 74±2
Specialty grain bread 53±2
Unleavened wheat bread* 70±5
Wheat roti 62±3
 Chapatti  52±4
 Corn tortilla  46±4
 White rice, boiled*  73±4
 Brown rice, boiled  68±4
 Barley  28±2
 Sweet corn  52±5
 Spaghetti, white  49±2
 Spaghetti, whole meal  48±5
 Rice noodles†  53±7
 Udon noodles  55±7
 Couscous†  65±4
 Breakfast Cereals
 Cornflakes  81±6
 Wheat flake biscuits  69±2
 Porridge, rolled oats  55±2
 Instant oat porridge  79±3
 Rice porridge/congee  78±9
 Millet porridge  67±5
 Muesli  57±2
 Fruit and fruit products
 Apple, raw†  36±2
 Orange, raw†  43±3
 Banana, raw†  51±3
 Pineapple, raw  59±8
 Mango, raw†  51±5
 Watermelon, raw  76±4
 Dates, raw  42±4
 Peaches, canned†  43±5
 Strawberry jam/jelly  49±3
 Apple juice  41±2
 Orange juice  50±2
 Vegetables
 Potato, boiled  78±4
 Potato, instant mashed  87±3
 Potato, french fries  63±5
 Carrots, boiled  39±4
 Sweet potato, boiled  63±6
 Pumpkin, boiled  64±7
 Plantain/green banana  55±6
 Taro, boiled  53±2
 Vegetable soup  48±5
 Dairy products and alternatives
 Milk, full fat  39±3
 Milk, skim  37±4
 Ice cream  51±3
 Yogurt, fruit  41±2
 Soy milk  34±4
 Rice milk  86±7
 Legumes
 Chickpeas  28±9
 Kidney beans  24±4
 Lentils  32±5
 Soya beans  16±1
 Snack products
 Chocolate  40±3
 Popcorn  65±5
 Potato crisps  56±3
 Soft drink  59±3
 Rice crackers/crisps  87±2
 Sugars
 Fructose  15±4
 Sucrose  65±4
 Glucose  103±3
Honey 61±3
    Data are means. *Low-GI varities were also identified. †Average of all available data.
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