Carbs? Where to start…
What an incredible topic, it’s as if no one can decide if carbs are good or bad for you, or if they make you fat or not!
And it is almost as if the perceived experts change their stance (for and against… repeatedly) as more research is published, but in reality, this research is all incredibly recent. Recent, meaning it’s in the last 100 years when our species has been around for perhaps 200,000 years.
For a more empowering, logical, and sensible approach, let’s discard the recent ‘noise’ and start to take on board ALL data and work with that. A holistic scientific approach, rather than a single study approach.
Firstly, we need some definition.
Carbohydrates, or ‘carbs’ for short refer to many many different foods.
That’s the first problem with a definition. The second part of the problem is most people don’t have an understanding of biochemistry, and so an article about the structure of molecules and so on isn’t going to help here, and it certainly won’t be helpful at 7pm after a long day at work when staring at the aisles in Waitrose or Whole Foods.
Simplicity wins on this occasion.
Carbohydrates are really just sugar, starch, and/or fibre. Now we can get down to a bit of logic using this definition.
Keeping it simple…
You’ll hear all sorts of things about carbs. Let’s keep it really simple.
With the except of milk and honey, all carbs come from plants not animals.
The way to decide whether a carb is healthy to eat or not is by looking at it, and asking yourself whether it looks like the actual plant.
An example might be a baked potato. It still looks like a potato. That’s good. It’s minimally processed in the fact it’s been cooked, but it still definitely looks like a potato.
Now, if you were to remove the skin of the potato, slice it into strips and fry them, it doesn’t look like a potato anymore. That’s not good.
Of course, it’s your choice what to eat but you can start to see how people can get confused easily.
Another example is sugar. Very rarely in the western world does it look like the sugar cane plant and that’s because it’s been heavily processed.
Stick to the advice, does it look like the actual plant – if not, proceed with caution.
Processing is the main mechanism for changing a carb that looks like a plant to one that doesn’t. Other mechanisms include decay and parasite damage. Ultimately, processing typically does one or more of the following to any plant:
- Removal of water
- Removal of fibre
- Removal of vitamins
- Removal of minerals
This is problematic for many reasons. Water and fibre in particular provide satiety (feeling full), removing them completely or partially means people have to eat more just to feel full; this is overeating.
Removing vitamins and minerals mean that people can satisfy their calorific requirements without getting their requirement for micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).
When people think of malnutrition, often they think of children starving and they’re right. Malnutrition is happening much closer to home also, likely in your town, in your street.
With a calorie requirement met but a micronutrient requirement not met, we have malnutrition. This is seen across society and it affects people who are underweight, and overweight.
Symptoms can range from easily curable headaches, tiredness, and lethargy through to more aggressive conditions such as heart disease, cancers, obesity, and so on.
Malnutrition ultimately can be fatal.
Common carbs, and their attributes
Common carbs that people will think of are bread, rice, pasta, and perhaps potatoes.
Rice and potatoes are purchased looking quite similar to when they were grown. Bread is a product of processing, wheat usually. Bread doesn’t look like wheat. Pasta is a product of processing wheat usually. Pasta doesn’t look like wheat.
The point to understand here is the level of processing can be so great that the actual food we consume can become so far removed from the raw material that it becomes unrecognisable.
That’s not a good thing, the water has gone, the fibre has all but gone, and the vitamins and minerals will be massively reduced. This is malnutrition.
Carbohydrates which are most sensible to eat will contain both a lot of water when eaten and also closely resemble their original plant.
All potatoes (including sweet potatoes and yams)
- All rice
- All corn
- All wheat
- All barley
These are all complex carbs, starches. They are powerhouses of nutrition in their whole natural form. When processed they lose their attractive attributes and are problematic as described above. Think of corn becoming high fructose corn syrup. Wheat becoming white bread. Potatoes becoming potato chips, crisps, and fries.
Other carbs, less common carbs…
The above are all complex carbs, and in the unprocessed form are superb – but what about simple carbs, are they sensible offerings?
The exact same guidance applies; does it look the same as it did when grown? Examples of foods less commonly thought of as carbs are mostly fruits and vegetables:
You get the idea. Now, these all contain a lot of water, fibre, vitamins and minerals. They’re carbs and they’re a sensible bet.
And when they become unrecognisable…
Fruits and corn are the biggest culprits in this scenario, and they’re used for their sugar.
This is the real dark side of carbs, and they give carbohydrates a poor reputation. Think of:
- Fake fruit sweets Fruit juices
- Dried fruits
- Doughnuts, or ‘donuts’ as the Americans say lol
These foods are devastating to health and make poor choices. They have undergone similar processing mechanisms to remove the water, fibre, vitamins and minerals. Being sugar, they are extremely addictive and extremely easy to overeat on.
Do these examples make sense globally?
The information is not simply opinion, it is based on observational science. Take the following populations and consider their native diet staple food and for how long we have data.
- North America – Corn (7,000 years)
- South America – Sweet potatoes, Potatoes (13,000 years)
- Africa – Millet (6,000 years)
- Europe – Potatoes (6,000 years)
- Middle East – Wheat (11,000 years)
- Asia – Rice (14,000 years)
These populations would have long died out if they were either not getting sufficient calories or were not getting sufficient nutrition. All these foods grow in abundance, and carbs really are the calorific and nutritional engines of human civilisation.
Removing these foods from your diet isn’t a sensible option. Absolutely it can lead to weight loss, but only because of calorie restriction. Our modern ancestors didn’t have the problems our western civilisations face today – we must take clues from our past, it holds valuable evidence to solve our present-day health problems, and to a healthy future.
To conclude, consume carbs that as closely resemble the plant they are grown from as possible. Avoid carbs that don’t look like the plant they are grown from. Take cues from the large long term successful populations, not from food marketing, the media, the medical profession, or any other modern source.
Carbs that look like the plant that they come from will not make you fat – quite the opposite, slim and trim!
This is a long read, but to understand it will save you.
All my love,