Thoughts from a broken mind
As time has gone on, there has been some drift in the way food and nutrition writers use the term “carbohydrates” (or “carbs”), and it seems to be causing more and more confusion. I hope this little history makes things clearer.
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients (along with proteins and fats) which make up our foods. They are essentially sugar molecules in various combinations. The word carbohdyrate comes from the carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms which make them up, such as this model of a glucose molecule. Up until about 10-15 years ago, that was about it. (More about the structure of carbohydrates from Regina Bailey, About.com’s Guide to Biology)
Since that time, there has been a gradual shift, first towards calling high-carb foods ”carbohydrates.” It started out innocently enough — potatoes, rice, and bread were “carbs” because they were made up mostly of starchy carbohydrates. Next, there were “good carbs” and “bad carbs,” although the definitions of these varied depending upon who was describing them. More recently, any food that has any carbohydrate at all is sometimes called a “carbohydrate,” even if it doesn’t have much (spinach is now apparently a “carb” by that definition). Similarly, the term “simple carbohydrate” (which used to mean “sugar”) has morphed into meaning almost the same as “refined carbohydrate,” or the foods which contain them. This could be a sugar or a starch — I’ve seen white bread called a simple carbohydrate. “Complex carbohydrate” (which used to mean either “starch” or “fiber”) is now often used to mean whole foods that contain carbohydrate, even if they contain no starch at all (e.g. watermelon).
Are you confused yet?
This mess has led to statements in the media such as “carbohydrates are a good source of vitamins and minerals.” This is enough to make me want to tear out my hair — it’s what science writer Michael Pollan calls “nutritionism” at its worst. I propose that it’s much more helpful to think in terms of actual food. Food has vitamins, and food has carbohydrates, but carbohydrates do not have vitamins. There is no room in a molecule of carbohydrate for a vitamin.
Eating a healthy low-carb diet isn’t always easy, especially at first. But you can definitely make it worse for yourself! Here are ten easy things you can stop doing to make it easier on yourself.
This one seems totally obvious, but this is the #1 source of sugar in the U.S. diet, by far. There may not be another thing besides quitting smoking that would have as great an effect on the health of the general population than to stop doing this.
Of course, water is the obvious thing to substitute, but this is going to sound a little austere to a lot of people. Another suggestion is tea, in all its many forms: hot, iced, black, green, and herbal. The “regular” teas (black or green) and many of the herbals have a lot of health benefits, at a fraction of the cost of soda. There are even flavored teas. And don’t be afraid to mix and match! My current favorite is to brew some flavored green tea (lemon, mango, or jasmine) with some black tea. (Note: if you’re brewing green tea, it should be at a slightly lower temperature than black to avoid bitterness. I throw a couple of ice cubes into the kettle after it comes to a boil.)
Does the word “diet” bring on memories of being hungry, obsessing about food, and even dreaming about food? Do you think hunger and deprivation are necessary for weight loss? Well, start thinking about the opposite! If these experiences are frequent, your way of eating is simply not sustainable. Check this out: Low-carbers talk about their favorite things about eating this way, and notice how often “lack of hunger” and “feeling satisfied” comes up. (“Just cut down on calories” might work for awhile, but it usually becomes the same thing as “just go hungry”.)
The messages about how bad it is to eat fats are everywhere. You simply must learn to ignore them. The Harvard School of Public Health held a symposium with food writers and journalists where they asked them to take a pledge to stop using the term “low-fat”, but, alas, it was apparently in vain.
When we first change our diet, it’s easy to get into a rut and eat the same few foods all the time. This, for most people gets boring pretty fast, and the label “boring” is quickly added to the diet. Look at some cookbooks or recipes online, check out the spice aisle for inspiration, try a new vegetable or cut of meat. Use the change in your diet as an opportunity to expand your horizons. And remember, variety is a good thing, nutritionally speaking.
Low-carb bars and packets of snack foods have their place — when traveling, for example. But there are drawbacks to making them a part of our everyday diet. For one thing, people tend to have highly variable blood sugar reactions to many of these products. The “net carbs” may be look low, but for a variety of reasons, your body may disagree. Also, these so-called “highly palatable foods” are designed to “hook” our taste buds and brains into wanting more. Eating lots of artificially-sweetened foods foods is an example, as they tend to make us keep believing that foods are supposed to be that highly-sweetened.
Out of sight, out of mind. Seriously. Gazing at those bag of Chips Ahoy! cookies only reminds you that you used to enjoy eating Chips Ahoy. No good can come of this. My husband says that there are “islands” in the supermarket with “food that won’t poison me”. He just goes to those islands. I, too, just go to the foods I’m looking for, and ignore the brightly-colored packages along the way. “Shopping the perimeter” of the store, and avoiding the inner aisles altogether, is a great strategy if you can manage it.
There is a whole basket of things that stresses our bodies, and not getting enough sleep is one of the biggies. Lack of sleep and other kinds of stress tend to kick off cortisol and other stress hormones that mess with our blood sugar. This, of course, is the opposite of what a low-carb carb aims to do, which is to stabilize blood sugar. As part of the package, the stress reactions of the body tend to increase appetite, which we certainly don’t need!
I am a science-minded person — in fact, I came to low-carb eating because of the science. But many “science” articles in the news misrepresent the research, or the studies themselves are problematic in some way. Rest assured that over the years, as data accumulates, it points more and more to a reduced-carb diet being a very healthy way to eat for much of the population. In any case, the average result of 50,000 people isn’t going to tell you much about what will work for you. No study costing millions of dollars is needed; just check it out for yourself!
Almost every diet works for some people, and different amounts of carbohydrate work best for different people. One of the strengths of the Atkins Diet, for example, is that it is structured to help each person zero in on the types and amounts of carbohydrate that work best for their bodies.
Similarly, don’t try to argue your neighbor out of the diet that works for her or him. Just tell what works for you and your body — that’s hard to argue with.
If you know that a reduced-carb diet works for you — if you’re healthier and happier when you’ve rid yourself of the extra sugar and starches — you owe it to yourself to figure out a way to make this work for you as a permanent way of eating. No one is perfect, and we all need help making this a “way of eating” rather than a “diet”.