Carbs are necessary for long-term health and brain function. But not the doughnuts, breads, bagels and sweets we typically think of as carbs. These are highly processed foods, stripped of their nutrients and fiber. When I say carbs, I mean real, whole plant foods containing all the vitamins, minerals, fiber and phytonutrients that create health.
Unfortunately, most people are not eating these plant foods. They are eating quickly absorbed carbs from sugar, high fructose corn syrup and white flour, which are very efficiently turned into belly fat in the body. After you eat a high-carb meal, your insulin spikes and your blood sugar plummets — leaving you very hungry. That is why you crave more carbs and sugar and, ultimately, eat more.
The important difference is in how carbs affect your blood sugar. Calorie for calorie, sugar is different from other calories that come from protein, fat, or non-starchy carbs such as greens. Sugar scrambles all your normal appetite controls so you consume more and more, driving your metabolism to convert it into lethal belly fat.
To drive home the point that not all calories – or carbs – are created equally, read this, which shows that while both soda and broccoli fall into the carbs category, 750 calories of soda and 750 calories of broccoli behave entirely differently once they enter your body.
Here’s a quick refresher. Your gut quickly absorbs the fiber-free sugars in the soda. The glucose spikes your blood sugar, starting a domino effect of high insulin and a cascade of hormonal responses that kicks bad biochemistry into gear. The high insulin increases storage of belly fat, increases inflammation, raises triglycerides and lowers HDL, raises blood pressure, lowers testosterone in men and contributes to infertility in women.
High-fiber, low-sugar carbs, such as broccoli, are slowly digested and don’t lead to blood sugar and insulin spikes. These slow carbs reduce cancer risk and increase your body’s ability to detoxify.
Therein lies the key difference. Slow carbs like broccoli heal rather than harm.
Choosing the Right Carbs
You may not realize this, but there are no essential carbs. There are essential fats (omega-3s) and essential proteins (amino acids), but if you never had any carbs again, you would survive.
That being said, good-quality carbs that come from plant foods provide unique benefits, including high levels of vitamins and minerals, fiber and special plant compounds with healing properties called phytonutrients or phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are medicinal molecules such as curcumin in turmeric, glucosinolates in broccoli, anthocyanidins in berries and black rice and so on.
Many of these foods are high in fiber, which helps buffer out their sugar content. That is one reason why eating a cup of blueberries has a dramatically different impact than putting four teaspoons of sugar in your coffee. Both have about 16 grams of sugar, but the nutrients, phytonutrients and fiber in blueberries help buffer out that load, whereas the sugar-filled coffee simply raises your insulin levels and plummets your blood sugar, leaving you running for a muffin or other quick sugar fixes.
Besides stabilizing blood sugar by slowing the absorption of carbs, fiber feeds the friendly flora in your gut and scrubs your intestines, thus supporting a healthy digestive tract. Try to gradually increase your fiber intake to 30 to 50 grams a day. That becomes easy when you focus on viscous fiber from legumes, nuts, seeds, whole grains, vegetables and low-glycemic-load fruits.
When you focus on these low-glycemic-load plant foods, your weight normalizes. You feel better without the sugar crashes and you reduce your risk for numerous diseases.
Can a Low-Carb Diet Benefit You?
While I think nearly everyone does well incorporating nutrient-dense slow carbs, there are many cases in which a very low-carb diet can be beneficial. For people with type 2 diabetes, high blood sugar and/or obesity, you may need to restrict or cut out even starchy veggies and fruit for a period of time before re-introducing them back into your diet.
The trick involves gradually introducing slow carbs. As insulin sensitivity improves, you can increase your consumption of slow carbs like lentils, yams, fruit and whole grains from time to time.
Once you’ve balanced your insulin levels and dealt with any deeper issues, you can move on to a slow-carb diet (about 30 grams per meal and 15 grams per snack).
No matter what, you want to keep your glycemic load low. Always avoid refined sugars, refined carbs, and processed foods. If you do decide to eat grains, keep them to a minimum. Any grains can increase your blood sugar. Consider sticking with quinoa or black rice, and minimize starchy, high-glycemic cooked vegetables, such as potatoes, corn and root vegetables, such as rutabagas, parsnips and turnips.
Another trick is to always eat a carb with some protein, fiber, or anti-inflammatory fat to help buffer the carb's sugar load. With that, a low-carb diet might actually be beneficial.
Always talk to your doctor before incorporating drastic diet or lifestyle changes.