Carbs 101

When we think of food in a weight loss perspective, we tend to think about macronutrients: carbohydrates (carbs), fat and protein. However, what brought me to this point is actually my understanding of nutrient density of the foods. It is absolutely correct that understanding macronutrients is key to a healthy lifestyle and weight loss, but the importance of micronutrients is critical too. Micronutrients are the vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fatty acids and other compounds that are present in the food. These can be anything from Vitamin B12 to Magnesium, from Glycine (a type of amino acid) to Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA, a type of omega-3 fatty acid). For the purpose of this post, I will only focus on carbs because I don’t want my first nutrition-related post to be too long and complicated to understand.

Enter Carbs:

As mentioned above, there are three macronutrients: carbs, fat and protein. Carbs are stored in the muscle and liver: and give our bodies quick energy to burn. One important aspect to understand here is that, carbs are present in almost every food except for oils (fats) such as coconut oil, olive oil and some animal meats such as ground beef, chicken breast, etc. Some examples of carbs are vegetables, fruits, wheat, tubers like potatoes, desserts, seeds like quinoa (Yes, quinoa is technically a seed), rice and pasta, legumes such as beans, chickpeas, peanuts, and alcohol... There is a strong low-carb high-fat (LCHF) movement in weight loss communities. And there is a reason for that. Carbs when eaten excessively, especially if we are living a sedentary lifestyle (office jobs), can be problematic. Carbs tend to raise our blood sugar to the levels where insulin is secreted so that we can push the glucose into our cells. When insulin is high, our bodies tend to be in a storage mode. So should we just avoid carbs all together because of its relationship with insulin? Absolutely not! Where we get our carbs (source of carbs) are crucial if we want to optimize our health, brain function and achieve healthy fat loss. There is a reason why almost every fat loss diet focuses on vegetables. Leafy vegetables supply a lot of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other micronutrients for proper cell and organ function which makes them nutrient dense. They are also low in calories. Some examples are kale, spinach, arugula, chard, and lettuce. A diet that is rich in leafy vegetables (plant-based diet) is where we should start (not to be confused with vegetarian diet). Especially the fiber that comes from vegetables slow the breakdown of the foods which prevents blood sugar spikes. Also they feed the microbiota (bacteria present in our bodies) which are very important. Gut microbiome plays a key role which I will explain in a future post, but for now it is important to understand that we want to feed our microbiome assuming we do not have dysbiosis (imbalance of good vs bad bacteria) in our system. Fruits are somewhat controversial. Some people say that we should be eating fruits in copious amounts and some people say that we should avoid them altogether. I tend to see good results when we limit our fruit consumption to 1-2 servings every other day. Fruits are nature’s desserts that used to be abundant during late summer so that our bodies can get ready for the cold winter. It is well understood that one thing that can protect us from cold is extra layer of fat. It is true that fruits are rich in fiber and micronutrients but they are also high in sugar (fructose and glucose). Fructose in excess amounts tend to have insulin-resistance type of effects which can be a roadblock if we want to lose some body fat. Tubers and root vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, carrots, and onions can be utilized as main carb sources of our diets. They tend to be higher in calories but they also supply great amounts of micronutrients and prebiotics (food for bacteria). If you have a lot of weight to lose or insulin resistant, keeping them in check like fruits can be very beneficial to jump start the fat loss journey. As we lose more fat and become leaner every day, we become more insulin sensitive which will allow us to have more of these vegetables without any bad effects. Grains, seeds and legumes are demonized by a lot of people. Some people say that we should eat “heart-healthy” whole grains (shocker! They are not heart-healthy) and let them be the basis of our diets, and some people say that we should avoid them like plague. Ok, let’s pause here for a second. If you have celiac disease, gluten intolerance, it’s probably better for you to avoid things like pasta and bread. If you don’t have any issues, they may not cause any problems. One cold fact about these foods is that they want to go back into soil and reproduce. And to do that they have layers on the outside so that our bodies cannot break in and get the nutrients. This tends to create a digestive stress and cause inflammation. So if you want to have some rice, quinoa, or beans; make sure to soak and/or sprout them. This process will help you break down that outer layer which will decrease the digestive stress and increase the nutrient absorption. Are some grains better than others? I think so. Highly processed pasta may not be a wise choice, where white rice is very low in anti-nutrients and can be used as energy more easily. The important message here is that don’t rush into making these, prepare them properly by soaking and sprouting. Same suggestion can be made for nuts and seeds as they may cause some digestive problems as well. Dessert and alcohol… Oh, the controversy! The devils of our diets. Everyone knows that they can be detrimental to your purpose, but everyone asks if they can eat/drink them. My simple solution is: try to avoid them. Weekend, in my opinion at least, is not a reason to drink alcohol and eat brownies. Birthdays, however, is a proper occasion to have a slice of the birthday cake (I’m not talking about Garfield-size slice), and to have a couple of drinks. Clear liquors like vodka or tequila mixed with soda or water and topped off with lime/lemon slices will be much better choices than that terrible Coors Light. In other words, the longer you avoid them, the better and faster the results will be. So, time your poison.

If you are living a sedentary life, limiting your carb intake will probably be better for you. Having your carbs with your dinner or post-workout will also be beneficial as we tend to be more insulin sensitive as we deplete our glycogen (carb) stores throughout the day. What I personally do is that I tend to save my grains/beans/tuber and root vegetables for dinner. I eat green leafy vegetables with every meal. I tend to limit my fruit intake to 1 serving a day (that is if I have any, I don’t eat any fruits most days). I don’t drink alcohol or eat dessert unless there is an occasion.

I hope that this was helpful and not too complicated, and I promise to get into much more detail in the future posts.