Myth: Eating carbohydrates, especially complex carbs, is vital for health
Myth 7: A Plant-Based Diet is Healthiest Myth 6: Counting Calories Myth 5: Government and Nutrition Organizations Provide Healthy Advice Myth 4: Eating carbohydrates, especially complex carbs, is vital for health Myth 3: Grains are Good for You Myth 2: Exercise is Integral to Health Myth 1: Saturated Fat Causes Heart Disease
Carbohydrates are not essential nutrients for humans. An essential nutrient is one the body requires for normal, healthy functioning, but cannot synthesize itself (the body can synthesize every carbohydrate it needs). This is to say that humans can live healthy, normal lives without ever touching a carbohydrate.
This however should not be construed to say that carbohydrates should not or cannot be eaten. But while they can be a healthy part of a diet, carbs (especially the processed kind) are the primary cause for weight gain in the modern world (and they also have been linked to inflammation of the arteries, a precursor of heart disease). When carbs enter the body, they elevate the blood sugar. To lower the blood sugar, your body secrets insulin, causing the sugar to be removed from the blood and stored as fat. Processed carbs tend to spike blood sugar more, causing an exaggerated insulin response, and thus more fat storage. Complex carbs are in some cases no better–with many reports showing that a slice of whole wheat bread spikes blood sugar faster than a tablespoon of table sugar! There are many reasons why processed-complex carbs would be high on the GI (glycemic index, or how quickly a food breaks down into sugar), and this article by the Wellness Mama discusses some of them.
So how do carbohydrates cause excess weight gain? Let’s compare nature with modern life. In nature, carbohydrates for humans come typically in two forms: vegetables and fruits. Compared to a can of soda, or a bowl of Cheerios, carbohydrates in nature are extremely small in quantity, even more so when you consider that the presence of fruits and veggies themselves in nature is low and limited by season. Today, we go to the store and buy all the carbs we want, whenever we want. Carbohydrates from nature, i.e., unprocessed carbs, are also lower on the GI, and typically come attached with all sorts of neat vitamins and minerals.
Now, if we ate food that came directly from nature (a farm, perhaps), obesity would not likely be a major problem, and here’s the reason: foods at the store typically have an exaggerated amount of sugar in them (think sodas, cookies, factory-made bread; almost anything that comes packaged has some form of added sugar). Our diet today consists of many foods that have sugar levels MUCH higher than anything to be found in nature. And, if you read that article by the Wellness Mama, you’ll know that our foods today also have higher GI’s than in the past due to the way they are grown or processed, and this is especially the case with grain-based foods such as bread or pasta. The book Wheat Belly goes very far into this topic.
What does all of this mean? We are consuming sugar in extremely high amounts, amounts our bodies are not designed to handle. Let’s compare a cup of tomatoes to a cup of Cheerios. According to my quick search on Google, a cup of tomatoes has anywhere between 5-10g of carbs, and lies at 38 on the GI. In contrast, a cup of Cheerios has 22g of carbs (highly processed carbs at that), and lies at 74 on the GI. This is typical of processed foods. Pasta, while having a GI lower than Cheerios, has a lot more carbs to begin with–on average 40g per cup. Watermelon, though very sweet and with a higher GI than pasta, has but a small amount carbs in total, meaning the effect on blood sugar will not be that great.
When carbs enter the body, they are quickly broken down into sugar (except for fiber). This sugar then gets used to restore reserves in the muscles and the liver. When these reserves are full (which happens very quickly), the rest is converted to fat by insulin and stored. Some people, however, are insulin resistant (and some moreso than others), causing them to store more fat and burn less of it for energy. This phenomenon explains some people are always skinny, and why some people struggle with weight.
So, when the average American diet is based off of processed, high-carbohydrate, high-glycemic foods, it’s no wonder that the average American is also overweight. Our great-grand parents ate more meat (which is very low in carbs), and ate only fruits and vegetables that were in season, and prepared grains in such a way as to render them much lower on the GI. And the amount of people that were overweight in their day was remarkably low.
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