There is hardly a more controversial macronutrient right now than CARBS.
The quantity of ideal carbohydrate consumption (specifically, low carb) is the premise of several popular fad diets at the moment. In some diets, all carbs are eliminated (ie Keto), and in other diets, only certain types of carbs are eliminated (ie Paleo).
I should probably put it out there that I am not a fan of fad diets, and there are a couple of reasons for that.
First, they typically revolve around some sort of marketed product, whether its a Paleo cookbook or a Keto food product or a Lectin-blocking supplement (yes, even this is a thing, as per The Plant Paradox diet – ugh).
Second, fad diets often eliminate entire food groups, even when these foods grow in nature and even when these food groups are what life has thrived on for hundreds of thousands of years (ie, glucose).
In my opinion, many fad diets miss the mark. They focus too strictly on ratios of certain macronutrients while eliminating real foods. Instead, they should be focusing on food quality and source, in particular avoiding industrial and fake food. As we said in another article, it is more trendy today to avoid Pasta than it is Pepsi. That is a broken nutrition system.
Third, when you take a step back and look at the history of our Industrial food revolution, people with vested interests have taken rounds demonizing almost every nutrient you can think of. They keep finding new ones to advertise as “bad” so they can also market their products as the cure. In fact, advertising and selling in general all rely on the idea of “new and novel”. New, novel products stimulate consumer demand.
Sugar, fat, cholesterol, red meat, all meat, dairy, eggs, grains, gluten, plant chemicals…they’ve all taken their turn in the public spotlight as the cause of every type of health concern you can imagine. When you take a look at the corporations and the marketing trends, the “low carb” craze of today isn’t all that different from the “low fat” craze of the 1970’s and 80’s. And as we now know, that marketing machine resulted in massive health consequences, not least of which was obesity and diabetes.
I truly believe that we will eventually see the extremely low carb craze in exactly the same way. As I wrote about in How to Eat Meat Right, and How to Eat Fat Right, there are some extremely nourishing and healing carbohydrates that human beings can eat. And in the same vein, there are some extremely damaging carbohydrates out there as well. But to throw out the good with the bad only makes us sicker. Nutrition is rarely a black and white issue.
As an evolving health-conscious population, we need to learn to distinguish healthy foods from unhealthy foods, across the full spectrum of availability. And we have a pretty simple litmus test, which is how our whole planet’s biological creatures survive:
Trust foods created by nature. Be suspicious of foods created by factories.
When we apply this to carbohydrates, it’s pretty easy to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak. There are a dizzying array of food energy choices on this planet, which must mean SOMETHING.
Let’s talk through 3 categories of carbohydrates and you can learn to apply a Green Light, Yellow Light and Red Light approach toward each.
GREEN LIGHT CARBS:
WHOLE NATURAL CARBOHYDRATES, PREPARED APPROPRIATELY
There are so many Green Light Carbs, sometimes I feel like we all could eat nothing else and be just fine. Among our choices are Beans & Legumes, Whole Grains & Seeds, Whole Fruits, and Whole Starchy Vegetables.
In this class of delicious carbs we have as our superstar leaders: BEANS & LEGUMES. Growing up, I thought that only kidney beans and baked beans existed (both in a can). I’ve gotten a few European cookbooks and I am AMAZED at the variety of beans on this planet. Furthermore I was delighted to see that the bulk bins aisle of my local New Seasons (a small grocery store in Portland) had a bunch of them!
Technically, the difference between a bean and legume is that a bean is whole, while a legume can be split into two equal parts (like split peas, lentils and peanuts). These little plants are chock full of protein, low-glycemic load energy, fiber, and anti-oxidative plant chemicals that help prevent all sorts of diseases and cancer.
Next we have a class of carbs that is frequently demonized: WHOLE GRAINS & SEEDS. Quinoa, technically a seed, is one of only a couple sources of plant protein that contains complete protein – all 9 of the essential amino acids we need that our bodies don’t produce. And whole grains can be very healthy as well – the key is to source them from sustainable producers.
Wheat in particular has gotten a pretty bad rap lately. While it is far beyond the scope of this article, there is plenty of research and human history to support the idea that much of our human survival has been due to this grain – specifically, locally grown and stone-ground wheat flour.
Fermentation is an important process in helping break down wheat proteins so that they can more easily be digested by our bodies, and make them less likely to upset our tummies. Our ancestors discovered this ages ago, but corporations have tried to cut corners and shave time off with the development of commercial yeast. A good, homemade loaf of sourdough bread that has had time to ferment is going to have a much different impact on your body than a loaf of refined, processed, nutrient-removed Wonder bread.
My point is that you don’t have to give up an entire class of carbs, unless you truly have an allergy or other health condition. Try eating smaller quantities of higher quality sources of these grains, strictly organic, and properly ground and processed. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised from all the cheap industrial refined grains that are out there in our food ecosystem today.
Also belonging to this group are Pasta and Rice – other examples of foods that have been demonized for a variety of reasons, despite the fact that large quantities of human beings have subsisted on these foods for millennia.
And as with everything else, your food source matters. A bag of raw whole rice from a reputable grower is going to be far healthier than the huge box of Minute Rice that has been processed for American convenience and bland flavor preference.
Similarly, a batch of local artisan made (or home made!) pasta cooked perfectly to al dente is actually exceptionally healthy, and has a low glycemic load (the glycemic index of pasta increases dramatically the longer it is cooked). Studies actually have begun to show that white pasta is easier on the gut than whole wheat pasta – because the latter has difficult to digest whole wheat grains that have not been properly fermented or sprouted, as we can do with bread.
Rounding out this category is a group of carbs that most people won’t challenge as healthy, and yet many people still avoid in the quest for an overall “low net carb” diet.
These are WHOLE FRUITS with their fibrous material, and WHOLE STARCHY VEGETABLES. Berries and apples are my all-time favorite fruits to eat, which is saying something because I’m not naturally a fruit eater. Excellent examples of starchy (carb heavy) vegetables are brassicas/cruciferous veggies (like kale, cabbage, broccoli, and cauliflower), and all kinds of tubers – regular potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, and the like.
It is important not to demonize any of these foods because they all contain excellent sources of really important nutrients, namely FIBER (which feed the good bacteria in your gut and clean out your entire body of toxins), vitamins and minerals, beneficial plant phytochemical and antioxidants.
NOTE ON RESISTANT STARCH
In the Green Light carbs we also find resistant starch – something you should try to get more of. When starches are cooked and then cooled, their molecular structure changes and they form something called “resistant starch”. Resistant starch is called so because it resists being broken down for digestion. This makes it excellent for the gut. Good bacteria like to feed on it and it acts a lot like fiber, in essence becoming a prebiotic during digestion. Cooled potatoes, cooled baked goods and cold pasta are all examples of foods that have developed the resistant starch structure.
YELLOW LIGHT CARBS:
LIQUID CARBS, REFINED CARBS & SWEET CARBS
I like to refer to this group of carbs as the “prettier” and more marketable version of the Green Light Carbs.
Often, these are whole foods that are changed and refined to be more palatable to children, or “on the go” lifestyles. Instead of a whole apple or orange, for example, a cup of “fresh pressed” apple or orange juice. Instead of a truly whole and fermented grain, we have our whole grain cereals – which may contain some fiber and vitamins but are still processed, unfermented and rougher on the tummy.
A lot of so-called American “health food” falls into this category. Things like yogurt and granola bars have conventionally been marketed as health food, but you’d be shocked to find out that some of those yogurts and granola bars have nearly as much sugar in them as a can of soda.
Speaking of soda, we have to include any sort of naturally sweetened liquid in here, as well as alcohol. In general, you should aim to not drink your calories, even if you think they’re healthy. At the very least, drink them in moderation (ie no more than 10% of your daily calorie intake). That is because, like oils, they take one element of a whole food and concentrate it, leaving out everything else. Juice is certainly guilty of this. As for alcohol, just like everything, it has its pros and cons too.
Believe it or not, nature is smarter than us. Foods have evolved over millions of years to be quite perfect – and our species has evolved with them, learning to digest what we can, learning to cook and ferment what we couldn’t. Food found in nature did not just appear there one day by accident. It is meant to be taken as a complete package.
What industrial food processing does is pick and choose arbitrarily what is good and what is bad (or what is profitable). By doing this, we wreak havoc on the natural way of things, without truly knowing the implications of what we’re doing.
We do believe that Yellow Light carbs have a place in the modern American diet. We lead such busy lifestyles, it simply isn’t possible to eat perfectly whole, homemade, artisan foods 24/7. But these items certainly should be eaten in moderation – I’d go for no more than 1-2 serving sizes per day.
Following this guidance can be as simple as going to an artisan bakery to buy bread, instead of picking up the cheapest loaf wrapped in plastic on the shelved bread aisle in the supermarket. (Genius tip: Buy bread that’s in a paper bag, not in a plastic one.) It can be as simple as switching out your high-sugar regular yogurt for a lower sugar, higher protein yogurt like plain greek yogurt or kefir.
You can usually identify Yellow Light Carbs by the fact that they come in loud corporate packaging and will contain some sort of Nutritional claim.
For example, Orowheat bread packaging, Kellogg’s cereal packaging, Yoplait yogurt packaging, are all screaming pretty loudly about how healthy they are.
Green Light Carbs, by and large, don’t need to scream about their health benefits. They aren’t corporatized. They’re either produced directly by nature (ie veggies, fruits) or by small, local artisans who don’t have the money or desire for corporate-level advertising.
RED LIGHT CARBS:
FAKE CARBS & CHEMICAL-LADEN CARBS
This is the class of carbohydrates we should seek to eliminate or vastly minimize from our diets. Like our Category 4 Oils, this is the land of fake foods.
A fake food is anything that is not produced naturally by nature. Unfortunately there are plenty of examples of these guys out there in the American food system. Bleached, fiber-free flour is an example of a fake carbohydrate. So is corn syrup. There’s almost nothing natural about that wheat and corn by the time the factory gets done with it.
You can pretty easily identify a Red Light carb by how heavily it is marketed. How many TV ads do you see for it? How loud is it screaming to eat it?
Most Red Light carbs don’t bother trying to market themselves as healthy – they advertise based on flavor and addictiveness. Doritos might focus on its crunch and explosion of cheesy goodness. Mountain Dew might focus on how cool you’ll be if you drink it, or how thirst quenching it is after doing sports. They sometimes bring attention to how cheap they are, as you can see below in the 99-cent Lay’s bag.
Red Light Carbs LOVE to market to kids. Because they have an impulsive nature to them, its easy to hook in kids on taste or coolness. Everything from Fruit By the Foot to Cocoa Puffs is colorful, loud, sugary, and meant to addict children.
These foods tend to hang out in the center of the grocery store, where there are often entire aisles dedicated to them. One of the worst offenders in terms of dedicated shelf space is High Fructose Corn Syrup.
A distinguishing factor about Fructose over other types of sugar is that significant quantities of it is metabolized by the liver – not the small intestine. When we eat fructose, most often it is in significant quantities – ie soda and desserts.
This not only places a huge strain on our liver, but the excess Fructose gets converted quickly to fat when entering the blood stream. If the fat in the bloodstream is not used very quickly, it will be deposited as body fat.
Many health experts believe that the excessive consumption of soda in the United States is a key driving factor behind increased diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
Overall, our recommendation is to eat Green Light carbs as freely as you like within the rough outline of your diet’s caloric and macronutrient needs. Eat Yellow Light carbs in moderation, no more than 10-15% of your daily caloric intake. And either never eat Red Light Carbs, or eat them so infrequently it is of little consequence – that is, once a month or less.
As you’ll pick up on throughout this site, we recommend you focus more on avoiding corporate industrialized food (like cookies and chips), than on avoiding specific whole natural foods (like beans or grains). Focus on keeping your food source local and small – ie. non-corporate.
It is pretty easy to overeat carbs, so I highly recommend portioning them out by volume or weight until you have a reliable eye. I learned pretty quickly that 2 oz of cooked pasta (which is 1 oz dry) or a half cup of cooked rice equaled roughly 100 calories which was about 25g of carbs.
It takes some time to be able to just know this stuff by memory and be able to put that amount on your plate by eyeing it, so do it manually until you can become a more reliable intuitive eater.
At first you’ll be shocked at how little carbs you’ll have on your plate, especially if you were used to a heaping plate full for every meal. But you’ll soon see that eating fats, carbs and protein in better balance leads to healthy weight maintenance, a happy brain, and fewer cravings.