With food guides scattering carbs on opposing ends of pyramids, and experts telling you to ‘get more fiber’ and ‘eat whole grains,’ straight talk on carbs is in short supply.
Carbs are good! Carbs are bad! The “Carb Wars” have been fought for decades, and good nutrition has been the victim. Of the three main solid nutrients the body needs—protein, fat, and carbohydrates—the latter has been the subject of the greatest amount of confusion and misinformation.
Since the 1970s, carb confusion has meant big bucks for an army of self-appointed experts taking deliberate advantage of America’s burgeoning obese population. Most of these experts’ diets demonize carbohydrates, ignoring the fact that the relationship between weight management and carb intake hinges on the type and form of carb and its preparation.
The best example is potatoes. The homely and delightfully starchy tuber remains condemned with an unwarranted negative perception. However, a potato cooked “low and slow,” that is, via boiling or steaming, is about the healthiest carbohydrate source you can eat, packed with a balance of both complex and fiberlike (indigestible) starches that provide energy stored as glycogen, rather than fat, plus high satiety. This is also true of root vegetables and whole grains.
“The biggest source of confusion is the fact that ‘carbohydrates’ is really too generalized a term,” says Mark Anthony, PhD, an adjunct professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas, and author of Gut Instinct: Diet’s Missing Link. The misunderstanding stems from the fact that most people, including many health experts, think of carbohydrates as a single nutrient class, equating sugar with starch with fiber, while nutrition resources uphold the oversimplified approach. Yet it can’t be stressed enough: A carbohydrate is not a carbohydrate is not a carbohydrate.
“The best way to keep carbohydrate messages simple would be to do away with the term altogether,” says Anthony. “When popular diets trumpet a ‘low-carb’ lifestyle and then push plenty of fruits and vegetables, it’s no wonder consumers end up in the dark, especially when they encounter advice from expert sources to ‘eat plenty of good carbs such as fruits and vegetables.’”
THE CHEMISTRY OF CARBS
The structural differences between carbohydrate forms and their impact on human metabolism vary widely. Carbohydrates run the span of single sugar molecules such as glucose and fructose and reach across the long chains of starches to various forms of fibers.
TODAY’S DIET & NUTRITION
All carbs are made of single sugar molecules (glucose, fructose, lactose, or galactose) built from carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Each of these molecules can be linked into a chain called a saccharide. So-called simple carbohydrates are links of one or two sugar molecules. Longer chains of about 20 or more sugars, also known as polysaccharides, are often called complex carbohydrates. (Although both fibers and starches are polysaccharaides, often starches are referred to as complex carbohydrates.)
The body breaks down and stores all these forms of carbohydrate at different rates and sometimes in different ways, which is why some carb forms are considered more “fattening” than others.
Far from a nutritional demon that should be eliminated from the diet, carbs are essential to good health. As Anthony puts it, “Without carbs, you die. It’s that simple. ”Few consumers are aware that the body and the brain run on glucose or that fiber, which we all need, is a form of carbohydrate. So the goal shouldn’t be to avoid all carbs but rather to consume those foods that provide the balances of simple, complex, and indigestible carbohydrates that allow for a balance of optimum energy needs.
With the antioxidant superfruit trend yielding great success for the promotion of red and purple produce of all sorts, it’s time to present some “supercarb” foods that combine the best in simple, complex, and fiber-like carbohydrates.
Although by no means complete, our list will focus on potatoes, root veggies, legumes, bananas, mangos, and grains such as barley, corn, and rice to function as the base of a dietary framework for representing carbohydrates as the life-sustaining foods they are. And all these examples contain a mix of simple, complex, and fiberlike carbs in harmonious balance. They promote health by providing not only a source of readily usable and stored energy but also properties that improve many aspects of human metabolism underlying serious health concerns, specifically obesity, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes. Carbohydrates even play a role in hormone balance, sleep cycles, and emotional well-being.
Most items on this list of “supercarbs” contain resistant starch, a relatively newly discovered form of starch with important health benefits beyond those of true dietary fiber and starch, including easier weight management, better blood-sugar balance, improved digestive health, cancer protection, and immunity.
What makes resistant starch unique is that in foods, it acts like a starch, giving a fluffy texture and satisfying taste. But in the body, it acts like a fiber. It got its moniker because it isn’t digested until it hits the lower gastrointestinal tract. By being resistant to digestion, it gives up only about 2 to 3 calories of energy.
But resistant starch has some additional important and unique properties. It ferments in the lower gastrointestinal tract and stimulates healthy flora to produce short-chain fatty acids. The fermentation is responsible for a cascade of effects, including shifting the body into “fat-burning” mode, strengthening the protective mucosal barrier and preventing carcinogenic damage to DNA in the large intestine, elevating lipid oxidation while reducing fat deposition, and increasing the production of certain satiety hormones. Moreover, research has demonstrated that people who eat at least 25 grams of resistant starch per day naturally consume around 300 fewer calories throughout the day.
With all these benefits nestled in so many comfort foods, it would be a shame if the campaign against carbohydrates continues to sow confusion.
Statistically, people who get the majority of their calories from complex carbohydrates prepared in ways that optimize nutritional value are the people with the healthiest weight profiles. That makes a bowl of piping hot mashed potatoes a lot less terrifying, doesn’t it?
— David Feder, RD