Low carb, no carb, carb cycling, no sugar, what is a carb? My goal with this article is to make understanding carbohydrates really simple. For the most part nutrition in general is super simple but has been made confusing. So what the heck is a carbohydrate (carb) and is low carb eating the way to go? Are all carbs the same? Are all sugars the same? I’m confused already….
Carbohydrates (aka saccharides) are sugars. The term saccharide comes from the Greek word “Sakkharon” which means “sugar”. There are three simple sugars (aka saccharides, aka carbs) which are called glucose, galactose and fructose. Glucose is the energy source for your brain and interestingly enough, 20% of the energy you burn is by the brain! When you combine two of those simple sugars together you get a disaccharide. Di means two so it is just two simple sugars bound together. When you bind fructose and glucose together you get sucrose which is table sugar. When you bind 3 or more sugars together, they are then called complex carbohydrates. A simple carb is a simple sugar. 3 or more simple carbs (sugars) bound together are complex carbs. When a large portion of a complex carb comes from glucose it is called a starch.
There are millions of different carbohydrates that exist and the difference between them is just which and how many of the three simple sugars (glucose, fructose, and galactose) are bound together. Glucose is the primary energy source for your body. Your body has to convert fructose and galactose to glucose for energy.
Some sugars (carbs/saccharides…they are all the same thing) are bound together in such a way that your body cannot digest them. These are called fibers (cellulose, pectin).
When you eat a carb, your body has to break that carb down into the three simple sugars to be used by your cells. The bigger and more complex the chain of sugars, the longer it takes to break down. The easier it is for your body to break down the complex carb to a simple carb or sugar, the faster the sugar hits your blood.
Here is something very important that a lot of doctors or nutritionists don’t know. Just because you eat say 500 calories doesn’t mean your body absorbs 500 calories. When you eat a food in its whole form it is harder for your body to break it down(digest). This process requires your body to burn calories. Plus, it is harder to break food down completely when it is in the whole form so you absorb less calories. If that same 500 calorie food is processed it is already partially digested and you will absorb more of the calories. That is one reason why calorie counting doesn’t really make sense.
It is the processed easy to digest carbs that are the biggest problem, but I’ll show you how easy this is to avoid. This is also why added sugar is so dangerous. It causes an immediate spike of blood sugar. Any sweetened drink, soda, Gatorade, Powerade…this is just water with added sugar and other additives. Just drink water!
Now for some reason whenever we hear the term carb, we think pasta, bagels, rice, or some other grain. The thing is, every vegetable is a carb, every fruit is a carb, and legumes (beans) are full of carbs. Healthy eating is much more about choosing healthy carbs than it is about eliminating or avoiding all carbs, or carb cycling. Don’t forget carbs and sugars are the same thing!
So how do we know which carbs to choose? You want to choose carbohydrates that break down slowly so your body doesn’t get hit with a massive amount of sugar all at once. You want carbs that contain fiber and water to, again, help slow down sugar absorption. You also want to choose carbs that are packed full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients and all the materials your body needs to thrive. Lastly, you want carbs that don’t have health damaging components like glutens, phytates, lectins, FODMAPs and saponins.
So let’s make it really simple. The carb you should be eating every meal and really cannot eat too much of is green, leafy and cruciferous vegetables. That would be spinach, kale, lettuce, collards, broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, etc. Think about it. Have you ever heard of anyone who just keeps gaining weight because of the broccoli they are eating?
Potatoes and especially sweet potatoes are also a good carbohydrate source. If you boil them that adds water and helps to slow down the sugar absorption in your body. If you bake or microwave potatoes you lose water to steam and will get a quicker blood sugar spike.
Fruits are also an excellent carbohydrate source. Fruits are packed full of water, vitamins, minerals, fiber and other sugars. Remember, fiber is also a sugar (carb) but it is a sugar that humans cannot break apart to digest. We cannot digest it so it just passes through us. Herbivores (cows, deer, elk, etc) have a 4 chambered stomach which can break down fiber and actually build muscle from it. Herbivores that have a high green vegetable fiber diet are extremely healthy for humans to consume. The only truly healthy vegans are herbivores!
Fruit juice is not a healthy carb source. Why? When you create juice you throw away all the fiber (which is what helps to slow sugar absorption) and you are just left with a glass of sugar water. If I took six apples and squeezed the juice from them could you drink that glass of juice pretty easily? Could you eat all six apples in the same amount of time? One of the great things about fruit fiber is it fills you up and limits how much sugar you will consume.
Now for the carbohydrate I almost never eat, grains. Grains like wheat, corn or rice don’t have a single nutrient that you can’t from fruits and vegetables. In fact, fruits and veggies are a much more concentrated source of every vitamin, mineral, phytonutrient, etc. I have to clarify here. I do eat seeds but I don’t eat seeds from the grass family. IE wheat, corn, rice, oats. That is what grains are. Seeds from grasses.
Many grains, such as wheat, have certain damaging proteins. The most well-known is gluten, which can cause injury to our digestive tract. Visualize a rash on your skin; gluten can cause cell irritation like that but in the lining of your digestive system. Grains are also full of phytates, which are anti-nutrients that bind to and pull minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium and phosphorus from your body. Grains also have things like saponins, lectins and protease inhibitors – of which you can read more about here if you want the details – but it is best to limit consumption of them. Also, what’s the quickest way to fatten up an animal for slaughter? Feed it a bunch of grains. Or Candy? Yes farmers have been feeding their cattle candy to fatten them up.
Here’s the irony with that. People get outraged about feeding cattle candy. The candy that is marketed to our kids. The candy we feed our kids. The candy that is put at a kid’s eye level on shelves so they see it and ask for mom and dad to buy it. Where’s the outrage for feeding skittles to kids? The candy that is made from corn sugar, of which is corn that most people think about as a vegetable which it isn’t. Corn is basically candy before it is turned into candy.
Here it is in a nutshell. This is how I get my carbs (sugars) and how you can too. I try and eat green leafy and cruciferous vegetables with every meal. I never limit how much of those I eat. I will literally eat a whole head of cabbage in one sitting. (I’ll add my super easy cabbage recipe to the end). If you want to download my healthy carbs list just go HERE and download all the freebies. It’s there, for FREE, you just need to apply it.
My dessert of choice is always fresh fruit. I like all fruits and usually buy what is in season and on sale. If I have been exercising a lot, which is all the time, I’ll have some sweet potatoes or squash with supper on occasion. If you are trying to lose weight limit the fruit and go with extra green leafy and cruciferous veggies.
A person will not only survive, but will thrive if they only eat veggies and wild raised meats. I recently had a client who promised me she’d do that for a month. She made a meat and veggies stir fry with herbs for every meal. Sound boring? It’s not! There are literally thousands of different combinations. I told her she could eat as many veggies as she wanted. Not only did she say she never felt hungry, and couldn’t believe she ate so much, and felt great, she dropped 15 pounds in 4 weeks. In the past ten years the only time I have eaten anything made from grains is special events or holidays like Christmas, Easter, weddings, etc.
I hope this made understanding carbs, sugars, saccharides (they are all the same thing!) a little easier. If anything is confusing please feel free to ask in the comment section.
As for my cabbage recipe;
• preheat the oven to 350
• cut a cabbage in half from the top to the bottom
• cut the bottom stump out from each half
• cut each half into slices and put it into a pot that has a lid
• pour a little olive oil on top of the cabbage
• sprinkle on any seasonings you’d like, salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder, etc
• give it all a quick stir
• put the pot with the lid on in the oven and set for 40 minutes
• I usually do this before I shower and get ready in the morning.
• When the timer beeps I just shut off the stove and leave it in there until I come home for lunch or supper.
• Easy, Healthy, and great tasting!
I have to add that this advice is for the 99% of the population 99% of the time. If a person is really training hard for a long time, or is in a very strenuous sports event, feel free to replenish with sugary drinks. If you are burning a lot of sugar a sweet drink is a good way to get it.
By now I hope you understand sugar is NOT toxic or terribly evil. Nor do I promote a no sugar diet. I eat sugars every day in the form of healthy whole fruits and vegetables. Again, my list can be found HERE. If you choose to go completely sugar free that would be the ketogenic diet which can be very useful at times.
Here is the nerd in me. Just think for a second how amazing your body is. When you eat an apple your body breaks every part of that apple it can down to basic simple sugars. It converts the fructose to glucose, it burns some glucose for fuel, it stores some glucose in cells that need it, it stores extra glucose as glycogen, when all those stores are full it will convert the glucose and store it as fat. The vitamins and nutrients from the apple are shipped to any cells in the body the need them, your body will push the undigested fiber through to be excreted. There are literally trillions of chemical reactions simultaneously and constantly happening every second within your body. It is truly the most amazing machine on the planet. All you have to do is feed your machine the right parts and don’t poison it with the wrong parts and it will operate like it should. You truly are an amazing creation.