Clearing Up Carb Confusion – Be Picky

March 8, 2011 in Diabetes, Health, Mediterranean, Nutrition, Nutritionism, Whole Grains by Joyce Bunderson

People seem to be very polarized regarding carbohydrates (carbs). On one hand, many feel that carbohydrates are almost poisons; and on the other, they are the savior (frequently a savior from fat). If you want to review a little sample of the ‘fear of fat’ stage, go to our post, Revisiting the Snackwell Syndrome. Americans have been swinging back and forth on a diet pendulum; carbs are good and fat is bad, or visa versa for a long time (in my opinion, way too long). The goal for this post is to provide a foundation for understanding carbohydrates.

Part of the confusion stems from blanket statements that are published declaring things like: “Fat is not the problem; cutting carbohydrates is the key to reversing obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.” Now that we know how extensive the problem is with simple carbohydrates being at the base of much of the obesity/diabetes/heart disease problem; we’ve begun to read ‘strange advice’ by ‘reliable’ nutritionist. One that I recently read was encouraging people not to worry about burgers; but to only eat one half of the white flour bun. Come on! Is that the best advice we can give? Part of the problem is buried in thinking that a carb is a carb, is a carb; or even fat is fat, is fat; two erroneous concepts. I can spend some time on the fat issue another day, but today, I’d like to make sure the readers of this blog are clear on the carb issue. Good carbohydrate (carb) or bad? That is an important issue that has not been well developed in the popular press.

There is a large convincing body of scientific evidence that is very unflattering of refined flour and sugars. I applaud this preponderance of new evidence; I’m sorry that it’s taken the scientists such a long time to figure it out, but ‘better late than never’, as the age-old saying goes. As you frequently read in this blog, we strive to help you be aware of where the refined flours and sugars lurk and why it’s so important to strive to eat close to nature – close to a primarily plant-based diet. We, and others call it the Mediterranean-style of eating. Huge hints have been known since Ancel Keyes published his research in 1970. He did his research in the late 1950s and 1960s when it was a radical idea that heart disease was influenced by what was served at mealtimes.

Disclaimer: I wish that I could share a meaningful apology for the complexity of nutrition, but alas, I did not create food, or nutrition. Most foods, found in nature are not simply carbohydrates, fats or proteins; the three most common macronutrients. Foods that we often consider as carbohydrates – potatoes, wheat, spinach, and avocados, for example, also have protein and fat mixed in. And food that we consider as protein – milk, chicken, for example, may have carbohydrate and fat mixed in. Each of the three macronutrients, carbohydrates, protein and fat, are responsible for supplying and transporting the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients in the body. All three macronutrients are necessary.

All carbohydrates, whether mixed in milk or the simple sugar of soda pop, become glucose in our blood. When you drink juice or soda pop, the conversion to glucose (blood sugar) is almost instantaneous. The conversion of starchy mashed potatoes and white bread, for example, to glucose is super fast also. If you consume more food, and thus glucose, than your body immediately requires, the body needs to store it. That’s insulin’s job – getting the sugar into cells and out of the blood. That’s a marvelous living adaptation – keeping the amount of glucose in the blood just right.

If we take in an excess of carbs beyond what our body needs for energy in a day, especially if they are simple carbs, they are stored as fat.  Moreover, over a long time, it seems that the body’s ability to keep spewing out insulin becomes challenged. The cells become resistant to insulin (insulin resistance) and it takes more insulin to do the same job and then the pancreas can’t make enough insulin to keep up with the amount of glucose in the blood – enter diabetes. If you want to review the projection statistics for diabetes read our post Diabetes – Why Should We Care? In addition, if you’d like to read about how Dr. Grandpa beat Type 2 diabetes you can read Avoiding Diabetes or Life Style Changes Lick Diabetes (in his own words).

When you consume simple carbs (processed flour and sugars) it causes a surge of glucose in the blood, which leads to a surge of insulin, which triggers a blood sugar drop. This is what the insulin is supposed to do, but unfortunately, in this case, the rapid drop in blood sugar makes you feel hungry again – a vicious cycle. This cycle, caused by rapid spikes and drops in blood sugar due to the speed at which simple, processed, carbs are turned to glucose, is not what you need, – not if you’re trying to avoid weight gain, diabetes, and the resulting insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and heart disease.

Humans have only consumed refined grains and processed sugars for a relatively short time; and it took us this long to figure out that even though they are cheap to make, can be designed to be quite palatable, and are profitable to sell everywhere, those processed grains and sugars are not ideal for our bodies. Historically, processed grains and sugars led to deficiency diseases (e.g., scurvy, beriberi, pellagra, anemia) caused by the removal of the vitamins and minerals lost during the refining process. The first step of the recovery was to put a few of the nutrients back into the impoverished flour and call the flour “enriched”. These historical events accomplished a giant step leading toward nutritionism – thinking and acting as if a single or a few nutrients accounted for the benefits of an entire whole food. We nutritionists thought that we had it all figured out. We can just add the vitamins that would keep us out of a deficiency disease, meanwhile continuing to make and sell the profitable processed flour products. After all, the resulting products are so popular, so light and fluffy, so mild, and will last a coon’s age on a shelf without spoilage – what a deal! And the happy food processors can still sell the ‘waste’ (bran, germ, apple peels, etc. for animal feed). As time has gone by, we have discovered, however, more and more what we’re missing by refining the grains and plants (fiber and phytonutrients to name two classes).

It’s funny that I can remember my grandmother pronouncing something to be good for me as roughage, but the nutritional scientists did not seem to know her knowledge from so many decades ago. Fiber is a non-digestible carbohydrate, the human body can’t absorb it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not good to include in our diet. As it turns out, the parts that are thrown out in processing are very important to our health. Paging back to the perils of simple carbs (refined flours and sugars) we can now understand why the simple carbs are the villains, but the complex carbs in whole grains and vegetables are the heroes.  The rapid spikes in blood sugar and insulin do not occur with the complex carbs. It takes longer to get the glucose out from the fiber, phytonutrients, and other good things that have been stripped out and used for animal food. Thus the blood sugar spikes and hunger attacks are greatly reduced. Moreover, it includes all the antioxidants, phytonutrients, and many compounds whose significance, alone or in interaction with others, has not yet been sufficiently studied by scientists. Moreover, whole, real foods do not seem to lead to helpless overeating like fake, fattening, junk fudes do. (See A Rats Eve View of the Recent Junk Food Study).

It may be a surprise to some, but eating is supposed to be nourishing the body, in addition, to driving away hunger and enchanting the palette. Cutting out entire groups of food, carbohydrates, for example is a foolish decision to make. There is ample evidence that whole grains are an important component that may decrease the risk of death from cardiovascular disease. A relatively new study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found lower death rates from cardiovascular, infectious, and respiratory diseases for the men and women who were followed for an average of 9 years. Don’t throw out the cereal grains, like whole wheat, oats and brown rice!

In a study published in November, it was found that high alpha-carotene concentrations in the blood were linked with low death from cardiovascular disease, cancer and ‘all other causes.’ This study suggested that we should be increasing fruit and vegetable consumption as a means of preventing premature death – it doesn’t say take supplements and continue eating simple carbohydrates.

We should be careful of nutritionism; that is thinking that adding fiber to refined foods is the same as the whole grain foods, or adding certain nutrients (alpha-carotene, omega-threes, for example) to a processed food is equal to the natural food. There are hundreds of nutrients in foods, and spraying on some vitamins or adding some cheap fiber is not going to yield the same resulting health. You almost have to become a detective when you choose processed foods. I admit that I even have difficulty with the incongruent numbers that appear on the nutrition panels – it takes me longer to decipher what’s going on than I would like – the labels are sometimes like the slight of hand of a magician.

Simple Carbs – These are the carbs that we should be working hard to decrease in our diets; they lead to the insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers; we want to avoid all of them. The following are examples to help you recognize where they lurk: candy, sugary sodas, fruit juice, sports drinks, cookies, processed cereals, refined pasta, white rice, cakes, bagels, regular muffins, white bread, chips, regular crackers, and flour tortillas. They are not always easy to recognize, as the food processors have done a remarkably good job of plastering the words “whole grain” on the package; while disguising the processed flours and sugars. Read more about the food-like substances we call fude in last month’s Don’t Sell Our Kids Short – Avoid Number Two.


Complex carbs – These are the sources of carbs to include in our diet: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds.

Protein in Carbs – grains and vegetables are a source of protein. Vegetables, legumes, and grains are the foods that supply vegans their protein source. Fruits are filled with many nutrients, but usually not much protein or fat. An avocado is an exception; it has both fat (good fat) and protein and is a nutritional powerhouse.

What should we do?

Reduce refined carbs in the diet and replace them with vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, fruits, legumes and fats from vegetable sources (like olive oil, avocados, and canola oil).



Many of the vegetables are among the foods that contain lots of protein, fiber and water; these vegetables fill you up for very little carbohydrate and therefore are low in calories. Some examples are: (sugar snap peas, lettuce, spinach, cucumbers, summer squash, kale, green beans, broccoli, bean sprouts, greens, Swiss chard, onions, bell peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, turnips, rutabagas, pumpkin, peas, okra, leeks, kohlrabi, dandelion leaves, Brussels sprouts, eggplant, asparagus, radishes, mushrooms (not really a vegetable, but we use it as a vegetable) and celery.  Some have a little more carbs, but are still excellent; and filled with fiber that helps them to not spike your bloods sugar: carrots, artichokes, dried beans, parsnips, potato, squash, sweet potato or yam.

A little personal observation

During the years that I directed a clinic for obese patients and counseled many of them individually, I never encountered a patient who became obese by eating too many vegetables. As a matter of fact, those who included more vegetables in their long-term maintenance, were, by far the most successful at keeping the weight off. Anecdotal evidence is not considered valid scientific evidence, but the vegetable eating works for me, for Vic (Dr. Grandpa), and may others who have chosen to follow that path. We do not eat unlimited amounts of the starchy foods (dried beans, whole grains, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, yams, etc.) but allow ourselves to eat large portions of the other vegetables listed above.

Because we are genetically predisposed to enjoy sweetness, it can be challenging to steer ourselves away from sweetness. But if you discover that you have a sweet tooth, at least you were born in an age when there are options available. One option is erythritol, a zero-calorie sweetener, used by Dr. Grandpa to help manage his sweet tooth. At least, you’re not in a position to have to deprive yourself of sweetness for life. There are many different sweeteners to help solve your sweet needs.

The Bottom line

When you read: “Fat is not the problem; cutting carbohydrates is the key to reversing obesity, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.” The carbohydrates that are being referred to are the simple carbohydrates in junk food, the food–like substances that we call fude. Don’t be confused and think that you need to cut vegetables, whole grains, fruit, beans, nuts, or seeds. Carbohydrates are a very important vehicle for the nutrients that are involved in keeping your body healthy – be picky about the ones you choose.

Tomorrow I will post one more way that you can increase complex carbs in your life – albeit it is truly a very tasty way.