Shed U: Carbs 101

by Rachel on September 10, 2009

Back to school time! Today, it’s all about carbs. Has any food group gotten as much attention as carbs have in the past five years? It’s like they went from being the quiet, good kid to the wayward outta control teen on The Maury Povich Show. Now they’re shouting, “You don’t KNOW ME!” and you know, that’s true. Most of us really don’t know carbs.

Carbohydrates are responsible for about half of all the calories in the American diet. And more than half of that comes from bread, soft drinks/soda, cake, cookies, doughnuts, sugar, syrups, white potatoes, cereal, and milk. The standard American diet is getting higher in carbs (and lower in healthy fats, a fact many people ignore) and at the same time, everyone’s getting fatter! People freaked out, the carb-obesity connection was heard ’round the world, and “low-carb” became a marketing/labeling gold mine…and a nutritional clusterfuck. (And, oh yeah, everyone’s still fat.)

So…here are some facts to set things straight!

  • Carbs come in a variety of forms; the common ones are starches, sugar, and fibers.
  • The basic building block of every carbohydrate is a sugar molecule made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. (Ugh…ninth grade chemistry.)
  • There are two main types of carbs: simple and complex.
  • Simple carbs are sugars. Glucose, fructose, galactose. They give us quick energy.
  • Complex carbs are chains of linked sugars. (I didn’t do well in ninth grade chemistry, by the way.) Our systems digest them by breaking down the long chains of sugars into the little individual sugars that make them up. There are some parts that can’t be digested—this is fiber.
  • When you eat a carb, no matter which kind, your digestive system has at it. The glucose is absorbed very quickly into your bloodstream. To make sure your body’s glucose level (aka blood sugar) doesn’t get too high or too low, your pancreas releases insulin, which helps your cells absorb the glucose. As the glucose is absorbed, blood sugar falls, and then insulin falls. Then your liver starts releasing its stored glucose to keep your blood sugar constant.
  • A simple carb is broken down really quickly, so your blood sugar shoots up, and then the insulin causes it to drop. If there’s nothing else to slow this process down (like fiber, fat, or protein), your body wants more glucose. So even though you just ate a bag of pretzels, you get HANGRY and are ready to wrestle someone for some more.
  • When you eat a complex carb, the fiber tugs on the reigns a bit and it’s like, “Whoaaa, Nelly!” It allows blood sugar and insulin to rise slowly and peak lower—so you stay full and happy for longer. Protein and fat also help with this process.
  • When it comes to nutrition, there really are good carbs and (I’ll try be PC here) LAME carbs. Whether a carb is good or not is mainly based on the effect it will have on your blood sugar, and whether it comes from refined or whole grains.
  • To determine how a carb will affect blood sugar, scientists have a little tool called the Glycemic Index (GI). They tested a bunch of common carbs to see how fast your body breaks them down. Things like soda and juice are broken down fastest. Apples and All-Bran cereal are the slow pokes. And all those other carbs—pasta, rice, bananas—fall somewhere in between.
  • It’s nice to be aware of GI, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. If you only looked at that, you’d be inclined to choose ice cream over carrots. It was that kind of skewed logic like that brought us the red-meat-for-everyone-fest known as Atkins.
  • The next part of the equation is the whole “refining” deal. “Refined” sounds like something good or rich, but actually it just means “stripped down.”
  • And…here’s my very refined explanation, using wheat as an example: A single wheat plant may start out with tons of individual wheat grains. But then it’s milled. And pulverized. And maybe jumped by a gang and beaten. And each step of the way, it loses fiber, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats. (And dignity.) When all is said and done, and you have “refined” wheat flour—aka white flour—and you’ve lost all the good stuff.
  • And….we’re back to the beginning—you’ve got a product that is going to make your blood sugar get really high and then crash. Just like Lindsay Lohan.
  • Whole grains not only prevent a glucose scandal; they also protect you against diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and digestion problems.
  • Shopping for whole grains isn’t easy because food companies now realize that you’re looking for them (“whole grains” is the new “net carbs” when it comes to buzzwords). They make foods seem like whole grains even if they aren’t.
  • To know the difference, you have to read they labels. “Made with whole wheat flour” does not a whole grain product make! Neither does “multi-grain.” Flip it over and check the ingredients: you should see whole wheat, whole oats, whole rye, or something else whole and carby listed first.
  • Brown = good. White = not so good. Pick whole-grain pitas over white pitas. Brown rice over white rice. Obama over McCain. You get the idea.
  • Also give a green light to whole-wheat pasta, whole-grain couscous, bulgur, hulled and hulless barley, old-fashioned oats, Total cereal, whole-grain bread, and whole-wheat flour.
  • Cutting carbs helps people lose weight because it’s cutting calories. A lot of calories, if half your diet comes from carbs. Think about it–that will take you from 1800 calories a day to 900. Um yeah, there goes a few pounds. But that’s just not sustainable or healthy.
  • If you go “no carb” for an extended period of time, you’re going to become a way-too-stressed out biatch, lose the ability to think straight, and pass out at the gym. Seriously.
  • Choosing good carbs, eliminating lame carbs, and–this is very important–recognizing an appropriate serving size of pasta (whether it’s white or whole wheat) is the best way to be smart about carbs if you’re making healthy changes to you diet.

After a million burgers on lettuce “buns,” people are finally starting to realize that yeah, carbs have something to do with our nation’s diet problems, but no, cutting all carbs isn’t the way to fix the problem. The reputation of carbs has become a hot mess, but really, they’re just misunderstood. Just like those poor kids on Maury.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Alexandra September 10, 2009 at 5:37 pm

Rachel –

I love this post, if only because the first word my eye caught was bulgur. I love bulgur and use it as a pasta substitute.

Here’s a good recipe.

3 tbs no sodium or low-sodium tomato paste (usually go organic for no preservatives)

2 tbs really good e.v.o.o.

1/4 c chopped red pepper

1/4 c chopped red onion

1/4 c chopped green beans

1/2 c chick peas (if using canned beans for convenience, rinse them really well)

3 cloves garlic, peeled, diced or crushed

1 cup bulgur wheat

Cook the bulgur wheat like rice, 1 part bulgur to 1.5 parts water.

While cooking that, heat the e.v.o.o over medium in a skillet and add tomato paste and the vegetables. Lower the heat so that the vegetables don’t burn, but so that the tomato paste combines with enough oil to create a looser sauce. Add black pepper and salt (sparingly because of the sodium in beans if they’re canned). I also like to season with basil and paprika. Once the bulgur is cooked and has absorbed all of the water, add it to the skillet and allow it to absorb the red color of the sauce. If you want to splurge a bit, I like to add some feta or goat cheese for an interesting bite. Asparagus is also a good veggie to throw in the mix. This is a really great recipe that makes a TON of food, so feed people, save it (it reheats well). It’s a healthier spin on some bulgur dishes that might be normally packed with oil and sodium from Middle Eastern restaurants.


2 Katy September 10, 2009 at 11:13 pm

YES! I love carbs, but unfortunately due to my gluten allergy, I have had to cut waaaay back. I just wanted to mention an AMAZING rice substitute (since I end up eating so much of it in my gluten free diet). QUINOA!!! It has somewhat of the same consistency as couscous; but it’s gluten free, a complete protein, high in fiber, and pretty much phenomenal for your bod. It pretty much tastes like whatever you cook it in, but I tend to substitute it for rice in my stir fry! They also have quinoa flakes, which are similar to cream of wheat, and I LOVE putting a little crunchy peanut butter and brown sugar in a nice, hot bowl for breakfast! :D You should definitely try some with all of those black beans and peppers you’re eating! It’s pretty amazing!! The box also has a GREAT recipe for stuffed peppers with quinoa inside! Let me know what you think! :D


3 Rachel September 10, 2009 at 11:16 pm

You know what’s funny is I have a box of quinoa chilling in my pantry right now and I almost made it for dinner! I haven’t cooked with it a ton, but I love the texture. I didn’t know about the flakes…I will definitely be investigating this new breakfast option!!


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