Carbohydrates. Just looking at that word brings immediate foods to mind – bread, pasta and cereal. Those are the most common, but wait, there’s more –how about fruit, milk, yogurt, anything with sugar, anything with flour (nut flours not included)…breath inserted here…corn, peas and let’s not forget potatoes….pause for effect…and finally, winter squash (acorn and butternut).

So what’s the big deal here. Aren’t carbs good for us? Don’t they provide us with needed energy? The short answer is yes. The “easy science” is that carbohydrates (in their various forms) break down into sugar essentially, which provides our bodies with necessary fuel for daily activities and for the extra physical activity we engage in (hitting the trails anyone). However, one of the issues is when we eat more carbohydrates than we need and on a constant basis. If we eat more carbs than we need, we have more sugar in the system than we need, which essentially will be stored partly as glycogen for use later, but many times extra sugar is stored as fat.

First let’s look at some different types of sugar (which has many names).

Types of sugar

Sugar goes by different names according to its composition. There’s a recognized scale that measures the sweetness of the various types of sugars. Here are a few known sugars that you might see on a food label:

Glucose (corn syrup) – recognized as the energy molecule of life. (Rates 74 on the sweetness scale.)

Fructose naturally occurs in fruit and vegetables. (In its purest form, its sweetness rates 173 on the sweetness scale)

Table sugar, also known as sucrose, is made from sugar cane or beet sugar (the kind that’s in many processed foods). Sucrose is composed of 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose. (Rates 100 on the sweetness scale).

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) – synthetically created by Japanese scientists from corn. Manufacturers add varying levels of this artificially-made fructose to glucose, depending on how sweet they want their food products to be. You’ll find this sugar in just about everything it seems – e.g. soda, ketchup, barbeque sauce, etc.

Don’t forget to look for other sugars though too – like agave, concentrated fruit and honey ,just to name a few.

If we go back to the beginning of our carb talk, we want to touch on the amount of sugar we’re consuming…because that’s one of the bigger problems that has contributed to many health issues.
Robert Lustig, MD, professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco, explains the dangers of sugar in general, and specifically in soda by stating:

…sugar is toxic. It’s not just empty calories. Sugar kills, and does so slowly.

That’s because sugar does three things that other calories don’t. First, sugar is metabolized within the liver to fat, damaging the liver (33% of all adults today suffer from non-alcoholic fatty liver disease), causing ‘insulin resistance,’ driving up blood insulin levels and contributing to diabetes, hypertension, obesity, heart disease and stroke.

Second, sugar speeds up the aging process. The same ‘browning reaction’ that occurs when you slather your ribs with barbecue sauce occurs in all your cells when exposed to sugar. This leads to protein inflexibility and cellular damage, reducing lifespan.

And lastly, sugar promotes excessive caloric consumption. By deadening the brain’s ‘reward system,’ sugar has the same effects as other drugs of dependence to promote excessive consumption. Sugar promotes a vicious cycle of consumption and disease. This is why children now have the same chronic metabolic diseases as 60-year-olds. Their bodies are old before their time. Plus, liquid calories do not induce satiety. Give a kid a soda, and he eats more, not less.

So now what? There’s a lot more biochemistry that goes into this process than this article will touch on, but the main point is that while carbohydrates are nutritionally beneficial and —let’s be honest — tasty, we need to pay attention to what kinds of carbohydrates we eat and how much.

In the first article (published in Issue 3), I briefly touched on Simple vs. Complex carbs and we need to still keep that in mind. While we all like to (and should) dip into those sweet treats and desserts from time to time, most of the time we should be choosing the best carb for the buck. Whole/intact grains like quinoa, wild rice, whole grain breads and cereals (like oatmeal), fruits (two per day, max), whole milk and other whole milk products, real/plain Greek yogurt and sweet potatoes/winter squash are your best bets. It’s the 80/20 rule. 80% of the time we eat as healthful as we can – balancing the nutrients (protein, non-starchy veggies, real fats, whole/intact grains) and then we have 20% of the time for our chips, crackers, ice cream, pumpkin pie (still thinking about Thanksgiving), and can’t forget chocolate. Realistic, natural, non-restrictive eating habits that are part of an overall healthy lifestyle. No diets here please.

We’ve covered the why and the what…now about that “how”…

This is where amounts of carbs come in – oh yes, you know we have to go here. There is a lot of discussion on this front. No carb, low carb, lots of carbs – what do we do. Well, to be honest there are different answers on this depending on who you talk to. Personally and professionally speaking, I’m along the lines with low-carb. I still like to have some fruit or bread or all the other carbs I mentioned above, in my life here and there.

Typical recommendations that I make for most is:

1-2 carb servings per meal. Hmmmm…what does that mean. First, you need to know what standard servings are. Yes, that means getting those old measuring cups out. While I do not like to think about measuring out all my foods or counting anything, we need to familiarize ourselves with standard servings to at least make informed decisions about how much we’re eating. Here’s a quick breakdown of what one serving of a carb would be (not all inclusive by any means):

  • 1/3 cup cooked rice or pasta
  • 1/2 cooked cereal (oatmeal)
  • 1 cup berries (blueberries, raspberries, blackberries)
  • 1 cup melon
  • 1/2 banana, 1/2 large apple, 1/2 pear
  • 1 slice bread, 1/2 English muffin
  • 1/2 cup corn, peas, potatoes

That’s just a few to give you an idea…so you pick 1-2 servings and that’s your carbs for the meal. Fill in the rest of the meal with protein, non-starchy veggies and real fats. There you go, balanced but still tasty and fun.

Now get those measuring cups out and practice…how sweet it is!