March 30, 2016 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. They’re present in the foods we eat and our body breaks them down into glucose that then can be used as energy.
Simple Versus Complex
Simple carbohydrates are, essentially, just sugar. They’re found in our diets predominately 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 always). Fresh-pressed (non-pasteurized) fruit juice is essentially fructose or fruit sugar, thus making it a simple carbohydrate, but can be relatively healthy, too. A better alternative to juice is often the whole fruit itself, which contains the original fiber and nutrients. Whole fruit can be made into a smoothie, which is why I prefer a smoothie over juice.
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 simple carb because of the sugar. Besides whole fruit, complex carbs include vegetables, rice, beans, bread, pasta, and all grains such as oats, rye, quinoa, millet and wheat. However, some complex carbohydrates are healthier than others. Essentially, the healthy complex carbohydrates are unprocessed plant foods and whole grains. As we’ll discuss later, these unprocessed complex carbohydrates give you the most fiber and nutrients.
The Perils of Processed Foods
Okay, so let’s first talk 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 essentially grains that have been robbed of their fiber and nutrients, becoming concentrates of starch. Examples of foods high in processed carbs include most cereal, most bread, pasta, white rice, bagels, crackers, chips, most baked foods (among the worst of the worst of processed foods are the “low-fat” snack foods), and basically anything with flour, including wheat and other grain flours. When flour is made, the grain is stripped of the fiber husk and pulverized into a fine powder, leaving nothing but the caloric starch element. These foods are quite abundant, even at your natural food store – and I dare say, make up the majority of products sold.
And here’s the problem – what happens with these “starch concentrates” is that they behave similarly to processed sugars – because of their processed nature, they are digested too quickly, causing an overdose 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. What’s worse is that they’re extremely easy to overdo since, without the original fiber and nutrients, they don’t satisfy the appetite. So, it’s a double whammy. They’re fattening in and of themselves, and you eat more of them to boot. Doh! Additionally, you gotta keep in mind, even a small amount of processed food goes a long way – directly around the waist line.
Distressingly, these foods are a predominant part of the modern diet. It’s hard to get away from them. 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 check 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, “evaporated cane juice” which, as you’ll recall from earlier, is just straight-up processed sugar disguised by the natural sounding name. Not good.
So, what can you use as a breakfast cereal instead? How about oatmeal? No, not instant oatmeal and granola. 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. 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. Ezekiel brand is approved, since it is only the whole-wheat berry. For bread, same thing – simply stay away from flour. Unfortunately, that’s 95% of the breads out there. Ezekiel brand also makes a good option for bread. (You owe me one, Ezekiel). Manna Bread is also a decent brand. All of these options are flourless and Billy-approved.
The key is to remember: more unprocessed foods. Simple, yes, but not necessarily easy. Like we talked about earlier, the processed grains without the original fiber and nutrients are merely unsatisfying, fast-digesting calories. Bottom line: enhance your diet to include more unprocessed complex carbohydrates (plant foods, whole fruit, whole grains). This will dramatically improve anyone’s health on all levels, especially long-term. An added bonus is that your days of calorie-counting are almost over. This is because it’s pretty hard to overeat foods such as broccoli. Incorporating more of these foods in our diet enables us to much more easily reduce our calories, if need be (which applies to most 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 mentioning, that when making choices, green foods are generally the best: broccoli, cabbage, kale, spinach, mustard greens, collard greens, and green beans, to mention 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 would also like to comment that among the complex carbs, white potatoes are less than ideal 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!)
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 us. But if you make a conscious effort to start substituting healthier, unprocessed foods, you’ll notice a funny thing start to happen. The processed junk will actually begin to feel unappetizing to you. Very truthfully, the processed foods including bread, crackers, chips and other snack foods are totally and completely repulsive to me. Why? Because of something we’ve discussed 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 the 8 years of teaching nutrition 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, 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.
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Yours Very Truly,