Our issue with carbohydrates (aka carbs) began with the industrial revolution. Mechanisation made flour and sugar, more affordable. White bread replaced wholegrain, and a new era of “lifestyle” diseases was born.
Over the centuries our love affair with flour and sugar has grown to the point that much of the food we consume from these products bears no resemblance to the plants they were derived from.
The carb backlash
The backlash against carbs was inevitable. Eating a lot of refined carbohydrates has long been linked to an increasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. In recent decades carbs, along with the other two nutritional building blocks – protein and fat, has swung in and out of favour.
Most of our nutritional confusion has come from lumping all types of food in each of these groups together. Not all fats, proteins or carbs are equal when it comes to health benefits or risks. A healthful diet is a lot broader than banning certain food groups.
Recently a meta-review of the health research on carbohydrates was published in The Lancet. Analysing 185 prospective studies and 58 clinical trials, with 4635 adult participants, this is significant work that the researchers hopes will end the carb debate once and for all.
The results will likely upset some Paleo and low carbohydrate diet devotees, but are of no surprise to most naturopaths.
Time to get over your carb phobia and eat more fibre
In a nutshell, the latest research conclusively found that complex carbohydrates (found in wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds) are “good” for us. These fibre-rich plant foods, when eaten in their natural state, significantly reduce our risk of developing coronary heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer.
What’s more, people who ate the most fibre-rich whole foods had a 15-30% reduction in deaths from all causes.
Fibre is the part of plants that can make whole foods chewy. It takes longer to break down and the sugars in these high fibre containing foods, are released slowly into our bloodstream. Fibre also helps us feel full, keeping food in the stomach for longer before emptying into the intestines.
When we eat fibre-rich foods, it helps the body negate some of the adverse impact of some fats and sugars in the same meal. The research found that people who ate the most unrefined plant foods also had healthier blood glucose (sugar) and lipid (fat) levels. This was a lot more effective than following a low glycaemic diet.
How much fibre is best?
The optimum amount of fibre identified by the research is 30g or more each day, counselling against having less than 25g daily. This fits with the current Australian nutrition guidelines of 25g for women and 30g for men. But from a naturopathic viewpoint, this sets a relatively low bar.
Thirty grams a day isn’t much. A bowl of homemade raw muesli, with oats, seeds, nuts and fresh or raw fruit for breakfast can net up to 20 grams. Chilli beans with vegetables and a serve of brown rice, provides a similar or greater amount of fibre. Just remember to include chewy whole foods such as nuts,
Basic nutrition vs fad diets
Michael Pollan nailed it when he wrote about eating mostly plants.
When we focus on having food on the plate that mostly resembles the way it looks in nature, we reconnect with common sense and sound basic nutrition.
Diets, often backed by scientific sounding words and “research”, take us a further step away from being connected with our food. Instead of being in touch with how food makes our body feel, we intellectualise what we “should” or “shouldn’t” be eating.
Most diets are fads and what’s currently in vogue is often based on simplistic reasoning. The Paleo diet claims all grains are harmful for our body, cutting out a lot of complex carbohydrate-rich sources of fibre. Low carb, demonises refined and unrefined carbs, while spruiks the benefits of fats and animal protein. Pritikin claimed that fat was the dietary devil and stripped all animal and vegetable sources from his diet. A gluten-free diet removes all gluten containing grains but often replaces them with highly refined or high-sugar replacement breads, cakes and noodles.
They can’t all be right!
Even a dietitian’s standard “high-fibre diet” is a narrow, and potentially faddy one. The diet plans tend to be bulked up by wholemeal flour-based products and commercial cereals focusing solely on the fibre content, regardless of large amounts of added sugar and salt to these industrialised foods.
Instead let’s just focus on including a decent amount of foods from nature that your grandmother would recognise. If you’re an omnivore, choose small amounts of good quality meat or fish but heap your plate with vegetables and/or grains. Include a few wholefood vegan meals each week, like a bean-based salad, soup or stew. Try pilafs made from wholegrains like millet, brown rice or quinoa. Snack on a handful of raw nuts and fresh fruit. Even popcorn can be relatively unprocessed, with just a pinch of sea salt (rather than butter, sugar and other flavourings).
Connect with your food when eating, chew it well and try not to multitask at mealtimes.
But most of all, enjoy what you put in your mouth. Be adventurous and try new flavours and textures in the foods that nature provides.
Tell me what you think. Does this research change your relationship with carbs? Leave a comment below.
If you’re struggling with eating more fibre without feeling bloated, book a naturopathy consultation to create a food plan that suits your individual body.