The fat-free 90’s loved it. Atkins banned it. Vegetarianism brought it back. Paleo demonized it. Drs. Oz and Weill deify it. The Bible calls it “the staff of life.” Taubes proved you can live without it. Whatever else it may be, it is the most consumed macronutrient in most of our diets. And people everywhere are utterly confused by it. Complex carbohydrate indeed.
Carbohydrates, one of the three major macronutrients along with protein and fat that make up food, are generally considered the body’s primary source of fuel. They are ubiquitous in our diet, occurring naturally in everything from grains to nuts to fruits to vegetables. Even things considered carbohydrate-free like meat and oil are generally served with carb-containing sauces, marinades or side dishes. As anyone who has ever tried to go on a low-carb diet knows, carbs are everywhere.
It is the grain carbs however that are in the cross-hairs these days. Spending many of the past years as a vegetarian or vegan, I tend to dismiss most claims that grains are bad for you (my heart goes out to the gluten-intolerant vegans) but I have been rethinking that mindset as of late. First, my favorite – and decidely non-sensational – magazine Experience Life
published an article by Catherine Gutherie in the March 2011 issue called “3 Simple Shifts
” talking about small dietary changes that make a big difference. Numbers one and two (eat more beans and healthy fats) were no-brainers to me.
But healthy shift #3 was “go easy on the grains.” Gutherie basically echoes Primal/Paleo theory in saying that humans aren’t really built to digest grains and advises people to avoid them. If you must eat them, she says to limit yourself to one to two servings a day and eat them in their most-whole form, eschewing whole-grain flours for boiled or baked grains like quinoa or wild rice (which are actually seeds not grains but whatever) and to stay away from wheat. Whole-grain bread, crackers and cereals are on par with Ding-Dongs. (That last bit is my interpretation of her words.)
Say what? Whole wheat bread and I go together like, well, bread and butter. Or peanut butter and jelly. Or Rihanna and whips and chains. (Stupid catchy song!) Whole wheat flour is such a staple in my house that I grind my own from bulk wheat to save money because we go through so much of it. And this whole time I thought I was helping my family be healthy. Gutherie adds, “Keep in mind that most whole-grain flour has the same glycemic index as refined flour.” That noise you just heard was all the gears in my brain jamming, by the way. “Grains dominate so many foods, they are easy to overeat. By down-sizing your grain intake, you free up plate and stomach space for more variety.”
Sure Cookie Monster taught us that cookies are a sometimes food but many experts are now saying the whole food pyramid should be upended with 11-13 servings of vegetables a day forming the base with grains – any kind, including whole grain – up at the top in the “you’re killing yourself” cookie category. Just as I was working myself into a full-blown tizzy, I had a chat with a good friend about this subject. She answered reasonably,
“Anti-grain does seem to be the newest fad, doesn’t it? The way I see it, if grains were really the cause of obesity, we would have seen it thousands of years ago when humans started harvesting grain and adding it to their diet. The weight epidemic is definitely a 20th / 21st century problem. Not that you couldn’t find fat people before then, it just didn’t describe the majority of the population. And there are still countries in the world that subsist on grains and don’t have weight issues.”
Cue the war of the research. A study
was recently released showing that eating cereal every day helps with heart health. Gary Taubes of the low-carb scientific bible Good Calories Bad Calories
recently took to his blog to do damage control for his appearance on the Dr. Oz show. Besides making the very obvious wizard of Oz joke (not judging – I totally would have gone there too!), in his post
he rebuts my friend’s argument and the cereal study by saying that people have different levels of carb sensitivity.
“This means that there’s no one-size-fits-all prescription for the quantity of carbohydrates we can eat and still lose fat or remain lean. For some, staying lean or getting back to being lean might be a matter of merely avoiding sugars and eating the other carbohydrates in the diet, even the fattening ones, in moderation: pasta dinners once a week, say, instead of every other day. For others, moderation in carbohydrate consumption might not be sufficient, and far stricter adherence is necessary. And for some, weight will be lost only on a diet of virtually zero carbohydrates, and even this may not be sufficient to eliminate all our accumulated fat, or even most of it.”
He adds, “The way I see it, Oz, who’s naturally skinny, can eat fruits and vegetables and whole grains to his hearts content and remain lean. For him, they can be the bulk of his diet and he can tolerate them and burn them off. They give him energy. They don’t make him fat. But most of his audience is not naturally lean, and they probably can’t. I’d argue that many of them have probably been living on diets very similar to the diet Oz is prescribing and it hasn’t helped them or certainly not to any significant degree. I get e-mails all the time now from people who tell me they were getting fatter and fatter on just those “heart healthy” diets.”
Cutting out entire macronutrients hasn’t served us so well in the past. For you young ‘uns out there who may not recall the ’90s – don’t worry you can still watch My So-Called Life on rerun, Eddie Vedder isn’t dead (although honestly Kurt Cobain was the better singer) and even Wal-Mart is selling plaid flannel shirts again – we tried to cut out all fat as a means to “be healthy.” There was oodles of research about it, the American Heart Association endorsed it, dietitians prescribed it and there were more low-fat cookbooks and diet books than Lindsey Lohan has excuses. At the time we all thought we were doing the absolute healthiest thing by avoiding saturated fats at all costs and eating low-fat butter spray. Looking back on it, we were utter fools. Sometimes I wonder if it won’t be the same in twenty years with low-carb.
But then I look at my thighs that never seem to shrink no matter what I do and my friends who can’t lose weight no matter how vigilant they follow the government’s recommendations and it all feels like a crap shoot. I have no conclusions of my own on this subject. Not yet. All I can say from personal experience is that Primal Blueprint – about as low-carb as they come – was my most spectacular Experiment failure to date. But that wasn’t because it didn’t work – I wasn’t on it long enough to know – it was because mentally I couldn’t take the emotional swings, the brain fog and the cravings that come with drastically lowering your carbs. Intuitive Eating works for me because nothing, not even white-flour cookies, are forbidden. For me it’s all a mental game when in reality I ought to be looking at what makes my body feel and act its healthiest.
I am so so confused. Are carbs good or evil? What about whole grains? Whole grain flours? Do they differ from person to person or perhaps from situation to situation? What about carb-loading before a race? My head spins!
Hopefully some of you can shed some light on this subject for me- What’s your stance on carbs? How did you come to it? How does your body feel when you do or don’t eat them?