Let’s set the record straight on carbs.
As a whole, carbs have been widely misunderstood. As a response to the high carb, low fat diet recommendations most of us have grown up with, there’s been a shift in the opposite direction. Some of it for good reason. The main one being that fat is not the enemy of health. Quite the contrary.
What I aim to provide in this article is just the facts. Low carb diets definitely have their place. But it’s definitely not for everyone. I’ll break down fiber intake and the interactions each kind has on gut health. We’ll cover glycemic index a bit and how that’s not necessarily the best gauge for carb choices. I’m also going to cover how many carbs you should be eating, what kind and what actually constitutes as a “carb” when factoring in actual grams per day.
For lot’s of folks reading this, increasing carb intake will actually help you to lose weight and feel better. You need to eat enough carbs to match your activity level – especially glycolytic pathway training.
What’s the deal with Fiber?
So first of all, fiber is plant matter that is indigestible to humans. There are 2 kinds of fiber. It’s important to understand that each has a role in a balanced whole foods diet. In the context of a whole foods approach to your carbohydrate intake, you should be getting plenty of both. Usually when you hear “fiber” insoluble fiber is what everyone thinks. Here’s a few things to note about insoluble fiber:
- It does not dissolve in water, does not ferment in the colon (with the exception of resistant starch) and adds “bulk” to stool – sorry, not sure how else to put that
- Be careful not to overdo it. Too much can bind important minerals like iron, calcium and magnesium which prevents their absorption
- Resistant starch is an exception in that it can be fermented by bacteria in the large intestine which produces beneficial short-chain fatty acids
- It can also increase the absorption of minerals like calcium and boost Bifidobacteria, improve gut motility and does not spike blood sugar levels
- It’s found in green bananas, cooked and cooled potatoes or rice, plantain flour, tapioca flour and some legumes
- Best sources of insoluble fiber include stuff like: yams, sweet potatoes, carrots and other root veggies, green leafy vegetables, fruits with edible peels, berries, seeds & nuts
Soluble Fiber aka Prebiotics:
- It does dissolve in water and is fermented by bacteria (it feeds them) in the colon to create a gel-like substance
- Bacteria eat it and create short-chain fatty acids like butyrate, propionate and acetate.
- These short chain-chain fatty acids have many health benefits including: increasing insulin sensitivity, reducing inflammation (anti-inflammatory), delaying development of neurodegenerative diseases and even possibly helping with disease of the colon
- Soluble fiber binds cholesterol, improves insulin sensitivity, increases LDL receptor activity in the liver, may protect against heart disease and increases satiety
- See my gut health basics article for a list of foods that fall into this category (there may be some overlap as technically resistant starch falls into both categories)
Glycemic Index – not super useful.
You might have heard at some point something about foods “high on the glycemic index”. To clarify, glycemic index is the measurement of a food’s carbohydrate content by checking blood sugar levels after eating a meal.
Here’s how it works. You eat high glycemic food. Your blood sugar spikes too fast. Therefore high-glycemic food is bad. The problem is, most of the evidence points to glycemic index not being a very useful concept. It’s not supportive for weight loss, insulin or glucose regulation or honestly anything else I found.
Here’s the 2 things I think we need to be concerned with instead of glycemic index:
- Cellular vs. acellular carbohydrate. Glycemic load considers the serving size of a food in how it will impact blood sugar but also considers cellular structure. Cellular carbohydrates remain intact while cooking. Because of this, it’s next to impossible for a whole food tuber or fruit to have more than 25% of it be carbohydrate by mass.
- Acellular carbohydrate on the other hand, which are highly processed versions like flour & refined sugar, have no living cells or fiber. You can pack acellular carbs into food at much higher density than typically found in nature.
- This causes gut microbiota alterations leading to inflammation, insulin & leptin resistance and obesity.
- The point? Whole foods are better. (weird) Limit acellular carbs. Ripe bananas and white potatoes are totally fine for most people.
- Don’t eat a big fat bowl of white rice by itself. Glycemic index assumes you’re eating those carbs in a vacuum. It doesn’t take into effect fat, protein or fiber. All 3 factors significantly slow the absorption of the carbohydrate.
What are the best sources of carbohydrate and how much should I eat?
Ok, so down to the nuts and bolts here. There will be 3 basic categories: Non-starchy vegetables, fruit and starchy plants. Obviously, if you’ve read anything else I’ve ever written, food quality is king. Outside of that here’s a basic guideline:
- Non-starchy vegetables (broccoli, kale, etc.) – Eat as much as you want. These should not be considered when calculating total carb intake for the day because they’re pretty low in carbs to begin with overall and a lot of the time the fiber content almost completely offsets it altogether.
- Fruits – About 3 servings a day for most people is fine. If you’ve got insulin resistance, diabetes or metabolic syndrome you’ll probably need to limit fruit or choose fruit with lower sugar content.
- Starchy plants (roots & tubers like potatoes, yuca, etc.) – Fill in the rest of your carb intake with these. As an aside, some people will not tolerate these as well if:
- They don’t produce enough of the enzyme needed to break starches down called amylase
- There’s any bacterial overgrowth like SIBO going on. The bacteria will ferment it in the stomach and cause gas and bloating
- Blood sugar regulation is an issue
How many grams of carbs should I eat then each day?
There are 4 basic categories for carb intake depending on your goals or existing conditions: very low carb, low carb, moderate carb & high carb.
I’m not giving any medical advice here and if you’re unsure of anything, always default to the care of your PCP. Also, it’s a good idea to play around with this to see what works best for you. See how you feel and gauge it on that.
I’m basing this on an estimated 2,600/2,000 calorie diet for men and women respectively. For most “generally healthy” people, they’ll thrive on a moderate carb intake. That said here’s the chart:
A few notes on sugar and fructose.
So as far as sugar is concerned, it’s important to not get overly neurotic about it. Of course, too much refined sugar leads to weight gain, metabolic disorders, immune dysregulation, behavioral disorders and a myriad of other issues. That said, small amounts of refined sugar are not “toxic” or addictive.
The 3 main issues with refined sugar are:
- It has no nutritional value whatsoever.
- It negatively impacts the gut microbiome and gut health overall.
- Over consumption generally leads to overeating because it interferes with hormone signaling that regulates appetite and you’ll never feel satisfied unless you have more sugar. This is what most people describe as “sugar addiction”.
What’s the deal with fructose?
There’s also quite a bit of misunderstanding when it comes to fructose. The main critique is that fructose is the most efficient substrate for de novo lipgenesis (DNL) which is where the liver converts carbs into fat. In response to that:
- Currently most researchers are convinced that DNL in humans is negligible with regard to fructose. It just doesn’t comprise a significant enough amount of dietary calories.
- There’s absolutely no reason to avoid fructose when it naturally occurs in foods like fruit
- Obviously refined fructose should be kept to a minimum. Stuff like Pepsi and Coke are especially bad because calorie consumption is rarely reduced elsewhere in the diet.
- As a side note, fructose, even in whole foods, should be pretty limited for folks with SIBO and other gut issues or those with impaired glucose tolerance.
In Summary – I know, it’s a lot!
Please don’t be overwhelmed! It’s a lot and there’s more coming in the following weeks. I will be covering fats and protein as well. Just know that this is invaluable information that you can print and keep handy for reference. (I’ll get around to putting a downloadable PDF link in here asap). Also, if there are new scientific findings about this stuff, rest assured, I’ll update it here. One of my biggest goals with this blog is to create a repository of trustworthy information.
I’m genuinely hoping you’re getting a lot out of the content here. If you like what you’re reading, please leave comment! Feedback is priceless to me. For content ideas and just to know if I’m resonating with our readers. If you have someone that you feel would benefit from the info, share it on social media too! Stay tuned for Part 2 soon!