Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Mastering your Macronutrients (Part 1) - Carbohydrates

Welcome to the first post in a series that I believe may be some of the most meaningful material we can share with you. Those of you that have followed our writing so far know that we believe that a combined approach of nutrition and training are the keys to weight (fat) loss, reversing the impacts of metabolic syndrome and other "natural" companions of aging, and building a healthy body that will take us into our golden years.

A recent post showed that precise calorie counting is not the best solution (as the primary measurement) for achieving the goals of a healthy, strong, balanced body. Instead, we believe that mastering your calorie composition is the key to taking control of your body again and optimizing all of your body's systems to work together. That means mastering your macro- and micronutrients.

Carb's: an introduction

We start with carbohydrates because they are both the most misunderstood and the potentially most problematic of the macros when it comes to weight and body function. Foods that contain carbohydrates provide two components to your nutritional intake: sugars in the form of glucose and/or fructose, and dietary fiber. Yes, that's right, all carbohydrates are basically some form of sugar.

We need carbohydrates. Your muscles and brain burn glucose in order to function. Dietary fiber is critical for digestive health. But that's it. It's energy, or potential energy anyway. You can either burn it, store it, or - well - get rid of it. You can't build muscle with it; you can't restore cellular health. Those are jobs for proteins and fats. I believe this is an important point: as a macronutrient, carbohydrates have a purpose, and they should be used as intended.

"Good" carb's and "Bad" carb's

Okay, unless it's toxic somehow, let's stop classifying any particular food as good or bad. For one thing, it sets you up for the moment when you choose a food and then feel guilty for having been "bad" in your eating. Remember, every food has a purpose.

However! Like any food selection, there are a range of choices available, and some of them are clearly superior selections. "Better" carb's have fewer calories relative to the sugar content, include micronutrients (vitamins and minerals), and significant amounts of dietary fiber. Checking the Glycemic Index of a particular food is a good (but not the only) way to evaluate the quality of your carb selection.

There are a number of ways to classify and select the higher quality or "better" carb's. One is by their complexity. Simple carb's have sugars that are readily absorbed in the digestive tract and flow straight into the bloodstream. Complex carb's take longer to digest and break down slowly. This results in a more gradual impact to insulin levels. Another way to break them up is by starchiness. The more "starchy" a carbohydrate is (e.g. white potatoes, corn, refined flour, refined rice), the higher the sugar impact to your bloodstream.

"The Carb Pyramid" - my own version anyway.  Eat more of the bottom and less (or none) of the top.

Using the diagram, I try to give a sense of which carbohydrate choices are more beneficial as well as a visual of how much of each a person should consider as part of their daily intake.

Note the "tipping point" in the fruit layer. This is the point in the pyramid where your choices can start to snowball and cause you to get more sugar than you really want in your nutrition plan, especially for the relative nutritional value they provide. Among fruits, your best selections are berries. Bananas, often the choice of athletes to prevent cramps by virtue of their potassium, are one of the most sugary fruits you can eat.

So how many carbohydrate calories do I need?

As I mentioned earlier, this macronutrient group is a little complicated when it comes to dietary planning. Let's break it down.

Doctors and nutritionists recommend 9-11 servings of vegetables a day. A minuscule percentage of the population actually reach this number. So, on one hand, we can all eat more carbohydrates of the vegetable variety. So, let's just say, fresh or frozen, eat as many veggies as you like.

As we move up the pyramid, complex carbohydrates has its own section, which may be a little confusing.  Colorful vegetables are complex carbs, but not all complex carbs are what most think about as vegetables.  Sweet potatoes are a favorite at our house for a filling and tasty side dish that make a "better choice" carb selection.

Dietary fiber can be found both in the vegetable section and in other complex carbohydrates, but is commonly thought of and found in most abundance in whole grains.  Whole grains are just that: things that still look like the kernel of grain as it was harvested. "Big chunk of processed grain" is not the same as whole grain. Rolled oats are just one example of these "sorta whole" grains. Steel cut (also known as Irish) oats are the truly "whole" variety. In their whole form, these grains retain dietary fiber, oils, and vitamins that make them beneficial and satisfying to eat.

Up to this point, you'd be in a safe zone if you kept these carbohydrates up to as much as 40% of your daily calorie intake, although you could certainly take it lower if you chose. Some of this depends on your activity level and the nature of the training that goes along with your nutrition plan.

Once we get to starches and sugars, you're in the zone where you want to watch your intake very seriously. In many cases, these foods spike insulin every bit as much as drinking a cup of straight glucose. You get virtually no nutritional value, don't feel satisfied, put your metabolism on the roller coaster, and, some studies suggest, actually build an ever-increasing craving for these foods. Eat these foods by exception.

Processed food alert! Many of the packaged, processed foods, including cereals, pastas, and anything labeled low-fat, are loaded with refined, processed carbohydrates, because they last longer and create that "crave-able" taste. Don't be fooled by labels like "whole wheat" or "whole grain" either. The standards to apply these labels are widely variable and some companies stretch even those definitions.

A few words about the impact of highly refined carbohydrates

The impact that the onslaught of highly refined carbohydrates has had on our systems cannot be overstated.  Sticking to the concept that any particular food is neither "good" nor "bad" in and of itself, let's just say that it would be extremely helpful to think of these foods much in the same way as one thinks about alcohol (the fact that alcohol is a carbohydrate is actually beside the point here).

People know about alcohol.  People understand that it has both immediate and cumulative effects on our bodies and our health.  Some people can't handle it at all (for a variety of reasons), some people engage only rarely, and some go nuts.  But nobody is fooling themselves about what it does.

Highly processed/refined carbohydrates are no different.  They flood our system with sugar, can lead to fatty liver syndrome (the non-alcoholic version of cirrhosis), make us feel "high" and then sluggish later, and, if abused long enough, can progress to life-threatening conditions.  The science shows that they are quite addictive, stimulating the brain's pleasure center when consumed (or in many cases, even thought about).  Oh - and make us really, really obese too.

So if you're going to include these ingredients in your nutrition plan, go ahead.  But do so knowingly and intentionally, fully aware of the fact that your body neither needs nor wants these things and, eventually you will pay the piper if you abuse them.

A few more words about some of the popular assertions surrounding carbohydrates and low carb diets

The lowly carbohydrate molecule has been so smeared and maligned over the years, it's like a bad political campaign.  Now, I've just given plenty of reasons that some forms are worth avoiding.  But, with all of the exposure, a lot of mythology and conventional wisdom has built up that is worth dispelling.

  1. "Sugar is Sugar": made famous by our friends in the corn syrup industry, they really want you to think of it that way.  I'm sorry, but glucose is glucose and fructose is another animal altogether.  Fructose is thought in some circles to be more benign, because it doesn't have the insulin spiking effect that glucose does.  That's because fructose is processed and absorbed in the liver, not immediately upon digestion like glucose is.  But, while it's there, it puts a strain on things.  And, because it's already in the body's fat processing center, guess where it goes?
  2. "A calorie is a calorie": as I mentioned above, calories ingested as carbohydrates can only be consumed as energy or stored as potential energy - fat.  So if you're getting most of your calories from carbohydrates, you've got a lot of "potential" to deal with.
  3. "Gluten is evil": gluten is actually a protein.  It's found naturally in most flours, which is why people who have gluten sensitivity stay away from most breads and cereals.  The actual incidence of celiac's disease is pretty rare, but it's flashy, so it gets a lot of press and food marketers have jumped right on the bandwagon.  Even those that may not have gluten allergies may be "gluten sensitive" to some degree if it's overdone. And there's the problem with gluten: the food industry significantly increased use of gluten as an additive in many foods as a substitute for fat.  Fat acts as a binder and an emulsifier in food, giving it texture and form.  When they took the fat out, they had to find a food component that would play the same part.  Gluten is what gives bread its structure so that it can rise and be light in texture.  It is the perfect candidate.  So, when you see "low fat" on a label, there's a good chance it's got added sugar and gluten to make up for the flavor, texture, and structure profiles the fat provided.  This means you're probably getting a lot more gluten than you think, and gluten sensitivity has been linked with IBS and lots of digestive unpleasantness.  Hence the upswing on sales of things like Activia and Benefiber.
  4. "Low carb diets are dangerous": first of all, I don't like "diets" per se.  But, the theory here is that low carb necessarily means high fat and high protein, which are more difficult to digest and therefore harder on your kidneys and liver.  The other assertion that comes with this is that dietary fat is the root of all cholesterol problems, so by increasing intake of fat, you're putting your arteries at risk.  Unless a kidney or liver specialist tells you specifically that your organs are somehow damaged and unable to handle certain foods, this statement simply doesn't hold water.  Refined carbohydrates have been shown to have even more dramatic effects on blood lipids (particularly the more harmful LDL particles) than fats.
  5. "You only lose water weight on low carb diets":  This one makes me smile.  Anybody who has gained a lot of water weight can tell you its an indicator that something is wrong (or at least out of balance).  When you are deluged with refined carbohydrates, your blood chemistry can get out of whack.  The body is pretty effective at regulating blood chemistry, but to deal with all of that extra sugar, the body retains salts and extra water to balance the equation overall.  When you stop flooding your system, the body lets it go.  You lose water weight first as a result of your blood chemistry righting itself.  That doesn't sound like a bad thing to me.  And, after a week to two, all weight loss is "real".
So there you have it, the lowdown on understanding and selecting the right carbohydrate components and amounts for your nutrition plan.  How you arrange them simply depends on what works best for you.  In part 2 of the series, we'll examine how to select the best fats for your plan.


  1. Loved the graphic on this article. I am diabetic and so reading quality information on carbohydrates is very appreciated. Thanks!

    1. Thanks for the read and the feedback, Ben. We're glad you found it helpful. With such a complex and sometimes controversial topic, we try hard to find ways to present information that's easy to digest (so to speak) without sacrificing the deeper science beneath it. Both of our fathers are Type II as well and, honestly, it was a part of our inspiration to get educated on what healthy nutrition really means. Enjoy your posts as well!

  2. This is a very useful article. As I help others in their nutritional guidance, this particular article puts things in a very logical light! Definitely sharing this with my collegues!

    1. Thanks Jason. We are working hard to do justice to complex subjects and still keep them easy to digest. It is a fine line between clarity and oversimplification when it comes to human healthy. Be sure to check out the future installments on fats and protein in coming days.


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