If there’s one thing I’ve realized when I talk to others about healthy eating it’s that we lllloooovvvee our carbohydrates.
Especially our breads.
It seems you can take away our chocolate, our ice cream, and even our takeaways, but don’t even think about taking away our bread!
People get really defensive when you so much as suggest too many carbs could be contributing to their poor health issues.
None moreso than health professionals, though.
So, why is it that we all love our breads and pasta so much?
Apart from the fact we’ve been told for years how “essential” carbs are in the diet, another reason is the sugar-hit you get from certain carbs is pretty addictive.
Yeah, you read that right… addictive!
While I don’t normally refer to animal studies, this one is way too interesting to overlook.
Researchers fed rats 25% glucose in addition to their normal feed. They then induced withdrawal symptoms via naloxone (the antidote that reverses an opioid overdose), or food deprivation. Withdrawal led to symptoms such as teeth chattering. They concluded;
Repeated, excessive intake of sugar created a state in which an opioid antagonist caused behavioral and neurochemical signs of opioid withdrawal. The indices of anxiety and DA/ACh (dopamine/acetylcholine) imbalance were qualitatively similar to withdrawal from morphine or nicotine, suggesting that the rats had become sugar-dependent. (Source)
If you think that’s crazy, here’s a study in the same vain on humans…
Heavily processed carbohydrates such as cornflakes, sweets and croissants quickly raise the amount of sugar in your blood. This rush of sugar stimulates the same areas of the brain that are involved with addiction to nicotine and other drugs… Drug addicts have to keep taking larger amounts of their chemical of choice. They find it difficult to stop, they keep doing it despite negative consequences and they feel depressed if they do stop. People do all those things around refined carbohydrates.
It’s no secret sugar is unhealthy, but if it really is addictive this could explain A LOT regarding our obesity epidemic.
What You Need To Know About Carbohydrates
The thing is, many of us think of foods like breakfast cereals and bread as somehow better than sugar, in terms of their effect on the body.
So, let’s reacquaint ourselves with what a carbohydrate actually is, so we’re under no delusions. I’ll try not to bore you to tears with this… pinky promise! 😉
1. What Are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are a source of energy for your body, providing 4 calories per gram.
When you eat carby foods, they are converted into glucose (blood sugar), which is then used for energy in your cells, tissues and organs.
So, there is no doubt that our bodies need carbohydrates to function.
It is, however, the source and amount, which I want to challenge with this article.
2. Carbohydrate Types
The carbs you eat come in two forms, either simple or complex, depending on their chemical structure.
Simple carbohydrates can be monosaccharides, or disaccharides.
These include sugars found naturally in fruits, vegetables and dairy products, as well as those added during refining and processing of foods (soft drinks, table sugar, corn syrup, fruit juice, white bread, baked goods, most packaged cereals).
These sugars break down really easily, and quickly spike blood sugar levels, and this is why they can lead to a sugar crash after eating them.
Additionally, eating lots of foods like this can lead to uncontrollable sugar cravings.
Complex carbohydrates are polysaccharides.
In order for the body to use carbohydrates in their polysaccharide form, they must be broken down into monosaccharides first. This takes time, and is why they do not spike blood sugars so suddenly.
This group of carbohydrates include wholegrain breads, wholegrain cereals, starchy vegetables, oatmeal, quinoa, brown rice, and legumes.
3. How The Body Uses Carbohydrates
When you eat carbohydrates, they are digested, and your body will do one of the following:
- Burn the glucose, providing immediate energy.
- If the glucose isn’t needed for immediate energy, the liver or muscles convert it into glycogen for storage, which can be converted back to glucose later when the body needs energy.
If there is “leftover” glucose remaining after these two steps, it will be converted into fat by the liver, and stored in adipose tissue around the body.
This is why consistently taking in more than your body can burn off eventually leads to fat deposits and weight gain.
4. How The Body Regulates Blood Sugars
After you eat a meal or snack, your blood sugar levels increase, and the pancreas responds by releasing insulin into the blood.
This signals fat, liver and muscle cells to absorb the glucose, lowering blood glucose levels back to normal again.
Between meals, blood sugar level decrease. This signals the liver to break down its stored glycogen, which releases glucose into the blood, raising blood glucose back to a normal level once again.
So, that’s a basic overview of how the body deals with carbohydrates.
It’s clear, simple carbs like sugar are the least desirable, but what about other foods like fruit, vegetables, and wholegrains?
Is Fruit A Healthy Carb?
Because fruit is a simple carbohydrate, many low-carbers advocate the complete removal of fruit from the diet, particularly for those looking to lose weight.
While I believe we should not be stuffing ourselves with fruit when trying to lose weight, it is, however, an abundant source of fiber, which slows its digestion and release into the blood stream. It is also full of important nutrients, and therefore does not need to be avoided.
Dried fruit, on the other hand, is something to be careful with.
During processing it is dehydrated. This essentially concentrates the calories, and is why a serving of dried fruit is only one 1/4 cup.
If you compare one cup of fresh blueberries, which has 83 calories, to a cup of dried blueberries, which has 480 calories, you can see why you would need to take care with your dried fruit portion.
Are Vegetables Healthy Carbs?
As for vegetables, they should also be in abundance in your diet. They are a fantastic source of nutrients and fiber, and they are essential for a healthy body and mind.
Any diet that recommends avoiding vegetables is completely off track.
Are Wholegrains Healthy Carbs?
I have a tougher time with the recommendation that everyone needs wholegrains in their life!
Think about all those packaged, boxed foods you have in your home.
If you take a closer look at them, you’ll find almost all grain-based products are loaded with sugar, corn syrups, unhealthy oils, artificial sweeteners, and a whole bunch of other ingredients we can’t even recognize.
These packaged foods have ingredient lists that go on forever, and even with their “heart healthy” seal of approval, a product containing so many unnatural ingredients simply cannot be a good thing.
Remember, a real food doesn’t need all these ingredients, it is the ingredient!
As the two studies I have already mentioned suggest, it is indeed possible to be addicted to sugary foods.
There is no doubt, food companies understand this, and it’s one reason they hire scientists to come up with foods that elicit a feel-good response from our neurotransmitters.
This is why cutting certain high carb foods and drinks from your diet will have a huge impact on your health in the long-run, and will massively help you to overcome food cravings.
Let me say it again, most people eat carbohydrates in quantities that are totally overboard. So, here are some reasons to avoid certain carb-rich foods…
Grains: A Poor Source Of Nutrients
I hear people saying all the time how unhealthy it is to cut grains out of the diet, and how diets that recommend this are fads!
I’ve probably said it myself in the past, but I’m willing to admit I was wrong.
The gold standard for measuring the impact carbs have on blood sugar level is the glycemic index.
So, the higher the glycemic index, the greater the blood sugar and insulin response. Basically, larger numbers are undesirable.
Wheat-based products don’t do too well on the GI scale, despite what we’re told about them releasing their energy more slowly.
In fact, bread ranks near the top, with a glycemic index of 71, right beside waffles (76), bagels (72), and puffed wheat (80). Compare this to Coca Cola, which ranks at 63, and we have a conundrum.
If it wasn’t for the fact that we’re encouraged to have grain-based products at every meal and snack, it might not be such an issue.
Grains As A Nutrient Source
In a study published in 2005, researchers examined 13 nutrients most lacking in the US diet, and then ranked 7 food groups according to their nutrient content.
The foods were ranked from 7 to 1 (7 represented the highest nutrient density). To determine the most nutrient dense food groups, they then added up all the rank scores.
Fresh vegetables (score 81) were by far the most nutrient rich foods, followed by seafood (score 65), lean meats (score 50), and fruits (score 48). Wholegrains came out with a score of 44.
Certainly not completely nutritionally devoid, but clearly it is possible to get those important nutrients from other foods, should you choose to avoid most wholegrains.
One of the main problems I have with recommending a high number of servings from the wholegrain group each day, is that it has the potential to lower the overall vitamin and mineral content in your diet.
This is inevitable when you tell people to eat 6+ portions of carbs each day, because other foods like fruit, vegetables, lean meat, and seafood are going to be displaced. This is simply not enough room to include it all.
The truth is, that although grains are indeed a source of nutrients, in many cases modern processing has removed the original nutrients from the grain. They are then artificially added back later on.
So yes, your loaf may be a source of nutrients, but they are artificial and have been tampered with. So, don’t count on them having the same beneficial effect on your body as they would originally have had.
If you’re concerned about fiber, consider the fact that while wholegrains have 4 times more fiber than refined grains, they are inferior in comparison to fresh fruits and vegetables.
The Scientific Research
It’s easy to get carried away as others have done with this topic, and I don’t want to do that.
That’s why I always insist on turning to the scientific evidence, to find out what the research actually says on a given subject.
A moderate carbohydrate, high protein diet has been shown to maintain weight loss at 12 months and beyond, with improvements in cardiovascular risk factors and little risk of long term side effects.
In fact, another study demonstrated that improvements in waist circumference are seen when carbohydrate is replaced with protein;
Greater improvements in waist circumference and body composition occurred when carbohydrate is replaced in the diet with protein.
Lipids and Insulin
The results of another study suggest the benefits of a lower carb diet extend beyond merely weight loss;
A weight loss diet with moderate carbohydrate, moderate protein results in more favorable changes in body composition, dyslipidemia, and post-prandial INS (insulin) response compared to a high carbohydrate, low protein diet, suggesting an additional benefit beyond weight management to include augmented risk reduction for metabolic disease.
One study specifically looking at bread, suggested high bread consumption significantly increases the risk of renal cell carcinoma, the most common type of kidney cancer;
The results of this study provide further indications on dietary correlates of RCC (renal cell carcinoma), and in particular indicate that a diet rich in refined cereals and poor in vegetables may have an unfavorable role on RCC.
Another study in postmenopausal women, showed the risk of breast cancer could be raised by as much as 87 percent in those who ate the most refined sugars and grains;
Our data suggest that consumption of diets with high GI values may be associated with increased risk of breast cancer among postmenopausal women.
Further research suggested diets high in carbohydrates that are quickly digested and absorbed, such as white bread, rice, potatoes, pasta, sugars and corn syrups, may produce eye tissue damage leading to blindness;
7.8% of new advanced AMD (age-related macular degeneration) cases would be prevented in 5 y if people consumed the low-dGI diet.
One study found that women who eat lots of high carbohydrate foods, such as white bread and rice, were twice as likely to develop heart diseases;
High dietary GL (glycemic load) and carbohydrate intake from high-GI (glycemic index) foods increase the overall risk of CHD in women but not men.
Interestingly, complex carbohydrates were not associated with the increased risk of heart disease.
This suggests that the problem is not carbohydrates per se, but rapidly absorbed carbohydrates, which is why the avoidance of fruit and vegetables, for example, is not necessary.
There is such an abundance of studies in this area, and my review is merely a drop in the ocean.
However, I hope you get the general gist of what I’m trying to show you — that a diet high in rapidly absorbed carbohydrate is not healthy for anyone.
Are Carbs The “Enemy”?
It’s pretty clear our bodies were not designed to process large amounts of refined sugars and grains.
When we do, the research suggests there are serious health consequences.
However, we ought not to perceive all carbohydrates as the enemy.
Instead, we need to know how to deal with them correctly, i.e. in what portions, and in what combination with other macronutrients.
For the most part, eating low glycemic index carbohydrates in combination with a source of lean protein, and/or a healthy fat at every meal, will have a much more favorable effect on your blood sugar levels.
Individual Approach To Carbs
As you know, I don’t believe in a one-size-fits all diet, and the same goes for how much carbohydrate you should eat.
So, if you are very athletic, highly active and lean, you can probably eat a decent amount of carbohydrates without doing too much damage to your health.
However, if you have a tendency to become overweight, you should certainly consider making it your primary goal to reduce your carbohydrate intake. And, when you do eat them, make sure they are from the right sources.
I never, ever, recommend eating zero, or even a very low carb diet, though. That is a very bad idea.
So, my advice is to avoid all refined carbs, such as white bread, white sugar, pizza, and bagels, like the plague. They are simply not a healthy choice for anyone.
In my experience, almost all adults can benefit from avoiding these high carb foods, most of the time.
That said, eating a slice of bread on occasion is not going to cause a major health issue on the spot.
But, I suggest you consider them more occasional treats, rather than the daily norm.
I admit, this topic is SUPER confusing. Really, it’s such a mega mind boggle!
Don’t get frazzled, though, here are some simple things you can remember to make sure you’re getting this whole healthy carb malarky spot on…
- To stabilize your blood sugar levels, eat small, frequent meals.
- Get most of your carbs from healthy sources like vegetables, fruit and legumes.
- Limit your portion size when eating starchy carbs. Remember, eating too much will mean excess carbs are turned into fat and stored up in fat cells.
- When you do eat high GI carbs, don’t eat them on their own, i.e. a white baguette. Rather, combine them with a quality protein source, a healthy fat, and a selection of vegetables.
- If you train hard, you should purposely keep high GI carbs for after training.
What about you, do you think carbs are healthy?