Tuesday, July 26, 2011



By Monika Tarkowska-Carter, CPT, LWMC, HLC 2

My answer is: it depends, AND depends for whom, as well as what kinds of carbs.

First and foremost let’s clarify what a carbohydrate is, because for some people it is still not so clear. We all know that pasta is a carbohydrate. So are rice and potatoes. So is bread. But where do fruits, vegetables, legumes, dairy and various drinks fall in? Well, they are all carbohydrates, in a sense.  We can divide them into almost pure carbohydrates, like grains, and, what I call, mixed carbohydrates like dairy. The reason why I call them mixed is that, in most cases, they are a source of both carbohydrates and protein, and sometimes also fat. We can also divide them into complex carbohydrates which are called starches and simple carbohydrates like fruits. All carbohydrates get broken down in our digestive system into simple sugars, but it is the speed of breakdown as well as the insulin response they generate that differentiates them.

Vegetables are definitely a great carb and most people should be eating more than they currently are.

They are full of vitamins, minerals, protective antioxidants and fiber. The only time you may want to rethink your veggies is if you are either allergic to anything or if it’s hard on your digestive system. Some may argue that since humans are not ruminants, we process raw vegetables, especially those like lettuce, chard, spinach, etc. differently, and are not really well equipped, so to speak, to digest them. My own advice is: see how they make you, and especially your digestive system, feel.  Are you bloated? Do you have a lot of gas and discomfort after eating them? Listen to your body. You may be one of those for whom lightly cooked vegetables are better.

Fruit – generally on my good list, as long as it’s ripe, ideally in season and organic, you are not allergic to it OR, and this is important, you are not insulin resistant or diabetic.

Unfortunately, many people walk around overweight and with insulin resistance, not knowing about it. If you are overweight and have trouble losing weight no matter what you do, insulin resistance may be one of the culprits. If you do indeed have it, it means that your body cannot handle sugar very well and watching your sugar intake in any form, including fruit, is necessary. Also, if you are trying to lose weight or drop body fat, you will need to limit your fruit intake, for the same reason, to 2-3 servings of fruit per day. Remember, that 1 serving is a medium piece of fruit or ½ cup of cut up fruit.

Legumes are a great source of carbohydrates and protein, as well as antioxidants and fiber.

Because of that, not much is needed to make one feel full. That’s one of their great benefits. But….protein makes only a small % of total calories. Most of them (about 70% depending on the type of bean) come from carbohydrates. So, if you’re carbohydrate sensitive or are watching your diet, you should be mindful of the portions or, in some cases, skip them altogether.

Grains – that’s a whole subject depending on which camp you are in: carb camp or no/low carb camp.

There are valid arguments for both. Most people are OK eating small amounts of grains (unless you have a clear allergy or sensitivity to gluten, of course). It’s when the portions become big, or huge, that we get into trouble. A lot of people don’t even know what a small portion would be, and that’s a real problem. Another issue is the form in which grains come in: are they whole grains as they would appear in nature, or completely processed, denatured and with all their nutrients sucked out of them? Even if they are fortified, it’s all synthetic vitamins and minerals, and natural are always better for the body. Remember that no matter how healthy, bread, pasta, white rice, pancakes, pretzels, tortillas, etc., are all processed products and they will enter your blood stream much faster than whole grains they came from, often times causing fluctuations in blood sugar, which, in turn, result in insulin spikes and resultant fat storage in your adipose tissue.
Unfortunately, gluten intolerance and gluten, and especially wheat, sensitivity is becoming more and more widespread. One of the reasons could just be the fact that more attention is being paid to this phenomenon; another that we are eating more grains than ever, and a different one yet, that we are buying genetically modified foods, which alter our digestive system. GMOs are being downplayed by the food industry as safe but the results speak for themselves.  If you are one of those people who struggle after eating grains or you have insulin resistance or diabetes, or you are simply a protein metabolic type, then you should certainly stay away from them, and make sure you get the nutrients you will now be missing from other sources.

Diary – another food that clients often have trouble classifying: protein, fat or carbohydrate?

Well, actually it is all three. High fat cheeses have almost no carbohydrates, but very high fat and a decent amount of protein. Yogurt, can be full fat, low fat or nonfat but is usually mostly carbohydrates (about 2/3) with a much smaller percentage of protein (about 1/3 in a nonfat variety). The exception is Greek yogurt which is very high in protein and has a much smaller percentage of carbohydrates. And fruit sweetened and flavored yogurts are another chapter altogether. Many of them contain up to 7 tsp of sugar, some natural from lactose and the rest from various sweeteners.

And finally drinks. What are they?

I have heard from some clients that they are just that – drinks. The answer is: most of them, with the exception of alcohol, are carbohydrates. Milk and drinking chocolate (and a few others) would be an exception here, being protein, fat and carbohydrates in one. Soda drinks and energy drinks are pure carbs. Energy drinks are needed only in low concentrations to replenish electrolytes when your workout exceeds 90 minutes or you’re sweating profusely in hot weather. Most of the time they are needed only by competitive or endurance athletes. These “monsters”, or sugar “bombs” as they should be called, are pure sugar. They are, so called, empty calories – they put calories in, but without any nutritional value. Worse, they actually deplete you of important nutrients in the digestion process. Many sports drinks or large energy drinks available these days on the market can have up to 100 g of sugar, which translates to 25 teaspoons. One of the best ways to replenish your electrolytes, during and after your workout, (if you’re an average person and not a competitive or endurance athlete), is diluting a teaspoon of organic raw honey and 1/8 tsp of good quality sea salt (like Celtic Sea salt) in a quart of water.* Juices, though full of vitamins, (mostly if freshly squeezed and not pasteurized) are deprived of fiber and are basically the source of liquid sugar. Once in a while, it’s OK to have a small portion of freshly squeezed juice. Otherwise, limit their intake and choose fresh fruit instead.

Alcohol is in a class of its own.

Its calorie value is similar to that of fat. It provides 7 calories per gram. The problem with alcohol is that it gets broken down to fatty acids and needs to be detoxified by the liver first, before the body can go on with the fat burning process. It is for that reason, that alcohol should be one of the first foods to eliminate if weight loss is desired.

So, to sum it all up: choose your carbs carefully, try to eat mostly whole carbs, learn what the right portion sizes are and be extra careful with the high glycemic ones if you are struggling with extra weight or have insulin resistance. Be CARB SMART!
                                                            Or THIS?

*In research done on comparison of sports drinks to water with a small amount of honey, the latter outperformed every sports drink on the market.

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