Welcome, ladies and gents, to “Part 2” of this 3 part series.
In “Part 1,” I discussed dietary fat and its role in a healthy diet.
In case you missed it, you can check that out, here.
This post will deal with Carbohydrates.
While fat has been demonized for the past 50+ years, it seems that the blame for obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, and the reason you haven’t quite achieved that elusive “six pack” yet, has shifted recently – especially in the health and fitness community – towards carbohydrates.
As I mentioned in my last post, while this is partially true, particularly when it comes to processed food and sugar, it’s very important to understand the importance of certain carbohydrates in a healthy diet while avoiding any unhealthy extremes in regards to our nutrition.
The human body is able to obtain most of it’s energy requirements from fat and protein, and while we can absolutely “survive” without ever ingesting a single gram of carbohydrate, the fact of the matter is that if you want to optimize your health and perform maximally, carbohydrates should be a part of your diet.
Carbohydrates, namely glucose, are the body’s main source of energy for moderate to high intensity activity, as well as the body’s main source of fuel for the human brain.
They are also components to many vital molecules such as DNA, RNA, glycolipids, glycoproteins, and ATP.
Structurally, carbohydrates (also called saccharides) are molecular compounds made up of three elements: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.
They contain 4 calories for every gram.
In order to keep things as simple as possible, we will break down our carbohydrates into 3 groups:
Simple, Complex, and Fibrous.
Simple carbohydrates are found in natural foods such as fruit (fructose), vegetables and grains (glucose), and dairy (lactose), but also include the sugars added during food processing and refining (sucrose and high fructose corn syrup).
These carbohydrates have short chained sugar molecules (1 or 2 sugars), and because they break apart rather quickly, they enter our blood stream quite rapidly.
Complex carbohydrates tend to be found in natural foods such as starchy vegetables, legumes, and grains.
They have long chained sugar molecules (3 or more) that the liver breaks down slowly into the shorter glucose molecules that the brain and muscles use for fuel.
Dietary fiber is found mainly in fruits, vegetables, unrefined grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes.
It cannot be broken down into sugar molecules, and therefore, passes through our bodies undigested.
Fiber comes in two varieties, and both are quite beneficial to our health:
Soluble Fiber – Soluble fiber dissolves in water and can help lower both glucose and cholesterol blood levels.
Insoluble Fiber – Insoluble fiber does not dissolve in water and helps food move through your digestive system, promoting regularity and preventing constipation.
Both soluble and insoluble fiber consumption have been shown to prevent heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and diverticular disease – an inflammation of the intestine.
In my last post, I talked about determining the amount of fat needed in your diet.
For most overweight sedentary individuals (1/3 of the U.S. population), this is probably between 30-50% of overall daily calories consumed.
Because fat is the most dense of the 3 main macro-nutrients (9 calories per gram), it’s quite easy to eat and will not take up a lot of room on your plate.
Therefore, it’s important to make sure you fill in the rest with low density and high nutrition foods.
Fruits and Vegetables –
It’s no secret about the health benefits of a plant based diet.
(Notice I said plant “based” and not plant “only.”)
As stated above, fruits and vegetables can provide both simple and complex carbohydrates.
The main reason they should make up the vast majority of what goes into our bodies, however, is because they are, without a doubt, the most substantial source of vital nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, phytonutrients, and not to mention both soluble and insoluble fiber in our diet.
So while healthy fats might provide more calories overall, fibrous vegetables and fruits should take up the most volume on your plate – for each and every meal.
Whether your goal is to lose fat or to build muscle,
I recommend eating 1-3 servings of fruit per day and 3-5 of vegetables.
Not only will the combination of healthy fats from the foods listed in our previous post and fiber from the veggies and fruits keep you satiated, but it will also ensure you get all the nutrition you need to look, feel, and perform maximally – without a multi vitamin!
Now, if you have quite a bit of weight to lose and/or you aren’t exercising all that much, you probably don’t need much else in the form of carbohydrate, except for maybe a starchy tuber every now and then.
Grains, Legumes, and Dairy –
For those of you who are lean and active, you’re going to need a bit more calories in the form of simple and complex carbohydrates.
Glucose is our bodies’ preferred source of energy for moderate to high intensity activity; and if you’re exercising (intensely) more than a couple of times per week, you’re going to need to make sure you get some in your diet.
It’s very important to know what your energy demands are when determining how much starch should be in your diet.
I wrote an entire post on how to do so, here.
Once you’ve figured out how many calories you should be consuming in the form of simple and complex carbs, the next step is determining where exactly those calories should be coming from.
I, personally, have one simple rule when determining the form of carbohydrate I fuel up with: If it makes me feel like crap, I don’t eat it.
I have found that wheat, legumes, and most forms of conventional dairy don’t sit that well with me.
While I do still eat them once in a while, I feel considerably better when I do not.
I have written extensively on the why I do so, here.
Therefore, I tend to get the majority of simple carbs in my diet from fruit; and complex carbs from potatoes, rice, and oats.
I digest these foods quite easily and I feel great when eating them.
Of course, everyone is different, and it is up to you to experiment with different foods and find out what’s best for you.
The best way of doing so is by eliminating said foods from your diet for a few weeks, and then reintroducing them to see if you feel any differently – for better or worse.
Processed Foods and Sugar –
It goes without saying that the refined carbohydrates in all processed foods should be avoided at all costs.
I cannot in good faith recommend them at all as part of a healthy diet.
Baked goods, soda, juice, microwaveable meals, processed cheese, candy, potato chips – these foods wreck havoc on our metabolism, and send our liver and pancreas into “overdrive.”
Because of refined sugar’s effects on our insulin levels and the lack of nutrition in these foods, we are never quite satiated after consuming them, and more likely than not, we eat more than we need or should.
Voiding your diet of these foods should be the first step towards improving your health and the quality of your life.
This is my take on carbohydrates.
While they are not quite the “villain” they have been made out to be in recent years, it is important to understand their effects on our bodies, as well as which ones improve our health and which ones degrade it.
As always, be honest with yourself and know your goals.
If you don’t exercise often and have a considerable amount of weight to lose, you probably shouldn’t be eating much in the from of carbohydrates, besides the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables.
If you are lean and exercise often, it is important to know how much carbohydrate you need to perform well and feel your best, and to only eat that amount.
Think of your body as a car and carbohydrate as the gasoline.
Only put in the amount needed to get you where you need to go.
Any less, and you will not perform as required.
Any more, and the excess will “spill over” the side of the tank (or your jeans) as body fat.
Putting processed foods and sugar into your body would be like putting diesel fuel into an engine that only takes gasoline – our bodies simply do not know how to process them, and unfortunately, over time, they will have adverse effects on the integrity of your health.