February 25, 2020 By Billy
There’s a lot of confusion about carbohydrates. We hear about simple and complex carbs, but what’s the difference? What do these terms even mean? In its most basic sense, a carbohydrate is a compound of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Carbohydrates are present in the foods we eat, and our body breaks them down into glucose that can then be used as energy.
Simple Versus Complex
Simple carbohydrates are, essentially, just sugar. Like we talked about, they’re found in the average diet, predominantly as processed sugar, such as cane sugar and high fructose corn syrup. Most of the simple carbohydrates in the modern diet are unhealthy, although there are exceptions, including honey and pure maple syrup (in moderation), as we mentioned in the last chapter. Fresh- pressed (unpasteurized) fruit juice is essentially fructose or fruit sugar, thus making it a simple carbohydrate too.
Generally, complex carbohydrates are a combination of starch (chains of sugar) and fiber (non-caloric plant matter). This is why whole fruit, because of its fiber, is actually a complex carbohydrate, although it’s often thought of as a simple carbohydrate because of the sugar. Besides whole fruit, complex carbs include vegetables, beans, bread, pasta, and all grains such as oats, rye, quinoa, rice, millet, and wheat. Of course some complex carbohydrates are healthier than others. Essentially, the healthy complex carbo- hydrates are unprocessed plant foods and whole grains. As we’ll discuss in a bit, these unprocessed complex carbohydrates give you the fiber and nutrients.
The Perils of Processed Foods
Okay, so let’s talk first about the unhealthy complex carbs: processed complex carbohydrates. These are among the greatest culprits of weight gain (and many other health problems) today. Most of the processed complex carbohydrates are basically grains that have been robbed of their fiber and nutrients, becoming concentrates of starch. Examples of foods high in processed carbs include mostcereal, most bread, pasta, crackers, chips, most baked foods (among the worst are the “low-fat” snack foods), and basically anything with flour. When flour is made, the grain is stripped of the fiber husk and pulverized into a fine powder, leaving nothing but the caloric starch. These foods are quite abundant, even at your natural food store, and, I dare say, make up the majority of products sold.
Here’s the problem: what happens with these “calorie concen- trates” is that they behave similarly to processed sugars. Because of their processed nature, they’re digested quickly, causing an over- dose of glucose that the body has no choice but to store as energy for later, which, you guessed it, is stored as fat. Yup, that’s how it works. This is why processed foods, even in smaller amounts, are such major weight-gain foods. And they’re extremely easy to overdo since, without the original fiber and nutrients, they don’t satisfy the appetite. Even worse, the missing nutrients are actually needed for the food to be properly metabolized which are then borrowed from the body’s reserves in order to do so. So, it’s a triple whammy. They’re fattening in and of themselves, depleting, and you eat more of them to boot. Doh! Even a small amount of processed food goes a long way—especially around the waist line. Distressingly, these foods can be hard to get away from. For most people, their intake begins first thing in the morning with a seemingly innocent bowl of cereal. Some of the cereals in your grocery store appear to be healthy, but do you always remember to read the ingredients? The front of the box may say “natural,” “organic,” and “whole grain,” but look at the side of the box. Most cereals, despite what they say on the front, have flour in them. Furthermore, they also have “evaporated cane juice” which, as you’ll recall from earlier, is just straight-up processed sugar disguised by a natural-sounding name. Not good.
So, what can you use as a breakfast cereal instead? How about oatmeal? No, not instant oatmeal with sweeteners. Instead, use whole rolled oats! (The “how-to”? Simply cook in water. If you add oil, remember to use a healthy, heat-stable option such as ghee, butter, or coconut oil. Once cooled to an eating temperature add raw nuts, seeds, and unsweetened yogurt. You can even get some of your healthy sugar with sliced berries and a drizzle of honey. Now that’s a balanced breakfast!) If you want to stick with cereal, look for the brands that don’t contain sugar or flour. There are a few out there. The Ezekiel brand cereal has my approval, since it constitutes only the whole-wheat berry. For bread, same thing—simply stay away from flour. Unfortunately, that’s ninety-five percent of the breads on the market. Again, you can look for the Ezekiel brand since they produce better options for bread and tortillas too. Manna Bread is a decent brand as well. The main factor is these options are flourless. Lucky for you, there’s an entire section of recipes in the back of this very book that will make avoiding processed flour easy.
While we’re talking about the perils of processed foods, let’s talk about something that seems to be attracting a lot of attention lately: gluten. We hear a lot about it, but few of us know what the issue really is. Is gluten bad for us? What does it do? And just what the heck is it anyway?
To put it simply, gluten is the protein component in grains such as wheat, spelt, and barley. And it’s now in almost everything we eat. Think about the popular foods most Americans consume throughout any given day: cereal (cold or hot), toast, pastries, tortillas, pizza, crackers, cookies, energy bars, breaded meats, sandwiches, pastas, soy sauce, salad dressing, thick sauces, soupsand soup bases, beer, desserts…and more bread! This means we’re constantly eating gluten.
The problem with gluten is that it’s hard to digest. Our bodies simply haven’t adapted to today’s prevalence of so much gluten in our foods. We can handle it in moderation, but we’ve gone way beyond that. With a high intake of gluten, the digestive system has to work harder and, over time, this means wear and tear. And this is why many of us are becoming gluten-sensitive.
Some people are actually gluten-intolerant, so even a little is problematic. People living with celiac disease fall into this category. Celiac disease is a rare autoimmune disorder and we’ll look more closely at some autoimmune disorders later in the book. For now, we’ll focus on gluten sensitivity.
Specifically, how do we reduce gluten? Mostly by being aware of its presence. The biggest culprit is wheat flour. Think of wheat flour as gluten concentrate. We just finished talking about why processed foods are unhealthy and gluten in wheat flour gives us just one more reason.
I know it’s hard to keep away from wheat flour since it’s every- where, but there are alternatives. Unprocessed options can include rice, quinoa, and corn. For breads, don’t forget the sprouted grain breads we mentioned above. They’re flourless. One-hundred- percent rye breads are a good bet, too. But I mean one-hundred percent. All grocery stores sell “rye” bread, but most often it’s flavored with rye with wheat still as the main ingredient. Be careful not to rely on all the “gluten-free” (GF) foods that are out there nowadays. GF baked snacks have become very popular, but a lot of them just use other processed starchy grains instead of wheat. And so you’re just substituting one kind of processed food for another!
Listen to your body. If you’re finding that you have some reactions to wheat products, try cutting out wheat flour or at least significantly reducing your intake. Instead of having those rolls with dinner, just steam up a bit of quinoa or rice.
For any kind of food sensitivity, your goal should be to strengthen your digestive system, one of the major pillars of good health! You and your digestive system should be working together, not against each other.
The key is simply to remember this: more unprocessed foods. Simple? Yes, but not necessarily easy. However, as we discussed earlier, the processed grains without the original fiber and nutrients are merely unsatisfying, fast-digesting calories. Bottom line:enhance your diet to include more of the best unprocessed complex carbohydrates (vegetables, whole fruit, whole grains). This will be reflected in anyone’s health, especially long-term. An added bonus is that your days of calorie-counting will be pretty much over. This is because it’s near impossible to overeat low-calorie-density foods such as broccoli. Incorporating more of these foods into our diets enables us to much more easily reduce our calories, if need be (which applies to many of us).
What’s more is that fibrous foods are good for the digestive tract and have countless other health benefits. It’s also worth men- tioning that green foods deserve a sturdy presence in our diet: broccoli, cabbage, kale, spinach, mustard greens, collard greens, and green beans, to name a few. These have the most fiber and nutrients relative to the starch content. These are the foods that satiate the appetite the most per calorie.
I should also note that among the complex carbs, white potatoes aren’t so great since they have loads of starch and very little fiber and nutrition (not to mention that they are often dressed up with loads of sour cream and bacon bits. Ha!). Sweet potatoes, at the other end of the spectrum, are awesome.
As for grains, my first pick is rice. And white rice, specifically. It’s been in the human diet for thousands of years in many places around the world and is something our digestion is perfectly adapted to. Brown rice is good too, but really has only becomepopular in recent years here in the western world. Sure, brown rice has fiber but it’s also much harder to digest than white rice. The better philosophy is to get your fiber from the vegetables cooked with the rice. Quinoa is great too. However, it is a food that doesn’t always digest perfectly for everyone. You’ll have to try it to see for yourself. Millet and amaranth are cool, but are also not the easiest to digest either. Beans and lentils have complex carbohydrates and protein and are both excellent foods.
You may be happy to know another food that gets my stamp of approval is popcorn. But only air-popped, or stovetop cooked with heat-stable coconut oil. Popcorn at the movie theater definitely does not fall into this category. Nor does the packaged popcorn that’s already popped, since the oils will be rancid. And need I say anything about microwave popcorn? Home-cooked unadulterated popcorn is great. Add a little Celtic sea salt if you wish. It’s high in insoluble fiber, and low in calories per volume, making it pretty hard to overdo.
Coming full circle, I understand that a complete dietary overhaul for some of us may be a bit overwhelming. Cereals and breads and snacks have become dietary staples for many of us. But if you make a conscious effort to start substituting with healthier, unprocessed foods, you’ll notice a funny thing start to happen. The processed junk will actually begin to seem unappetizing to you.
Very truthfully, processed foods like bread, crackers, chips, and other snack foods have become totally and completely repulsive to me. Why? Because of something we talked about earlier: the body recognizes nutrient-rich foods and, if given a steady supply, will naturally gravitate towards the good stuff and away from all the junk. It’s true. Believe me. I saw it countless times during my years at the Ashram. During the course of their time there, guests would develop an improved taste for good, healthy, nutritious, lower-calorie, natural, unprocessed food. They’d come back a year later looking and feeling like different people. The difference? They successfully incorporated the Ashram dietary principles into their lives. Furthermore, they reported that it was less than difficult for them to do so and that they had no interest in going back to their old dietary ways. Try it yourself and see if the same thing doesn’t happen to you. I have a hunch your body’s instinctual wisdom may just tip the scale in your favor.