There are three main macronutrients that compose the foods that we eat: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats. While many people are familiar with these terms, the vast majority of Americans have a poor understanding of exactly what these macronutrients are and what their purpose is in our diet. This misunderstanding has only been amplified by fad diets that prioritize eating less fat or less carbs as a staple of losing weight and getting healthy. As a result, people mistakenly assume that they should do without one of these macronutrients, or at least significantly reduce their intake, often at the expense of truly getting health, or shedding pounds.
Understanding nutrition and creating a healthy lifestyle requires that we rewrite the script on macronutrients and develop a better knowledge of what they do and how much we should consume. This article, and the ones that follow, will help us to understand the best sources of these macronutrients, how our bodies can best use and absorb them, and the ratios of consumption that will allow us to stay healthy, get and remain trim, and do so with high levels of energy. By doing so, we will benefit not only from the macronutrients themselves, but also from the vital micronutrients packed with them. We’ll start by discussing carbohydrates.
CLEARING THE CARB CONFUSION
First off, as we begin to talk about carbohydrates, it’s important to note that carbs have been given a bad reputation when considering the obesity epidemic in America. While carbs certainly contribute to the rampant obesity experienced in this country, they also serve as a great source of micronutrients and perform a vital role in our health, since a diet with healthy carbs is necessary for stimulating muscle growth and metabolism.
As a result of the misunderstanding about carbs, people have adopted extreme diets like the Atkins diet, which eliminates almost all carbs and loads people up with nothing more than excess proteins, bad fats, and artificial foods. All the while, diets like these often ignore the source of proteins, fats, and carbs – which is why even though they may produce initial weight loss, they can have negative effects on our short-term and long-term health because there is no consideration made for the quality of the other macronutrients that comprise the diet.
Having said that, diets filled with certain types of carbohydrates do contribute heavily to the obesity in this country. The biggest carb offenders are processed, grain-based carbohydrates which make up a significant amount of the boxed foods found in the grocery store and items on almost every restaurant menu in the neighborhood. Most processed carbohydrates have very little nutritional value and are loaded with sugar or its substitutes, which have been proven to produce leptin resistance, weight gain, and eventually insulin resistance, all the while stimulating our appetites to consume more. Additionally, many processed grains contribute to inflammation throughout the body, increased digestive issues, and autoimmune reactions.
Since most people associate carbs with bread, grains, and pasta, they often forget or ignore the healthy sources of complex carbohydrates found in foods like high-fiber fruits and vegetables, which are nutrient-rich and very healthy. Perhaps instead of eliminating carbs, the focus should be on replacing processed foods with healthier sources of carbs that can actually reduce health problems and slow the aging process.
In addition, consuming carbs by eating more organic fruits and vegetables, legumes, and whole grains will help to shed unwanted body fat instead of leading to more weight gain. Most of these fruits and vegetables are low in calories and high in fiber, which allows you to feel full much quicker and eliminates ongoing cravings. Processed carbs actually stimulate cravings and allow for continued overeating.
Now, a question that may arise for some at this point is, how can I eat more organic fruits if I’m supposed to be limiting my fruit consumption? Up to this point in your program, you have eliminated fruit or limited its consumption in general. We have encouraged you to do this not because it is bad for you, but simply to give your body a break from the cycle of cravings and overconsumption of sugar that has become rampant in our society, including that which is found in fruit.
However, because fruit can be a good source of carbohydrates and because we have worked on repairing and restoring gut function, you can now include it in your diet moving forward, provided that you have a good understanding about sugar and how it affects our health. Before discussing the other types of healthy, complex carbs that we should include in our diet, including vegetables, we will briefly discuss the issues surrounding sugar, specifically fructose.
UNHEALTHY AMOUNTS OF SUGAR
This discussion of sugar matters because carbohydrates are the body’s main fuel source. This fuel comes as carbohydrates are broken down in the body into glucose, or blood sugar, which gives energy for all of our cellular functions. Unlike proteins and fats, which require much more breakdown before your body can burn them for energy, carbohydrates are easily broken down into energy the body can use immediately. Since carbs will raise our glucose levels quickly, we have to be mindful of how much sugar is in our diet whenever we eat carbohydrates. This is particularly true when eating fruit as a carbohydrate because fruit contains natural forms of sugar in higher concentrations than other food sources.
With that said, fructose, found in its natural state in fruits and vegetables, does not normally create the negative demands on your liver and pancreas that processed forms of sugar do. But when fructose is processed, such as in high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), it creates significant issues that include raising cholesterol and triglyceride levels while also increasing the risk for diabetes and heart disease. And because processed fructose is not metabolized the same way as other sugar, it doesn’t trigger appetite suppression, but instead leaves those who consume it feeling unsatisfied and craving more.
As a result, the dramatic increase in the amount of fructose consumed by Americans is actually creating more insulin resistance, which is leading to more type 2 diabetes than ever. In addition, HFCS converts to fat in the body more easily than any other type of sugar and also causes the liver to pump fats into the bloodstream, which can damage arteries and increase the risk of high blood pressure. Add these factors together and you have a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, that disaster winds up in most of the foods Americans consider staples in their diets, including breads, pastas, and most snack foods – or processed carbs. Just take a look at how many items in your pantry and fridge include high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, or its derivatives. It’s important to point out that processed fructose is also found in other products as well. For example, agave syrup is also a highly processed fructose product that is not natural and is not good for us either.
Despite this caution, while sugar consumption and the fructose found in fruit is something that we must be mindful of, most people do not need to monitor their intake of fructose if they are getting it from eating whole fruits and vegetables and avoiding it from processed sources. For the most part, fructose ingested in its whole-food form does not create problems. The important note for us to consider here is that this does not include fruit juice, even if it’s freshly squeezed. Juice eliminates important fiber and causes people to increase their fructose intake by as much as five times in a single serving!
The exception to this caution would be people who insist on eating whole fruits and vegetables while also ignoring their consumption of processed fructose. In this instance, your body will re- enter the broken cycle of excess sugar that creates so many health problems. You simply don’t have the ability, knowing what you have learned in this program, to pretend that the added sugars and artificial sweeteners in foods will not significantly affect your health. Opt to have natural sugar in your diet because you are eating nutrient dense fruits and vegetables, not because you are eating processed foods with added sugar.
When looking at carbohydrates, getting complex carbs that have long chains of sugars are more important than simple carbs, such as isolated forms of sugar. Good, complex carbohydrates not only provide energy to the body, but also serve as a main source of fiber. There are two types of fiber that you get from choosing healthy carbohydrates – soluble and insoluble. Both have important functions in regards to digestion and metabolism, so be sure you’re getting plenty of both types in the form of fruits, vegetables, and legumes.
In addition to whole fruit, other sources to get the complex carbs we need in our diet include potatoes, whole grains, and legumes, as well as vegetables.
One distinction is probably most important here: bread is a processed food. Even though marketing teams have labeled today’s bread as “whole wheat bread,” that is not an accurate description of what you are actually buying. If manufacturers sprinkle a little bit of whole grain in the bread, it can be labeled as “whole grain,” but it’s still primarily a product made from flour. This creates significant metabolic changes as compared to true whole grains.
The only bread that should be considered is a flourless bread made from sprouted whole grains that offers essential nutrients and fiber. They are typically found in the freezer section of the grocery store because they do not have the added preservatives and ingredients like high- fructose corn syrup.
Assuming that you do not have an issue with gluten, which has become a problem for many people, these sprouted grain breads would not be a problem if you do not have insulin resistance or leptin resistance. However, you should not consume them with every meal.
*Important Note: Those with any form of autoimmune disease will need to avoid gluten for life even in the form of sprouted grains.
Other forms of healthy, whole grains that can be consumed in moderation include quinoa, brown rice, buckwheat, and oats. Of course, you will want to make sure you buy organic, non- GMO grain products without added sugars, preservatives, or other processed products.
Potatoes are a good source of complex carbohydrates, however another distinction that should be made when discussing potatoes is that this does not include French fries or loaded baked potatoes. We are strictly talking about plain potatoes. Grass-fed butter would be a great addition with a little pink Himalayan salt, but adding much more than that could cause problems.
By far, the best source of complex carbohydrates comes from organic vegetables. You should be filling your plate with as many of these as possible as they are high in micronutrients, improve digestion, and offer low-calorie, yet filling, options for each meal. Your veggies and good fats list provides options for great vegetables to include in your diet.
GETTING THE BALANCE OF CARBS CORRECT
So, with this information in mind, how much of your meals should be made up of carbohydrates? The answer to that question is based upon your goals and activity levels. Your carbohydrate need can range from 20% to as much as 55% total calories depending on whether you are attempting to lose weight, maintain your weight, or build additional muscle.
In order to calculate calories, you need to understand that each gram of carbohydrate generates about four calories. Here’s a summary of the recommended carbohydrate percentages:
Lose weight: 20 – 40% of total calories
Maintain weight: 30 – 45% of total calories
Build muscle: 35 – 55% of total calories
It is typically recommended to first try the lower number in each category as this is the most common need for the average adult. Some individuals will need an increase in the percentage of calories from carbohydrates based on their metabolism and body type.
On a final note, if you are working out to increase muscle mass and burn fat and you’re finding that your energy levels are low, it’s possible that you’re not getting enough good carbohydrates. Carbohydrates that aren’t used for immediate energy, are stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles. This form of stored energy is most important when utilizing your muscles during a workout. Be sure that you are getting enough carbohydrates to replenish those each day from quality carbohydrates and stay away from the processed junk.