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Carbohydrate Confusion: Are Carbohydrates Bad for You?

Sometimes it’s hard to eat healthfully when there is so much confusion around what is the healthiest way to eat.

One of the most confusing and hotly debated nutritional topics is carbohydrates. Every so often a new diet book makes the media rounds touting the claim that eliminating or greatly reducing carbohydrates is the solution to obesity and other health problems. The high-protein/low-carbohydrate approach has a number of different variations, but they all have one common theme: Carbohydrates make you fat and cause disease. These diets also frequently advocate a high intake of animal protein.

Yet the ancient science of yoga teaches us that whole, natural carbohydrates are an integral part of a healthy diet. Carbohydrate-rich foods in their original, natural form are considered to be sattvic, or in the mode of goodness. Sattvic foods, which include whole grains, legumes, and fresh fruits and vegetables—all of which contain mostly carbohydrates—promote good health, sustained energy, and a peaceful mind.

So how did carbohydrates get such a bad rap? After all, your body needs sugar—every cell in your body is fueled by glucose, a sugar molecule. The answer is that the modern processing of grains and other carbohydrate-rich foods has led to refined, depleted “foods” that contribute to a host of health problems, including weight gain. This has led to nutritional confusion, because it’s not carbohydrates that are the problem, but rather processed carbohydrates.

Refined Carbohydrates Cause Disease

Processed, refined carbohydrates, such as white flour and the thousands of products made from it, provide caloric energy to the body with little to no nutrition. The nutritious parts of the grain (the outer bran and the inner endosperm) are mechanically removed during processing, taking away valuable fiber, vitamins, and phytonutrients. What’s left behind are pure carbohydrates that are broken down by the body so quickly that they can spike your blood sugar faster than even white table sugar.

The problem is that our bodies aren’t designed to eat foods that have had the nutrients and fiber removed from them. This quick spike of blood sugar causes a lot of wear and tear on the body over time. Our bodies thrive on homeostasis, or balance, so every time the body is shocked with a dramatic surge in blood glucose, every cell has to work harder to get things back to normal. These spikes in blood sugar also promote fat storage.

All this excess glucose in the blood also triggers glycation, which means the excess glucose molecules become attached to other molecules, in turn triggering disease-causing inflammation. Inflammation is implicated in many health problems, including arthritis, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. Glycation also ages your skin more quickly.

White wheat flour is not the only problem—any grain that is processed to remove the healthy outer bran can become a problem. Processed sweeteners are another huge concern because they cause the blood sugar to spike in a way that is very unbalancing and detrimental to your health.

Given the harmful effects of processed carbohydrates, it’s not surprising that many people who eliminate all carbohydrates from their diet feel better, at least for a while. Yet over time this approach can be just as unbalancing because our bodies and brains thrive on a steady supply of glucose. The best source of sustained energy comes from whole, natural, carbohydrate-rich foods, such as whole grains, legumes (beans, lentils, and peas), and vegetables.

Complex Carbohydrates Promote Longevity, Good Health, and Weight Loss

If it were true that all carbohydrates are unhealthy, the negative health effects would readily be seen in all people who eat a lot of carbohydrates, regardless of the type. Yet scientific research backs up what has been taught in the science of yoga for thousands of years: Complex carbohydrates promote good health. Complex carbohydrates are found mainly in whole grains, legumes, and vegetables—the very foods most nutritionists tell us to eat to be healthy and to reduce our risk of health problems. “Complex” means that the carbohydrates are metabolized slowly, providing a steady flow of energy into the bloodstream; their glycemic index is low. It also means that they have not been stripped of nutrients and fiber and therefore provide the nourishment our bodies need and all the benefits of fiber, including better digestion and elimination. Whole grains and beans provide energy-sustaining calories and vital minerals and fiber, while vegetables provide a plethora of phytonutrients, antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber. The more we include these foods in our diet, the less room there is for refined and processed foods, which only deplete and stress our bodies.

Here are some compelling research facts:

  • Whole grain breakfast cereal reduces high blood pressure risk by 20%: Simply eating whole grains for breakfast dramatically reduces the risk of high blood pressure, which is a serious health condition. High blood pressure significantly increases the risk for stroke, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, aneurysms, and even damage to your eyesight. High blood pressure can silently damage your body for years before it is even detected. In one study, eating whole grains was as effective as medication for reducing blood pressure.
  • Whole grain and legume consumption is linked to lower body fat: While processed grains and refined sugars are linked to an increase in unhealthy body fat, whole grains and legumes have the opposite effect. The more of these foods people eat, the lower levels of VAT (visceral adipose tissue) they have, reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. VAT is abdominal fat that surrounds your internal organs; it is considered the most harmful type of fat. Higher VAT has been linked with higher cholesterol, high blood pressure, and insulin resistance.
  • Whole grains and legumes reduce the risk of heart failure: Heart failure currently affects nearly 5 million Americans. Researchers believe the protective effect lies in these foods’ ability to lower high cholesterol, diabetes risk, high blood pressure, and body fat.
  • Whole grains, legumes, vegetables, and fruits improve health and reduce the risk of overall mortality: This result is found over and over again in research from all over the world in connection with a wide variety of health issues. These carbohydrate-rich, nutrient-dense foods quite simply help people to live longer, healthier lives. Refined and processed foods do the opposite.

These are just a few examples of the benefits of eating whole, unprocessed foods. Other studies have shown further benefits, such as less constipation, reduced risk for diverticulitis, reduced diabetes risk, and even a reduced risk of cancer.

How to Add More Whole Foods to Your Diet

Food is such a big part of our lives—from culture and traditions to daily habits and routine. So it can sometimes be challenging to change what we eat. Understanding why we are doing it is important for motivation, so the more you learn, the easier it becomes. Then it’s just a matter of taking one step at a time. If you and your family are accustomed to eating refined grains—for example, in bread, pasta, crackers, or rice—start by introducing one whole grain food at a time, such as whole grain bread or brown rice. Sprouted whole grain bread is particularly nutritious, and there are several different types of brown rice to suit your preference. Cooked oatmeal is a great option for breakfast rather than a processed dry cereal. Many packaged “whole grain cereals” are highly sweetened, so it’s best to make your own when possible. Also experiment with other grains, like amaranth, millet, and quinoa. These are all gluten-free and are highly nutritious. Many people are now sensitive to wheat, even if it’s whole grain, because it has been hybridized and changed so much from its original state. So if you need to avoid wheat, you still have many other whole grains to choose from.

Legumes are a food that’s often overlooked, but they have so much to offer that it’s worth learning how to integrate them into your daily diet. Canned beans are an easy way to go, adding them to salads, stir-fries, or stews. Cooking legumes from scratch is even better, creating nutritious soups, stews, and chilis. Refried beans are an easy addition to tortillas for a quick burrito or taco meal, garnished with veggies, cheese, avocado, and salsa.

Takeaway Tip: Be sure to soak dried beans for 8 to 12 hours prior to cooking them. Pour off the soaking water and rinse. This will reduce the gas-producing effects of beans. Then you can cook them right away or store the soaked beans in zipper bags in the freezer for future use (the freezing expands the water inside the beans, making the beans cook more thoroughly, and soaking ahead saves time when you’re ready to cook). Most beans need to boil for about 2 hours to be completely cooked, but it’s easier to cook them in a slow cooker for 8 to 12 hours (overnight or all day), and they’ll come out creamy and very digestible. Smaller legumes, like lentils and split peas, don’t need to be soaked, and the cooking time is much less than it is for beans. 

Finally, vegetables are the most nutritious part of any diet. The word “vegetable” comes from the Latin word vegetus, meaning full of life or life-giving. Vegetables give us more nutrition per calorie than any other food. Dark green leafy vegetables provide the most nutrition of all, replete with protein, minerals, chlorophyll, and antioxidants. Include both raw and cooked vegetables in your diet every day, such as a raw green salad for lunch and steamed broccoli and collards for dinner. Try to buy local and seasonal produce as much as you can—it will be the freshest and most nutritious. Focus on color to add variety and a wide spectrum of nutrients—purple (cabbage, beets), red (peppers, radish), orange (yams, carrots), yellow (squash, sweet potato), white (cauliflower, turnip), and green (broccoli, kale, parsley, zucchini).

With this arsenal of complex carbohydrate-rich foods—whole grains, legumes, and fresh vegetables—you will have a strong foundation for good health and longevity. Round out your diet with some fresh fruits, healthy fats (like raw seeds, nuts, and nut butters), and a moderate amount of dairy products if you like. Not only will you have a stronger and healthier body, but you will also gain a clearer mind and more vitality, allowing you to live your life more fully without being hampered by so many of the health problems that plague our society today. 

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