Nicole Duxbury | March 20, 2018
Carbohydrates have been in the news for decades. In the 1950s, a cardiologist named Dr. Lester Morrison began treating heart attack patients by prescribing a low-fat, low-cholesterol diet. He had made the connection between wartime diets and lower cases of heart diseases in his research, and thought he was onto something. Perhaps this marks the moment when the world began regarding carbs as our friends and fat as the enemy. By the time the Pritikin Diet (low-fat, high-fiber, limiting red meat, alcohol, and processed food) came along in the 70s and 80s-- which has become the de facto standard of the American Heart Association-- most doctors had accepted the “fact” that carbs were good and fats were bad.
The only problem was, no one was really getting any slimmer. The populace was, and is, more concerned with looking good in a bathing suit than being healthy. So when Atkins came along, promising that we could eat eggs, butter, and red meat as long as we stayed away from cereal, bread, potatoes, and pasta, folks jumped right in.
Do we totally nix carbs and/or fat? Or is it more nuanced and dependent on the type of carbs… or sugar? Yes, sugar… the most recent waistline nemesis to gain attention, and more accurately known as simple carbohydrates. And so, for the first time in this post, we introduce the main idea of simple versus complex carbs. Simple are known as the “bad carbs,” and complex carbs are commonly referred to as “good carbs.”
We’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves, here. Let’s take a step back and define some of these terms.
When discussing carbs, it’s important to start by mentioning all three major macronutrients: proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. To keep it simple, we know that protein is the building block of bone, muscle, and tissue like your skin. Fat is used as an essential lubricant in your joints and around your organs. Of course, its most famous usage is as fuel storage around your once-tapered mid-section. This brings us to the more complicated components of this conversation.
Carbohydrates are sugars that come in 2 main forms - simple and complex. This is also referred to as simple sugars and starches. The difference between a simple and complex carb is in how quickly it is digested and absorbed, as well as it's chemical structure.
How do I know which carbs are healthy carbs? Almost all carbs are converted to glucose (a simple sugar) in your body. You may ask, “If all carbs turn to sugar, why does it matter which carbs are better than others?” Well, partially because of the sheer energy it requires to convert carbs to glucose or triglycerides in the liver. The more complex the carb is, the more energy this conversion takes.
Hence, the war is on sugar, at least partly. For the sake of brevity, we’ll skip the triglycerides problem and focus on what kinds of carbs are complex ("good").
Yes, those starchy white potatoes are a complex carb! You’re shocked, aren’t you? The issue with white potatoes, for example, is something called the Glycemic Index, which is a measure of how fast that starch is converted to glucose (simple sugar, remember). A high GI means a fast rise in blood glucose, which can be bad if you have diabetes or other insulin sensitivity.
Then there are actual sugars, such as sucrose (cane sugar, for instance), or fructose (the sugar found in most fruits). Even dextrose, which is 100% glucose from the start, falls into this category. When you eat a sugar like fructose, say from an apple, it has a low GI and is high in fiber. It’s good for you! The potato is also high in fiber, but it has a high GI (though still can be good for you).
So perhaps the argument is less about the complex versus the simple, or even high versus low glycemic index. It’s about what helps you (as a unique individual) see weight loss results and improve your health. Science has yet to find compelling evidence of long term weight loss from diets that only get carbohydrates from vegetables and avoid complex carbs. This indicates that low-carb diets are great short-term diets, but a year later, the weight loss results are similar to low-fat diets.
There are plenty of success stories showing that low-fat diets have proven time and again to be extremely effective at moderating heart disease, stroke, diabetes, certain types of cancer, and yes, slimming down. Even if you add in the more recent studies that point to high carb intake as the cause of earlier deaths, it’s possible that much of that evidence is flawed. That evidence doesn’t separate carbs into the two categories we’ve discussed here (simple and complex), nor does it separate the carbs found in nature from those that are processed and chemically-enhanced-- also known as those that most of the Western world purchases in a cardboard box from the grocery store.
In conclusion, eating more natural foods in their original state, carbs included, is always the healthiest choice. In the words of guru Michael Pollan, "Eat food, not too much, mostly plants." Plant-based diets with lean meats and less processed foods are rarely under scrutiny. Avoid the boxed cereals, the frozen meals, and the refined sweets: the items that Pollan calls "edible food-like substances." Eat plenty of fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, and if you eat meat, choose the leanest options like skinless chicken breast, fish, and lean cuts of pork (look for the words “loin” or “chop”). There are even some beef iterations like “95% lean ground beef” that make the cut. Following this advice is a safe, easy-to-follow recipe for looking good and feeling great!