National Dietary Guidelines and many health “experts” have long told us to load up on complex carbohydrates, particularly grains (especially “whole grains”) and cereal products. This has led to a lot of misinformation and confusion surrounding the facts about carbs.
Complex carbohydrate recommendations, in combination with low-fat and low-saturated fat recommendations, have sent our disease rates soaring and waistlines expanding over the past hundred years.
If you feel confused and frustrated about what’s “healthy,” it’s not your fault because we’re so inundated with marketing messages about the supposed health benefits of complex carbohydrates from grains, legumes, and beans.
Complex carbohydrates aren’t evil. They just have their place. It’s our job to get informed and put them in their place.
There are a lot of confusing standards out there about what makes a low-carb diet a low-carb diet. According to some people, I eat a low-carb diet. I both agree and disagree…wha?! Confused? It’s not your fault.
In this article, I offer you clarity, as I debunk widespread so-called facts about carbs by
- Reviewing what carbohydrates are
- Revealing the ideal and unideal sources of complex carbohydrates
- Showing how unideal sources of complex carbohydrates negatively affect our hunger levels, cravings, fat storage, and disease-risk
- Answer how many carbs can you have on a low-carb diet
- The best ways to eat complex carbohydrates for optimal health.
What Are the Facts About Carbs?
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that provide calories (the other two are fat and protein).
Here are some of the basic facts about carbs:
- They provide about four calories per gram of carbohydrate.
- Digestion breaks down carbohydrates into glucose (sugar).
- It takes longer to break down carbohydrates based on their structure (i.e. simple or complex).
- Sources of carbohydrates include grains, vegetables, fruits, and starches.
- Carbs can be both healthy and unhealthy based on portion size and types of carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates often are grouped into one of three main categories:
- Sugar or simple carbs are easy for your body to break down and absorb. These tend to cause greater changes in your blood sugar because they are quickly absorbed. Examples include raw sugar, brown sugar, syrup, and fruit juices.
- Starch or complex carbs have a more complex structure (as the name implies). The digestion and absorption of carbohydrates takes longer when the structure is more complex, causing fewer blood sugar spikes. Examples include beans, legumes, non-starchy vegetables, whole fruit, potatoes, and oatmeal.
- Fiber is a type of carbohydrate your body lacks the enzymes to digest. It helps slow down digestion (so your blood sugar doesn’t spike) and plays other important roles in the body.
Because fiber has many benefits—from aiding digestion to helping lower cholesterol levels to lowering colon cancer risk—it’s promoted as one of the most important nutrients to consume.1
I don’t have a problem with fiber, but many health advocates ignore the facts about carbs and fiber sources.
The Fiber Hype
Think whole grains are loaded with fiber? Think again.
I won’t even talk about processed breads and cereals that simply add fiber because these “foods” are so full of junk and so devoid of not just nutrients, but naturally occurring fiber as well.
What I will talk about is “natural” foods, like grains, and how they’re some of the least worthy sources of fiber.
Helpful for bowel health, regularity, and the ability to bind to toxins and move waste out of the body, fiber is a kind of carbohydrate your body doesn’t digest the way it does starches and sugars.
While starches and sugars pack a caloric punch of 4 calories per gram of carbohydrate, fiber packs around 0-2 calories per gram, depending on if it comes in the form of soluble or insoluble fiber. Yet again we see a calorie is not simply a calorie. (Check out my article Tired Of The Calories In Calories Out Weight Loss Method? Try This Instead for more on the inaccuracy of caloric measurements.)
How Much Fiber Is Actually In Whole Grains?
So how do we figure out what is a fiber-rich food?
We compare the interesting facts about carbs and the amount of starch to fiber in, say, grains, legumes, and beans (with a colon sandwiched between the two numbers). Here are a few examples (numbers are approximate):
- 1 cup cooked white rice (long-grain) = 40-45g carbs : 1g fiber
- 1 cup cooked brown rice (long-grain) = 40-45g carbs : 2-4g fiber
- 1 cup cooked lentils (legumes) = 40g carbs : 16g fiber
- 1 cup black beans = 41g carbs: 15g fiber.
Now compare the above numbers to those of veggies:
- 1 cup broccoli (cooked) = 10g carbs : 6g fiber
- 1 cup string beans (cooked) = 10g carbs : 4g fiber
- 1 cup sliced portabella mushrooms (grilled) = 6g carbs : 3g fiber
- 1 cup zucchini (cooked) = 7g carbs : 3g fiber.2
Notice how veggies’ total-carbohydrate to fiber-carbohydrate ratios are much smaller than those of grains, legumes, and beans?
Vegetables and Good Carbs vs Bad Carbs
Even though vegetables are considered complex carbohydrates, like those found in grains and beans, our bodies like them more because they
- Contain fewer carbohydrates in general
- Have the lowest ratio of starch to fiber
- Break down into simple sugars slowly
- Only minimally affect insulin.
The amount of vegetables that should be consumed will vary from person to person and from time to time.
My approach isn’t about rigid numbers. It’s about learning the interesting facts about carbs and how foods work with our bodies, and cultivating a relationship with our bodies so we can listen and respond to their ever-changing needs.
In general, low-starch vegetables should make up a good portion of your diet and comprise the majority of carbohydrates consumed daily. Why? Because sugar and starch can have a big impact on your health.
Carbohydrates, Inflammation, and Disease
Let’s first review a couple of the simple facts about carbs.
- Sugars are a kind of simple carbohydrate present in refined foods, and naturally in fruits.
- Starch, another kind of carbohydrate, a complex carbohydrate, present in higher quantities in grains, legumes, and beans breaks down into sugar (specifically glucose) at varying rates in the body.
For example, starch in brown rice and beans may convert to sugar relatively more slowly than starch in white rice or the simple sugar in a banana, but they all convert to sugar at some point, and all sooner rather than later. (I discuss the flaws of the Glycemic Index in my article Stop Wondering Why “I Eat Almost No Carbs And My Blood Sugar Is Still High” and also in my book.)
Sugar from both sources (simple and converted complex carbohydrates) messes with blood sugar and insulin, which messes with our bodies’ inflammatory response. Remember: inflammation is the root of most diseases.
See, sugar raises blood sugar, which, if left unchecked, causes insulin resistance, which causes unhealthy fat storage in the liver, increases “bad” cholesterol, and makes blood cells (platelets) more likely to clot.
Gary Taubes, author of Good Calories, Bad Calories: Challenging the Conventional Wisdom on Diet, Weight Control, and Disease, and contributing correspondent for Science magazine, wrote:
…[T]he obvious, simple answer—and this is still ruled by science, and we have Occam’s razor here: Never multiply explanations when you have a simple explanation that hasn’t been refuted. The obvious answer is carbohydrates drive insulin. Insulin drives fat accumulation, and we’re getting fatter because of the kind of carbohydrates we’re consuming.3
Sugar also increases levels of cortisol (AKA the “stress hormone”) in the blood, which in turn causes all manner of inflammation, the root of disease (think inflamed artery walls which restrict blood flow, leading to everything from losing skin’s glow to high blood pressure and heart disease).
Sugar also lowers our immune response and feeds pathogens.
One-third of certain kinds of cancerous tumors contain insulin receptors (six to ten times more receptors than normal cells).4,5,6 Because insulin is made to “collect” sugar from the blood, the simple act of lowering sugar and starch in your diet is the biggest duh for hardcore cancer prevention, or to “starve” certain existing cancers.
Carbohydrates, Energy, and the Hunger Button
Contrary to the “facts about carbs” we’ve been fed for decades, most of us live sedentary-enough lifestyles that we don’t need higher levels of carbohydrates (complex or simple) for “quick” energy.
What’s more, we don’t realize there are other sources of energy (and this isn’t our fault–we’re so inundated with marketing messages about complex carbohydrates as the best source of energy).
Scientifically speaking, there’s no denying that (in contrast to both simple and complex carbohydrates) fat and protein
- Give us the most sustained energy (fat offers the most, over protein)
- Are more filling and provide longer-lasting satiety than carbohydrates (protein will provide the quickest feeling of satiety, but fat offers the longest-lasting satiety)
- Regulate blood sugar and insulin (carbohydrates negatively impact them; fat is most stabilizing)
- regulate our bodies’ inflammatory response (remember: carbohydrates trigger inflammation, and inflammation is the root of most diseases)
- Don’t get stored in annoying places (i.e. our mid-sections) when we consume more than our bodies burn, unlike carbohydrates
- Help us burn stored-fat instead of sugar for energy. When we eat a fat-rich diet, with moderate protein, and get our carbohydrates mainly from low-starch veggies, we give our body a chance to burn stored fat instead of stored sugar for energy (because we don’t have much of the latter). According to Dr. Richar Veech (the Big Kahuna in this field, who studied medicine at Harvard and earned his Ph.D. at Oxford with Nobel Laureate Hans Krebs), both the heart and brain run 25 percent more efficiently from burning fat than on sugar.
Carbohydrates Do Some Majorly Undesirable Things We Can Live Without
Unfortunately, most Americans eat way more carbohydrates than they should. I say “unfortunately” in light of the facts about carbs and how they affect our health (yes, even complex carbohydrates). Carbohydrates
- Disrupt the chemicals and hormones that regulate blood sugar and satiety (including insulin, cortisol, ghrelin, and leptin), making us want to eat more, and causing us to gain weight
- Become sugar in the body, not just from simple carbohydrates like fruits, but from complex carbohydrates like whole grains, and even legumes and beans
- Promote unhealthy fat storage. When we eat carbohydrates in excess, we store them as fat, and our body stores them in targeted places like our midsections
- Can be addictive. One major study reveals satisfaction isn’t sweet: “Findings clearly demonstrate intense sweetness [from both natural sugars and artificial sweeteners] can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and addicted individuals.”7
Essentially, carbohydrates turn on the hunger button in the brain and body, telling our bodies to eat more (generally more carbs) and to store excess carbs as fat, heightening disease risk.
On the other hand, dietary fat and protein turn off the hunger button, thereby preventing us from eating anything in excess, which means no unwanted fat storage (like I said earlier, dietary fat does this most intensely, even more so than protein, and its effects are the longest-lasting of the two).
The Mainstream Definitions of the Low Carb Diet and Normal Carb Diet
People often peg me as a low-carb diet proponent.
True, I don’t eat grains, legumes, or beans with any frequency (not for the better part of the past two decades–and happily so), but that doesn’t mean I don’t get my fair share of carbs.
Plus, the concept of “low” is relative. It all depends on who’s counting, and which standards we’re measuring against.
Most peoples’ ideas of “low-carb” and “normal” carb have been shaped by
- extreme mainstream diet trends, and
- National Dietary Guidelines that were, in turn, shaped by the money machine of the cereal-grains-dominated food industry (in which Monsanto has a huge stake).
I’m Actually Homies with Carbs
I understand the facts about carbs and I eat my carbs selectively. Mainly from low-starch vegetables, prepared and served with lots of saturated fat (think: coconut oil, palm oil, full-fat pasture butter and other dairy), and some monounsaturated fat (think: extra virgin olive oil and avocado oil).
I also occasionally enjoy some alternative baked goods. Low-starch pancakes or cookies anyone?
What I really am is a proponent of increased fat and protein and selective carbs. Not overgeneralized calorie-counting. Not carb-counting. Capiche?
For carbs, the focus is not on numbers, but on source.
The emphasis on satiating fat and protein allows for our bodies to find their own daily directives for their unique ideal amounts of selective carbs–without number-crunching or overthinking the facts about carbs. Yes, this works. Effectively.
What are low-starch veggies?
- green beans
- zucchini + crookneck squash + sometimes butternut squash (spiralized for delicious “spaghetti!”)
- cauliflower (also “riced” (store-bought or in a food processor), or pureed with an immersion/hand-blender for a delicious alternative to mashed potatoes)
- bok choy
- lettuces (Romaine, red and green leaf, butter)
- leafy greens (kale, collard and mustard greens, Swiss chard, spinach, arugula, endive, dandelion, frisée).
(NOTE: carrots, beets and squashes (butternut, acorn, spaghetti, etc.) are moderate-sugar-and-starch veggies. Sweet potatoes are moderate-to-higher sugar-and-starch. Water chestnuts are moderate-starch. Amounts one should consume of these will vary from person to person based on multiple factors (i.e. metabolism, digestion).
For example: instead of three carrots’ worth of carrot sticks and low-fat dressing, opt for one carrot’s worth of carrot sticks with a fat-rich blood-sugar-and-insulin-stabilizing dip made with full-fat plain yogurt/kefir, sour cream, or coconut milk mixed with some herbs.)
Of course, by focusing on these low-starch sources of carbs, I definitely eat less carbs than most Americans. However, I hardly think of my dietary practices as low-carb because
- I never eat with any set limit of daily carbs in mind
- I never count carbs
- With the amount of veggies I eat (deliciously slathered in fat, mind you–I ain’t no rabbit!), I won’t always make the cut for popular low-carb diets.
Again, we want to operate with a commitment not to a set or maximum number of carbs, but to the source of our carbs.
Reconsidering the “Normal” Carb and Low Carb Diet
Ever taken a look at nutrition labels for facts about carbs? Have you seen the National Dietary Guidelines’ suggested daily calorie intake counts from carbohydrates?
According to these guidelines, a person consuming a 2,000-calorie diet should eat around 300g carbohydrates each day, with 25g from fiber. Yes, 300g. This is what standard National Guidelines inform us is “normal.”
Good thing General Mills and Kellogg’s make it easy for us to hit that mark with big bowls of $5-a-box starchy low-fat blood-sugar-destabilizing breakfast cereals, and Nabisco’s got our snack-back with enriched, soybean oil-laced Wheat Thins [insert sarcasm here here here and here]. And even organic granola, and gluten-free brown rice crackers aren’t immune to my sarcastic punches in this discussion.
Many of us have seen these pro-300g labels. But most of us aren’t familiar with this lesser-known detail…
US Dietary Guidelines consider any carbohydrate intake below 130g per day as “low carbohydrate.”
130g is arguably not super-low.
In light of these “facts about carbs,” it’s totally possible for a person–let’s call her Jane–who isn’t even trying to eat a low-carb diet to hit under 130g in one day. Jane could regularly eat processed or whole grains, quinoa, cereals, bread, Kellogg’s Nutri-Grain bars, etc. And it’s totally possible Jane may not be at her ideal weight, may have excess stored body fat in undesirable places, exhibit heightened disease-risk factors, walk around bloated and hungry all the time, with unstable blood sugar and insulin.
Of course, most Americans do eat more than 130g carbs each day, in the form of grains (processed or “whole”), legumes and beans.
Though I don’t regularly count carbs now, I tried it a little over 20 years ago, so I’m well-versed in carb counts, on top of my overall fiendish food-knowledge. Without even counting, I know some days I eat much less carbs, around 30-40g in a day, sometimes less, and other days I eat close to 100g in veggies alone. You heard me.
If I were to eat a lot of low-starch veggies, like, say, a whole eggplant in one meal (which is totally possible if it’s cubed or pureed to make an Indian or Middle Eastern dish, or sliced up in eggplant parmesan), and half an onion for flavor, on top of veggies from other meals in the same day (zucchini, fennel, kale, green beans, lettuce), the tally adds up.
(I really don’t want to encourage number-crunching, but I do encourage exploration: you can get an idea of carb counts in veggies at www.nutritiondata.self.com.)
Total-Carb to Fiber-Carb Ratios Are Ideal in Veggies, Not Grains
Unlike Jane (remember her?) and her quinoa, Nutri-Grain bars, and granola, my 100-ish grams of carbs from low-starch veggies feature a hell of a lot smaller ratio of total carbs to fiber-carbs.
Why? Because low-starch veggies contain less carbs overall, of which lots of those carbs are naturally-occurring fiber-carbs (vs. added fiber found in cereals, bread, etc.–I’m not a fan of these).
When served with plenty of fat, low-starch veggies make for ideal insulin and blood sugar stability.
On the other hand, grains don’t contain a lot of fiber, despite the hype you’ve been fed about the facts about carbs and whole grains. They do, however, contain a lot of blood sugar-spiking and insulin-spiking starch.
Unlike Jane, I don’t have weight or digestive problems, unhealthy fat storage, heightened disease-risk factors, or unstable blood sugar and insulin.
Again, the issue with carbs isn’t numbers. It’s source.
Why Are Some Low Carb Diets So Low Carb?
The scientific idea behind more extreme low-carb diets, like the ketogenic diet and Atkins, is to reach and stay in a state of ketosis.
Ketosis is simply the state our bodies go into when we’ve used up our glucose stores and start to burn stored fat for energy instead.
Our bodies may not enter into ketosis if we’re eating too much overall, or eating a lot of veggies (yes, even non-potato low-starch veggies), or eating too much protein (it’s possible for non-carbohydrate sources to be converted into glucose via gluconeogenesis). I talk about gluconeogenesis in my article Stop Wondering Why “I Eat Almost No Carbs And My Blood Sugar Is Still High”
Even though US Dietary Guidelines classify any carbohydrate intake below 130g per day as “low carbohydrate,” our bodies don’t enter into ketosis until we get below around 80g carbs per day, sometimes far less (this is why the induction phase of Atkins requires between 18-22g carbs per day).
Ketosis thresholds are variable. They kick off somewhere below 80g carbs per day, depending on the person, the day, and even time of day.
Thing is, if you eat lots of veggies, along with small portions of higher-fiber low-sugar fruits (read: berries) here and there, it’s possible you won’t hit our ketosis-triggering 80g-or-less mark.
Granted, ketosis has many fantastic health benefits (which I discuss in my book in the section “Ketosis with the Mostest”). It’s entirely possible to touch into ketosis while eating according to what I’m advocating.
However, ketosis is not the goal here. You’re not peeing on Ketostix to test ketone levels in your urine (which is not a very accurate gauge), or pricking your fingertips to test your blood (which is the better measuring stick, but gets pricey fast).
No number-crunching here. Just understand the facts about carbs’ effects on your body.
(Except for those suffering from certain chronic conditions, rigidly following a ketogenic diet is not necessary day in and day out. Plus, uninformed long-term ketogenic dieting, without strategic carb-cycling, can yield damaging effects, especially for women.)
But back to veggies.
So Do I Follow a Low Carb Diet, or Don’t I?
My veggie-carb intake can sometimes surpass Atkins or ketogenic diet standards.
So does that mean I’m not a “low-carber?”
Or am I still a “low-carber” because I often fall beneath National Dietary Guidelines’ 130g “low” carb threshold?
You don’t have to answer these questions. In fact, I don’t want you to answer them. I ask them only to prove a point: that these “low” and “normal” carb numbers lose their relevance as you ask questions and dig deeper about the facts about carbs and their sources.
The Right Way to Eat Carbs
Now that you understand the facts about carbs, let’s talk more about the right way to eat carbs.
We covered this a little bit already, but it’s worth repeating. When you’re in-the-know, you eat non-starchy veggies with fats, like butter and coconut oil, to enable and maximize your body’s ability to absorb all the fat-soluble vitamins and minerals in these veggies.
My article Is Saturated Fat Bad For You? No! dishes about the ideal sources of fat to pair with veggies–and with anything and everything we eat.
Grains, legumes, and beans are not off-limits but are ideally eaten less frequently, in smaller portions, always with plenty of fat and some quality protein. (Learn more about this in my article Plant Protein vs. Animal Protein: The Myths and Facts.)
These types of carbs should be prepared via soaking or sprouting to decrease antinutrients, though these preparation practices don’t alter the starch content much. One of these antinutrients is phytic acid, which can disrupt mineral absorption (I discuss this in-depth in my book).
Fruits are ideally treated as a dessert because they contain large amounts of fructose. When you do have fruit, eat the whole fruit instead of juiced or dried forms. The sugar concentration is exponentially increased in those forms, even without the sugar that’s often added during processing.
Berries are one of the best fruits you can choose if you’re looking for fruit because they are higher in fiber. One cup of raspberries only contains about seven grams of net carbs. Try pairing the berries with non-watered-down coconut milk (that has more fat content), full-fat cottage cheese, or yogurt for a delicious and filling snack.
- Doing your own research on nutrition helps you find the true facts about carbs, not just the mainstream, profitable beliefs.
- Carbohydrates are broken down into three categories: sugar, starch, and fiber.
- Most carbs provide about four calories per gram of carbohydrate.
- Get your carbohydrates mostly from non-starchy veggies.
- Don’t fear fat–embrace it. Make sure you are eating plenty of quality protein, especially from animal sources.
- The number one reason to make this lifestyle change isn’t intellectual; it’s experiential: you simply feel better and more satisfied.
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Feature image copyright Erika Herman.