Evil? Essential? We explore the evidence.
The carbohydrate: the most maligned macronutrient of our age. The negative health claims about carbs could fill up an entire burn book, and like every discussion on diet in recent memory, the conversations around carbs tend to lack nuance.
For instance, do you remember when the health world categorically demonized fat? I know, now that keto is the talk of the town, it’s almost hard to imagine. And yet, it was the case. Later, we realized that there was a big difference between saturated fat, unsaturated fat, and trans fats. The devil was in the details, and now that devil (artificial trans fat) is banned from our food supply.
Just like fats, not all carbs are created equal.
Yes, all carbs are – eventually – broken down into glucose (aka sugar). But carbs are our body’s go-to energy source, and many foods containing carbs also contain uber-beneficial nutrients. So instead of throwing out those nutrients along with the carbs, we wanted to investigate how we can all become smarter carb consumers.
When making food choices, there are two key categories to keep in mind: simple and complex.
Not only are there different types of carbs, there is also mounting evidence that the source of these carbs matters when determining the impact on your health. This seems to be especially relevant in the case of simple carbohydrates, which are made of just one or two sugar molecules and are quickly broken down and absorbed as glucose in your bloodstream, inducing a fast and furious spike in your blood sugar.
Research suggests that consuming simple carbohydrates in the form of candy, syrups, sodas, and foods sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup is associated with difficulty in weight control and more negative health outcomes than ingesting naturally occurring simple carbohydrates from fruit.
This blows a hole in the idea that eating a banana is the same as downing a serving of table sugar.
A spoonful of sugar has virtually no nutritional value. Fruit, on the other hand, contains polyphenols and fiber that slow glucose uptake by your cells. Plus, fruit brings plenty of other vitamins and nutrients to the table.
So if you just have to keep it simple every now and again, try looking for a fix with plenty of fiber.
[fun fact: fiber is actually a carb too, but it’s one that your body can’t digest. It helps move food through your system and also keeps your gut bacteria happy!]
Complex carbohydrates, as you’ve probably already guessed, are made up of longer chains of sugar molecules, and are therefore digested at a more leisurely pace.
Legumes, potatoes, and many vegetables fall into this category. These are powerhouse foods that are highly nutritious, help stabilize blood sugar, and keep you full longer. Consuming complex carbs has even been suggested as an intervention to help deal with anxiety by balancing serotonin levels.
(Did you know that 95% of serotonin receptors are found in the lining of the gut?)
Complex carbs are also often foods rich in magnesium, which is associated with lower anxiety and improved sleep.
When discussing whole grains, which are another form of complex carbs, the waters get more murky. Ironically, it’s the protein element in most bread (gluten), not the carbohydrates, that gives rise to many people’s digestive woes. Still, there are plenty of breads and cereals out there claiming to contain whole grains and complex carbs, but that in reality are mostly made up of refined flours that have been leached of nutrients and fiber.
Watch out for highly refined, sneaky starches that are trying to piggyback off of the success of complex carbs.
And more than anything, watch out for alarmist articles about any particular class of nutrient or food group — there’s probably more to the story.
In search of some inspo for preparing simple meals with only the most nutrient-dense complex carbs? Check out some of our recipes below, and see what’s good on our menu for the week!
You can scope out the rest of our chef’s (not-so-secret) recipes here.
Photos by Rhett Noonan & Julia Kuzenkov on Unsplash