Nutrition 101: “Is Butter a Carb?”

Ahh, carbohydrates. If I had a nickel for every time someone said that carbs were the devil and the cause for all the world’s problems, I’d be a millionaire. The plain and simple response is that the body and the brain need carbs to survive. To give a better perspective on what I tell clients who want to follow a general, healthy diet, let’s start with the basics.

What are carbohydrates?

Sugar – This is the simplest form of carbohydrates. Found naturally in some foods including fruits, vegetables, milk, and milk products (like yogurt).

Starches – These are “complex” carbohydrates. Starches occur naturally in certain vegetables, grains, and cooked dry beans and peas.

Fiber – Another complex carbohydrate but indigestible to humans. It occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and cooked dry beans and peas. There are two types of fiber; soluble and insoluble.  Soluble fiber foods are fermented by bacteria in the colon and help to protect against heart disease.  Insoluble fiber foods are not fermented in the colon but add bulk to stool. It helps you poop!

cabbages fresh_bread vegetable_basket2015-08-18 10.39.56

[cabbage, bread, root veggies; via]

How does the body use those types of carbs?

Your body utilizes all three forms for energy. Sugar and starches are broken down into simple sugars during digestion. Then, they’re absorbed into the bloodstream, transforming into blood sugar (a.k.a, blood glucose). From there, the sugar enters the body’s cells with the help of its buddy named insulin. The glucose in the cell is then used for energy to help fuel all of your daily activities like that morning run, walking to your car, and even something as simple as breathing. Extra glucose is stored in the liver (for a rainy day), where muscles and other cells use it. When we take in more carbohydrates than we need, storage is used up, and we’re not moving around, the excess is stored as fat.

So…what should I eat?

All types! In terms of vitamins and minerals, some carbs have a bit more nutrition “bang for their buck.” A bowl of strawberries has vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants, whereas a Hostess cupcake, though delicious, doesn’t provide much of anything. Except calories. You may have also heard of the glycemic index before. This basically means that certain types of carbohydrate foods are more “carby” (that’s a technical term) and sugary. These foods are then ranked on a scale from high to low. Foods high on the glycemic index are typically the simple, sugary forms of carbs. These foods include desserts, snack foods, refined flours, and certain fruits like watermelon or bananas. Starches like potatoes and corn are also higher on the index. On the low end of the spectrum, you have whole grains, legumes, non-starchy vegetables, fruits like berries and plums, and low-fat dairy products. Disclaimer: don’t think that foods high on the scale are bad, and foods low on the scale are good.  You actually need a good blend of all!

FoodBalance Faves

Starchy Carbs
Serving Size = fist size or size of a tennis ball
Beans, chickpeas, corn, lentils, oats (rolled or steel-cut), quinoa, rice (black, brown red), sprouted grain breads & tortillas, sourdough bread, pasta & noodles (buckwheat, udon, rice), sweet potato, red potato, russet potato, plantain, acorn squash, kabocha squash, butternut squash (not a comprehensive list)

Non-Starchy Veggies
Serving size = unlimited!
Cucumbers, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, arugula, artichokes, asparagus, broccoli, bok choy, cauliflower, celery, kale, romaine lettuce, mushrooms, microgreens, spinach, peppers, pickles, zucchini (not a comprehensive list)

Serving size = one piece or 1 cup
Apples, pears, oranges, grapefruit, pineapple, raspberries, blueberries, strawberries, watermelon, lemon, lime, cantaloupe, plum, tomato (not a comprehensive list)

I know what you might be thinking…*gasp* but what about gluten?!?  

See you next class!

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