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[This is another in our series on the How and Why of Eating Healthy.]
Every time I hear someone say that carbs are bad for you I just want to scream. Go outside and start hollering as loud as I can. It's just silly. Take this as gospel, carbohydrates are good for you!
Carbohydrates are chains of sugar molecules called saccharides. A single sugar molecule is known as a monosacchride, while two sugars joined together are called a disaccharide. These are called simple sugars because they easily break down in the body into monosaccharides. The monosaccharide glucose is important because it's the primary fuel for your body, and all usable carbohydrates contain glucose molecules. Combining the monosaccharides glucose and fructose results in the disaccharide called sucrose (good old fashioned table sugar).
Chains longer than two monosacchrides are called polysaccharides. These are considered complex carbohydrates (also called starches or complex sugars). Starches contain at least some glucose and these complex carbohydrates break down a little slower than simple carbs.
When you look at the Nutrition Facts box on foods you'll see carbohydrates listed in grams. This is the total amount of carbs - both simple and complex. Sugars are listed for the amount of simple carbohydrates. Subtract the simple carbs from the total carbs and you have about the number of grams of complex carbohydrates or starches.
None of this sounds particularly evil but, like fats, carbohydrates have come to be feared as the culprit responsible for weight gain. This is just plain silly. While we now have proof that Atkins type low carb diets do work, they are not the miracle diets that they are made out to be. Research shows that weight loss is about eating fewer calories. Period.
The reason that low carb diets work is because of the poor quality carbohydrate choices folks generally make. It's easy to lose weight when you stop eating potato chips, french fries, crackers, candy, cake, ice cream, etc.. This is why people succeed on the Atkins or South Beach diet. They simply quit eating junk.
You do not have to quit eating carbs - just make better carb choices. This is another great example of how to eat great food and eat healthy by choosing the best quality calories.
It's pretty easy really. A Milky Way Bar has 240 calories. Of that there are 41 grams of carbohydrates, of which 35 grams are sugar. That works out to about 9 teaspoons of sugar (rather a lot). As with many low quality calorie foods, there's also a lot of fat: 10 grams of fat per bar (7 grams of saturated fat). Open the candy bar, eat in a few minutes, full of sugar (and fat) and it's gone.
Compare this to having a large apple. Fewer calories (190) and a bit less carbs (30) but without any fat. Full of fiber, filling and really satisfying. Interestingly, there's good research showing that folks are just as satisfied eating an apple (but don't feel as guilty as when they have chocolate).
Portion control is the most important rule for whatever carbohydrate you choose. By simply knowing what the best choices are and how much is in a serving you can have your carbs and eat them too.
Eat well, eat healthy, enjoy life!
Timothy S. Harlan, M.D.
August 18, 2009
Last updated: 08/18/09