Trending lately in the food blogosphere are carbohydrates: to eat them or not to eat them, when to eat them and where to get them from.
– A generally widespread opinion is that grains should be avoided. A common misconception with Paleo/primal/grain-free diets is that the diet doesn’t include enough carbs. But carbohydrates and grains are two different things, and you can get carbohydrates from foods like fruits and vegetables that are far more nutritionally dense than breads and pasta. So while Paleo diets are “low-carb” compared to the Standard Western Diet, they aren’t carbohydrate free. Instead, the carbs are ingested along with higher amounts of bio-available fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals instead of with inflammation-causing gluten and lectins.
-“But I love bread and pasta” you say? I will admit the smell of bread is sometimes hard to resist, almost like a dessert. It might not seem like it, but bread and desserts are more alike than they may seem, at least to your body.
When you break down bread, even 100% whole wheat or “healthy whole grain” bread, the starches get broken down and turned into glucose, just as if you had eaten a candy bar or a bowl of pasta. This rise in glucose spikes blood sugar levels, which will fall as quickly as they climbed. Low blood sugar makes us feel hungry, leading to overeating.
– “But I like the taste of bread and pasta”
Is it really the bread that you enjoy, or is it the bacon, lettuce and tomato on that sandwich that tastes good? And is it really the pasta that you love, or is it the tomato, basil and garlic sauce and meatballs that tastes the best? Eventually, I realized that breads and pastas are just vehicles for tastier things. While they might be quick and convenient to prepare and to consume, there are better alternatives for your favorite meals, such as spaghetti squash or sliced zucchini in place of spaghetti noodles, topped with the same tomato, basil and garlic sauce and meatballs you love. “Pasta night” just got a whole lot healthier: the protein in the meatballs helps to stabilize blood sugar, and the healthy fats help keep you feeling full. Vegetables like spaghetti squash and zucchini offer fiber, which also curbs the appetite.
– It’s no secret that carbohydrates are the body’s preferred source of energy. This is the reason endurance athletes load up on pasta and other easily digestible carbs before events. And it’s also true that it takes longer to use fat for energy, which may hinder the performance of some endurance athletes. But recently, research is showing that given the time to adapt to using fat as an energy source, endurance athletes too can thrive on a Paleo/primal/grain-free diet. “The mainstream consensus has been that you need carbs to do anything other than very moderate intensity exercise. But after a period of adaptation, the body will switch over from carbohydrate to fat as its main fuel for exercise with equal or better performance.” The adaption period can take weeks or even months.
– I am definitely a believer in cheat days for a mentally sustainable diet, and some sources are going so far as to advise them for fat loss. The concept of carb-cycling is to alternate high-carbohydrate days and low-carbohydrate days. The high-carb days or “cheat days” should be made up of “good”, complex sources of carbohydrates, like sweet potatoes and oatmeal. The idea is the high carbohydrate days will aid in recovery and replenish glycogen, providing performance benefits and boosting fat loss by revving metabolism.
So, what to take away from all of this? I’d conclude that due to the mounting evidence against grains, most people should consider them a “sometimes” food at best, and NOT the focus of your meals. You should base meals around protein (preferably grass-fed meats/animal products, if your beliefs allow it) and vegetables instead, and aim to get both of those in at every meal. As for carbohydrates, they should be mostly from nutrient dense sources like starchy vegetables and fruits.