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46: Carbs Aren’t Bad

May 26, 2020

Carbs get a bad rap, but they shouldn’t. In part two of our Get to Know Your Macros series, nutritionist Thunder Jalili talks about carbohydrates, why you should embrace and not avoid them, and how “living on the fringe” at the grocery store could be one of the biggest positive changes in your diet.

Episode Transcript

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Carbs Aren't "Good" or "Bad"

It seems like everyone is trying to cut carbohydrates in their diet. Yet, carbohydrates are one of the three major macronutrients the body needs every single day. Are carbs really the enemy to your nutrition goal? Nutrition expert Thunder Jalili is back to clear up the myths about carbs.

Carbs are a category of macronutrients that are built around glucose, starch, and other naturally occurring sugar compounds. They are used by the body as an energy source. These compounds are fundamentally the same whether you get the carb from an apple or a soft drink, but they differ in their potential benefits and how the body can use them.

Thunder breaks carbs down into two categories: natural, plant-based carbohydrates, and refined carbohydrates that are added during food processing. He wanted to make it clear that this is not the typical "good" versus "bad" dichotomy that a lot of fad diets try to create.

Think of Carbohydrates Like a Drug Dosage

"Think of it kinda like a drug dosage," explains Thunder. Compare the carbs contained in a sweet potato versus a big gulp soda. First, when looking at the form the carbohydrate takes, the sweet potato's carbs are in a food matrix that slows the body's absorption. The highly processed sugar in the soda absorbs much faster and produces a much more robust insulin response.

Secondly, consider the concentration in these two carb sources. Besides being a quickly absorbed form of carbohydrate, the amount of sugar contained in a large soda can be as high as 30-40 teaspoons. To get a similar amount of sugar from a plant-based source like an apple, you would need to eat five whole apples. Most people wouldn't sit down and plow through five apples in a sitting, but sucking down a large soda over 30 minutes is not unheard of. It's much easier to "overdose," or consume too many carbs (and calories) from highly processed sources and foods with added sugar.

Finally, it's important to take into account the other "good stuff" that the unprocessed sources of carbohydrates have in them. Fruits, vegetables, beans, and even whole-grain bread and pasta have fiber, phytochemicals, and micronutrients that are part of a healthy diet. Processed carbs like Pop-Tarts provide very little nutritional value beyond their high dosage of carbohydrates.

Carbs Are Best in Moderation

It can be easy to get too many calories or sugar from non-natural sources. High sugar and high caloric diets can lead to weight gain, obesity, and other cardiovascular diseases. In fact, some research studies have shown evidence that high sugar diets can lead to higher cholesterol and cancer metastasis.

On the other hand, extremely low-carb diets have their own dangers. A diet with no carbs often lacks those important micronutrients and fiber that makes for a healthy body. Additionally, most low carb diets contain more meats and fats, and there are plenty of potential health complications that can come from high meat and high-fat diets.

The rule of thumb is for carbohydrates to make up 40-60% of your daily caloric intake. But Thunder says worry less about the number of carbohydrates you're consuming daily. Instead, focus on the type of carbs you are eating and the rest should figure itself out.

The simple rule is to "live on the fringe" when shopping. In the grocery store, most carbs on the outside edges of the store will be better for you than the refined carbs from the snacks and candy aisles in the middle.

Odds and Ends

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