Oh my gosh, y’all, I am SO over it: the crucifixion of carbs.
The very first question I usually get when someone finds out I’m a dietitian is, “What do you think about carbs?” And it’s clear from the way the question is asked that my answer will dictate whether the person asking will overdose on them or eliminate them entirely.
The answer is that I think carbs are perfectly fine. And, yes, I eat them. The good ones and the bad ones.
First let’s have a short nutrition lesson and talk about what carbs are, how your body uses them, and how they’re different.
Carbohydrates get their name from what they consist of: carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. When you eat carbohydrate foods — which is anything from pears to pasta to pancake syrup — your body breaks them down into simple sugars, the most common of which is glucose. Glucose is the body’s primary fuel source, and your brain uses it almost exclusively to function.
When glucose enters the bloodstream, your pancreas produces insulin to metabolize it. If a ton of glucose gets dumped into your bloodstream too often and your pancreas has to overproduce insulin to compensate, you can become resistant to it — in other words, you develop type 2 diabetes.
Insulin also promotes fat storage — so OD-ing on sugar and then having insulin flood your veins means you’re less likely to use the carbohydrate as fuel and more likely to see it stuck around your midsection.
Here’s where things go off the rails. People hear the word “carb” and start lumping everything together. Beans with brownies. Cantaloupe with candy. But there’s a very big difference.
The higher and faster a carb spikes your insulin, the worse it is. A carb that’s straight sugar is going to send your insulin into orbit, and then you’ll crash and burn — stretched out on the couch in a food coma.
But a carb that’s mixed with other nutrients like fat or protein won’t do this, because their presence prevents your blood sugar from skyrocketing. So eating cake frosting is way worse than eating pasta with meat sauce. It’s sort of like the difference between starting a fire slowly with twigs versus starting one with lighter fluid.
The main thing to remember is that, in general, the farther a food travels from its natural state, the more unhealthy it becomes. Case in point: high-fructose corn syrup — the mother of all bad carbs. HFCS is made from corn that is processed into corn starch and then converted enzymatically into a highly concentrated sugary syrup.
So when people make the case for how terrible bananas are for you (“What about all that sugar???”), I sigh deeply and patiently explain how the fructose in a piece of fruit is nothing like the fructose in high-fructose corn syrup. Yes, a banana contains fructose — but it also contains fiber, which slows the rate at which the sugar enters the bloodstream, and it contains antioxidants, which are good for you.
But there’s another reason why I think you shouldn’t cut carbs — and it has nothing to do with whether they’re good or bad.
Anytime you eliminate something, you subconsciously increase your desire for it. And that increases your tendency to binge on it when you run out of willpower trying to cut it.
Plus, your body is designed to process all kinds of foods and to filter out toxins. You having a piece of cake on your birthday isn’t going to kill you. And before y’all start throwing things at me, yes I’m fully aware that downing cans of Coke all day is terrible and I know that cavemen didn’t eat Twinkies.
My point is that, if you think eating carbs is bad, it’s far worse to adopt an all-or-nothing attitude toward food. Because the more you cut foods completely out, the more you’ll binge on them later. Remember, all or nothing works both ways . . . avoiding and bingeing are two sides of the same coin.
If you have too many foods that aren’t found in nature as part of your regular diet, start removing them slowly, one at a time, until they’ve become something you only occasionally enjoy. Don’t make food something scary that you have no control over — because you do.
There’s no reason to be part of this fear-mongering that seems to follow carbohydrates around. Being afraid of food and shunning it like the plague prevents you from using your intuition when choosing what you’re going to eat. You don’t have to keep worrying about whether pasta is high-glycemic or not. Is a plateful of white pasta with bread on the side good for you? Would it be better if you ordered whole-wheat pasta? You already know the answers to these kinds of questions.
Instead of obsessing all day about what you’re going to order for dinner, maybe it would be easier to just get the pasta, skip the bread, and have fun with your friends. And then not do it every night.
Here’s the most important thing: constantly changing what you eat is useless if you never change the way that you eat. It’s better to train yourself to eat all kinds of foods in moderation than it is to eliminate entire food groups for a month and then binge on them later.
Besides, if you change how you eat, you’ll be less likely to choose unhealthy crap to binge on in the first place.