Carbohydrates are found in a wide array of foods – bread, beans, milk, popcorn, potatoes, cookies, spaghetti, soft drinks, corn and cherry pie. The most common and abundant forms are sugars, fibers, and starches.
The basic building block of every carbohydrate is a sugar molecule, a simple union of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Some contain hundreds of sugars. Some chains are straight; others branch wildly.
The digestive system handles all carbohydrates in much the same way – it breaks them down (or tries to break them down) into single sugar molecules, since only these are small enough to cross into the bloodstream. It also converts most digestible carbohydrates into glucose (also known as blood sugar) because cells are designed to use this as a universal energy source.
Fruits, vegetables and whole grains are crucial to consume. Refined grains offer very little in the way of nutrition and can cause insulin resistance over time. Whole grains, on the other hand, digest slowly so insulin is secreted in a slow and even way.
When we eat too many white-flour or refined-sugar products, we cause insulin spikes. Too many years of poor diet and little activity and exercise will lead to type 2 diabetes, which is becoming increasingly common. It was once known as mature onset diabetes since it occurred later in life. But now this is no longer the case, and it is even being diagnosed in kids in their early teens and younger.
Don’t be misled by fad diets that make blanket pronouncements on the dangers of carbohydrates. They provide the body with the fuel that it needs for physical activity and for proper organ function, and they are an important part of a healthy diet. But some kinds of carbohydrates are far better than others.
Here are a few tips from the Harvard School of Public Medicine on how to include carbs in your day:
1. Start the day with whole grains. Try a hot cereal, like whole oats, or a cold cereal that lists a whole grain first on the ingredient list and is low in sugar. But finding sugar in cereals takes a bit of detective work. Learn how to be a savvy reader of breakfast cereal labels.
2. Use whole grain breads for lunch or snacks. Confused about how to find a whole-grain bread? Look for bread that lists as the first ingredient whole wheat, whole rye, or some other whole grain – and even better, one that is made with only whole grains, such as 100% whole wheat bread.
3. Bag the potatoes. Instead, try brown rice, bulgur, wheat berries (the entire kernel is intact), whole wheat pasta, or another whole grain with your dinner.
4. Choose whole fruit instead of juice. An orange has two times as much fiber and half as much sugar as a 12-ounce glass of orange juice.
5. Bring on the beans. Beans are an excellent source of slowly digested carbohydrates as well as a great source of protein.
For most people, weight gain happens over a long period of time. It’s not difficult to consume 50 more calories a day than you need or than you use. That will give you a five-pound gain per year. Keep that up for a number of years, and you will be obese. (In 20 years, that would give you a 100-pound weight gain.)
If we have determined that the low-carb, high-protein routine is not only ineffectual, but also possibly unsafe, how do we go about this daunting task of losing weight?
Naturally, each person has his or her own individual tendencies regarding weight loss. But the general rule to follow is this: fewer calories in and more calories expended.
Let’s take the case of a client of mine. Shira (name has been changed) led a very sedentary lifestyle. At five feet two inches, she weighed almost 250 pounds. Driving almost everywhere, opting for the elevator instead of stairs, and choosing to stay inside after her long day at work instead of walking, Shira was only burning as many calories per day as her body used for basic functions (resting metabolism). She was eating large amounts of food, and the foods she chose were calorie dense. Realizing she was slowly destroying herself, she came to us and began a weight-loss, physical-fitness program.
Shira began with a 20-minute walks each day. At the same time, she cut her caloric intake and made healthful choices for her meals and snacks. Her food program was balanced and included mostly fruits, vegetables, whole grains, healthful fats and lean protein choices.
As Shira kept up, refined and intensified this routine as she became more fit and able to do more, she lost 115 pounds over eighteen months. Today (almost 8 years later) Shira’s body mass index, the index most widely used by doctors to measure overweight and obesity, is just within the healthy range. At the same time, all of her nutritional requirements are met on a daily basis. And she eats carbs while doing it!
To recap: Fad diets just don’t work. Any diet or food program that is based on the elimination of entire food groups and obsessively eating only certain foods is harmful to you, and for most people in the world, it is unsustainable. Eating right is hard work. So if you don’t want to be one of those people who lose significant weight and gain it all back and more, it is worth the effort. The rewards of good health and longevity are certainly well-worth it.
Missed Carbophobia, Part I: The Truth About Low-Carb Diets? Read it here.
Alan Freishtat is an A.C.E. certified personal trainer and a lifestyle fitness coach with over 17 years of professional experience. He is the co-director of the Jerusalem-based weight loss and stress reduction center Lose It! He can be reached at (U.S. Line) 516-568-5027, 02-651-8502 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.