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Are Carbohydrates Good or Bad?

Posted: February 28, 2013 - 9:42am

      Low carb diets have gained and lost popularity over the years since first being widely introduced by Dr. Atkins in the 1970’s. Eliminating carbohydrates from one’s diet will certainly result in fat loss, but long-term adherence to a very low carbohydrate diet is quite difficult for most people.  Should we be striving for a low carb diet and, if so, how should one go about it?

   Like fat or protein, carbohydrates as a class of food are neither good nor bad. What matters is how much they have been processed. All carbohydrates are eventually broken down in our bodies into sugar. Whether carbohydrate foods lead to a lean, athletic physique, or obesity and type II diabetes, is largely a matter of how processed they are.

   Fruits and vegetables consist mainly of carbohydrates and are unquestionably among the healthiest foods one can consume. They are high in fiber, nutrients, and antioxidants. Sodas are also made up entirely of carbohydrates and they are arguably one of the most health-destroying things you can consume. Sodas have no fiber, nutrients or antioxidants.

   Fruits and vegetables versus sodas is a pretty black and white example of healthy and unhealthy carbohydrate foods. Often times such a determination is not so obvious. When in doubt, it helps to look at the food and ask how much processing it has undergone. In other words, how closely does the food resemble what it looked like when it was picked or harvested?

   Apples are a wonderful example of a whole food consumed just as it was grown. A couple of large, crunchy apples will leave most of us full and satisfied for quite some time.  Because of their high fiber content, they take a lot of chewing and have few calories relative to their bulk. This fiber also allows the sugar in the apples to be released slowly into our blood stream.

   Apple juice, on the other hand, or any juice for that matter, is a great example of how processing changes how our bodies respond to a food.  Because juice has little or no fiber, we can drink a large glass very quickly and the sugar is very quickly absorbed into our blood stream. Rather than feeling satisfied, we are often hungrier shortly after drinking juice. Using fruit juice to sweeten processed foods takes things one step further and is just as detrimental as adding any other type of sugar.

   Similar examples can be made of grains. Oatmeal is a healthy food high in fiber. Pastries made of oat flour are not nearly as healthy. Wheat berries are a crunchy, satisfying food, but most foods containing wheat flour are highly processed. Brown rice is much more nutritious and filling than white rice, and rice flour is one step more processed.

     Products that contain flour are problematic, even if they are “whole grain.”  The soluble and insoluble fibers in whole foods like grains work together to slow down the absorption of carbohydrates.  Pulverizing the grain into flour destroys the cell structure of the water soluble fiber rendering it useless.  Turning wheat berries into flour is really akin to turning apples into apple juice.  

   Most people wishing to lose fat would do well by simply avoiding sodas, juices, breads, pastries, white rice and anything with added sugar.  Again, we don’t have to be perfect, but if we want to change our bodies and our health, we have to change our behaviors.  Consuming less of the above foods is a great step in the right direction.

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