Good Carb, Bad Carb, Real Carb

Confession, I have been working on this post for a few weeks, anytime we have been on a road trip. I mean really, who doesn’t write blog posts in the car? Besides the fact that I have not worked on this post unless I have been traveling, you must also understand that I get motion sick really easily. It has been some kind of mini-miracle that my sentences are coherent (at least I hope they are). And please excuse any typos. My thumbs got quite a workout putting this together.
Anyway, a long long time ago (sung to the tune of American Pie by Don McLean … much of my internal dialogue is in musical form to tunes that most often I cannot name the title, song or artist, just random verses), I indirectly received a question/comment inquiring about my take on carbs found in fruits. My response comes in the form of this post, because that is a complex discussion.
So, the quick answer to the question about my opinion of sugar found in fruit – if it is coming from a real food source and is chewed, not drank, then it is acceptable and fits into my lifestyle. HOWEVER it is a simple sugar, and when over consumed elevates blood glucose (blood sugar) and increases triglycerides…among several other things.
I do not believe in “good” food, “bad” food. All real food is good. To me real food is defined as recognizable and coming from as close to its natural source as possible with minimal, if any, processing before it gets to my mouth. Think apples, roasted potatoes, bone-in pork chops, all fresh vegetables. Anything that is pre-processed, packaged in plastic, contains ingredients I cannot pronounce or recognize as a food source, has a shelf life longer than my natural life or requires excessive temperature changes to modify its molecular structure for product sustainability is not a real food and is not something worth my money, time, possible gut disturbance, acne or foul mood.
I do not follow a low carb diet per se, but since I take a real food approach and eat a lot of high quality fat my carb intake is much lower than someone who follows a standard American diet (SAD).
I think one of the reasons carbs get such a bad wrap (opportunity for food pun here) is that most people do not actually understand what a carb is or its various functions. Carbs are actually one of three macronutrients, the other two being protein and fat. Macronutrients contain calories and are important for fueling our bodies (carbs), providing the building blocks of our tissues and support optimal immune function (protein) and are important for nerve conduction, hormone regulation and protecting our organs (fat).
Carbohydrates are derived from plant sources and contains carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The simple form of a carbohydrate is glucose, and the more complex form is either starch or fiber (also known as cellulose).
Simple carbohydrates are sweet tasting and are easily broken down to glucose. Forms of simple carbs, called monosaccharides are glucose, fructose and galactose. Glucose is the building block of simple carbs. Fructose is found in fruits. Galactose is found in dairy products. Disaccharides are formed from two monosaccharides, which we know more commonly as sucrose, or table sugar (fructose and glucose), lactose found in dairy products (galactose and glucose) and maltose found in barley, which is then fermented to make beer (glucose and glucose).
The complex carbohydrates, starch and fiber, are known as polysaccharides, which are much longer chains of carbohydrates that cannot be broken down as easily as simple sugars. Complex carbs are also slightly bitter tasting and tend to have rougher, grainy textures. Starch is the storage form of energy in the plant world. It can be broken down to glucose after many biochemical processes, therefore it can become a source of energy for the body…or in excess it gets stored for later use.
Fiber, or cellulose, on the other hand is a ribbon-like molecule that provides structure to the cell walls of plants. Fibers cannot be broken down by human digestion, which means they are not a source of energy. They serve important purposes though. Soluble fiber can become a gloppy-like substance (gloppy being the unscientific term for gelatinized) that slows down the rate at which contents leave your stomach, therefore helping you stay full longer. It also helps create bulky stool for people with diarrhea, and helps lower LDL cholesterol. Soluble fiber is found in oatmeal, the fleshy part of an apple, oranges, lentils, berries, nuts, carrots and cucumbers, just to name a few sources. Insoluble fiber cannot be digested and does not react with water. It is like a scrub brush for your intestines. It can increase gut motility, which is a fancy way of saying it can speed up digestion and have a laxative effect that helps prevent constipation. Insoluble fiber is found in whole grains and many different vegetables. It is also in the skin of foods like apples and potatoes.
Just knowing carb basics does not explain why all carbs are not created equal. Sometimes their may be inflammation, an imbalance of gut bacteria or even a gastrointestinal condition that makes digestion, absorption and metabolism of carbs difficult for some people. Simply put when certain forms of mono and polysaccharides are consumed they can be fermented in the gut rather digested and absorbed. Fermenting produces gas and bloating and general discomfort. This is why some people may not be able to tolerate an apple, but may be able to tolerate strawberries. The biochemical explanation for this is quite complex, but suffice it to say that restoring gut health can help you increase the variety of carbs you can to tolerate.
Another important point is that any carb consumed in excess will be converted to fat for storage. In fact any macronutrient consumed in excess is turned to fat for storage. Excess carbs can increase blood glucose, throw off insulin regulation, increase triglycerides, increase inflammation and contribute to many chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and dementia.
Knowing how many carbs to consume and in what forms is not something that most people think about beyond the “good carb/bad carb” mentality that has been drilled into the brains of those in mainstream society in recent years, so I’ve compiled my top five tips that may be helpful for the average person who does not have autoimmune issues or existing chronic diseases (we’ll save those recommendations for private client who need very specific, individualized plans…contact me for more info). Also these tips are functional for those taking a real food approach or just making the transition.
1. Chew more nutrition than you drink. This means drink more water, unsweetened tea or coffee and avoid juice. That’s right. Juice is not a health food. It is more closely related to sugar water, aka soda. You will get far more nutrition from eating the entire fruit because the food version contains all of the vitamins, minerals, FIBER and phytochemicals that get left behind when you just drink the juice. Smoothies should be consumed in moderation, if at all. Check out @gratefulguts on Instagram for #gratefulgutsmadehusbandapproved recipes made with appropriate amounts of protein, fat and carbs for a mini-meal.
2. Get simple sugars, starch and fiber from whole fruits and an abundance of vegetables. Aim for at least 1, ideally 2, servings of vegetables at each meal, including breakfast. Select 2-3 servings of fruit per day.
3. Avoid most, if not all grains, especially in the form of breakfast cereals, pastries, snack foods, bread/toast and pasta. These are not real foods anyway, so this recommendation should not come as a surprise. These foods are highly processed and contribute to excessive intake of carbs, deteriorating health problems, expanding waistlines, gut issues etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Most of these foods also contain gluten, which is a topic for another blog post…or podcast (hint, hint).
4. Limit, or avoid, alcohol if trying to reduce carb intake. All alcohol is carbohydrate-based. The carbs in barley (beer), starch in potatoes (vodka), fructose in grapes (wine) are fermented to create the beloved beverages. Alcohol can also serve as an endocrine disruptor that sends us on a blood sugar roller coaster.
5. Ditch the soda. No good comes from these, even if you have an upset stomach. If you like carbonation, then try getting seltzer water and infusing it with your own combination of fresh fruit or veggies (berries, citrus, cucumber).
This topic is huge and brings up many other opportunities for discussion and future posts. Stay tuned for other topics including gluten, blood sugar regulation, real food snacks, real food sweeteners and much more. Be sure to to like the Grateful Guts Facebook page and follow @gratefulguts on Instagram.