Such a controversial subject in today’s national conversation about nutrition and proper diet!
It’s so confusing. Eat carbs or don’t eat carbs? Which carbs are good? Which carbs are bad? (hint: there are no bad foods. There may be more or less nutritious foods, but none are good or bad.)
Okay so let’s break this whole carb thing down.
What is a carb?
We get our calories from Protein, Fat and Carbohydrates (these are called macronutrients). If we divide macronutrients into two vveeeerrrry broad groups, we have things that grow out of the ground (plants), and things that had a mother (animals). Carbohydrates come from plants, and protein mostly comes from animals. Fat can be found in both plants and animals.
Good Carbs & Bad Carbs?
First. Carbs really run the specturm in terms of nutrition (aka: nutrient density).
Nutrient density is the term you want to think about when considering carbohydrates. Carbohydrates that have a high nutrient density are foods where you get a lot of vitamins and minerals for a very low calorie cost.
Foods that are high in nutrient density tend to be high in water, high in fiber, and low in calories. Examples include low sugar fruits (apples, pears, and berries), and most vegetables, a rough rule of thumb is that vegetables that are grown above ground tend to be lower in calories and starch than vegetables that grow below ground (although there are certainly exceptions to this rule).
Foods that are lower in nutrient density are high calorie, low moisture foods that have less nutritional value. You already know what I’m going to say. Right? Cakes, cookies, chips, breads, cereals, baked goods, sodas and you get the idea.
Yeah, but Elizabeth, What about fortified foods?
Breads and cereals that have been fortified have added minerals for a reason. They’ve stripped out the basic nutrition of the ingredients, and then decided to spray some nutrition back on. It’s pretty much a lame attempt to redeem themselves. So, fortified or not, they don’t have a lot of nutritional value.
Okay – so back to nutrient density. You could line up every food that is a carb with the most nutritious per calorie on the left side (maybe kale or broccoli, as an example), and least amount of nutrition per calorie on the right (probably good ol’ table sugar here).
How many Carbs should I be eating?
And so now that we’ve put all of the carbohydrate based foods on a continuum and ranked them, here’s where the rules get a little grey.
Somewhere along that continuum, we’re going to make a notch. It’s right around where the zucchini/yellow squashed apples are on the left, and butternut squash or melon is on the right.
Let’s say that everything on the left of that notch is a free-for-all. Those are the low sugar fruits and vegetables that grow above ground. You can eat as much of it as you want. You should be eating lots and lots of these vegetables.
Everything to the right of the notch we’re going to refer to as starches, because your body will have a hormonal response to that food. And so I hesitate to put a sweet potato into the same category as a brownie since the sweet potato is further to the left of the scale than the brownie, but they are both complex carbohydrates. <- so, take that into consideration with the rest of this discussion.
Different people react differently to the same foods and/or diets.
You probably know someone who loved the Atkins Diet; they felt great, they lost lots of weight, and they looked terrific too! You probably know someone else who hated it; this person felt foggy, had little to no energy & looked like they felt.
Why is that?
Well, There are 3 body types:
(stay with me here! It will all make sense in just a little bit!)
Ectomorph – These folks have a hard time putting on muscle. Typically they’re naturally skinny, have a high metabolism, are fidgety and anxious.
Endomorph – These folks are stocky in build. They easily gain muscle and fat, and tend to be more laid back in nature.
Now before you say “Oh! I’m for sure an Endomorph because I gain weight just by looking at an Oreo!” Hang on a sec. Most of us are Mesomorphs.
Mesomorph – These folks run the continuum between the Ectomorph and the Endomorph. Aka: normal folks.
Ectomorphs do really well on vegetarian and high carbohydrate diets. If they don’t get enough starch through their diet, they get brain fog, and can’t think straight.
Endomorphs do great on low-starch diets, or even carb-free diets. This is your friend who loved Atkins.
And as I mentioned, most of us are Mesomorphs – we are somewhere on the scale between the two. Some of us can get away with a lower starch diet some of us need more starch in order to have good brain function and energy levels. You can basically let your body be the guide. (HOWEVER – Don’t let these descriptions fool you. There IS such a thing as an overweight Ectomorph.)
Let the detective work begin!
Okay – so how much starch should you eat on a daily basis? Well, that’s where things get a little tricky. Given that I’ve said that
- how many carbs your body needs is on a sliding scale, and
- all carbohydrates are on a sliding scale,
It’s kind of like using a slide rule to solve this equation. The quality of the carbohydrates you eat is going to have a huge impact on your overall results. If your carbs come from vegetables, you’re probably going to be able to eat more than if your carbs come from a bag or a box.
You might be able to eat 3 cups of butternut squash every night for dinner and be good. But chances are that you can’t eat 3 cups of Thin Mints every night & not see the impact of that decision.
But let’s start here:
- Eat 1 cupped hand of starch (grains and those things that grow underground) at 3 meals – so cup your hand, and whatever fits inside of that is what you get at that meal. I like this method of measuring because people with larger hands get more food, while folks with smaller hands get less, because they need less. Eat as many above the ground veggies (plants to the left of the notch) as you want.
- Weekly, reflect on how you feel, and how your clothes fit. If you’re foggy, add another serving of starch to your day (another cupped hand). If your goal is weight loss or maintenance, and your clothes aren’t fitting how you’d like, subtract a serving of starch. If you find that you’re hungry, fill up the rest of your diet with proteins and above ground plants.
- If you’re exercising (strength training or doing high intensity interval training), you can eat 1 cupped hand of starch after your strength sessions, to rebuild and repair your muscle cells.
Much of this is trial and error, and again, this goes back to awareness of your hunger levels and how your body communicates with you.
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