Some carbs are good for you!

Written by Linda Haltinner, DC for the Brattleboro Reformer April 2014
When people say "carb," we tend to think of pasta, bread, cereal, sugar, crackers, chips -- all of which we would be wise to limit or eliminate from our diets. But, vegetables and fruits are carbohydrates, too, and we would be hard-pressed to survive without them. Beans, nuts and seeds contain carbs. In fact, all plant based foods contain carbs. Carbohydrates are the primary source of energy for humans, and actually make up 70 - 80 percent of the energy intake of most of the people in the world. We evolved to thrive on carbohydrate foods.

There are at least two dietary essentials that can only be found in carbohydrate foods: phytonutrients and fiber.

Phytonutrients are plant chemicals that are essential for our health. Phytonutrients help turn on genes that make us burn fat, genes that regulate our metabolism and genes that slow the effects of aging. They can be powerful antioxidants. They help to reduce inflammation, and to support our bodies in managing blood sugar levels. Phytonutrients help regulate energy metabolism in our cells. They can play a crucial role in healing. Reservatrol in red wine is anti-inflammatory and may play a role in cancer preventation and healthy aging. Catechins in green tea are used in some cancer therapies. Caretenoids in red peppers and carrots and other bright orange or red or yellow foods are powerful antioxidants. Lycopene in tomatoes plays a role in preventing and healing prostate cancer. Lignans in flax seed may slow tumor growth and support balanced hormonal function. Lutein in spinach and kale helps prevent macular degeneration. These are all examples of phytonutrients.

How do you know how to choose plants high in phytonutrients? Think of plants in their natural state; think color and variety. Think of what your great grandmother might have made a part of her diet. It's the processing that gives the carbs the bad rep. When carbs are processed, their phytonutrient content is lost. Processed carbs are good sources of calories, but are essentially devoid of phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals.

The other key essential food element that is found in carbohydrates is fiber. Fiber is essential for good digestive function, and for modulating the rate at which we absorb the sugars in the foods we eat. (Remember, foods are essentially broken down in our gut into 3 types of macronutrients: sugars, amino acids and fats -- I'm not talking here about eating white sugar. I'm talking about the sugars released as we digest our food, the sugars that our cells need to produce energy for basic metabolism and healing).

"Glycemic Load" is an expression used to describe the impact of a meal on your body's blood sugar levels, both immediately and for the next several hours. A high glycemic load meal is absorbed rapidly, raising our blood sugar quickly and dramatically, requiring an immediate release of insulin and increasing the potential that the sugars in that meal will be stored as fat. Fiber is the single most significant factor in lowering the glycemic load of a meal. It slows the absorption of sugars and fats so that our bodies' insulin metabolism is less affected. It's as though the sugars are 'time-released', and we are better able to use the calories to meet our body's immediate energy needs. Foods that are high in phytonutrients and high in fiber are generally low in overall glycemic load.

Fiber is a huge factor in achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight. Studies on weight loss are inconsistent -- some show that low fat diets work better; some show that low carb diets work better. The difference is the fiber content of the diet. Think about the difference between eating an orange and drinking orange juice. Both contain the same basic nutrients, but your body's experience of the two is very different. The orange juice is absorbed quickly and gives the body an immediate hit of sugar. The orange is metabolized much more slowly, keeping your blood sugar much more stable.

The average American consumes only 8 to 12 grams of fiber per day. The American Heart Association recommends 25 grams per day. Some of the most effective weight loss plans have 60 or more grams of fiber as part of the daily intake.

So, eat your carbs! Just make sure they are whole food, unprocessed, as close to the way they are found in nature as possible, full of fiber and phytonutrients.

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