Monday, 15 November 2010

In Defense of Carbs

We have no idea what to think about carbs.  We're completely baffled by them, even terrified of them.  We know that we like things that are high in carbs, but we're pretty sure we're not supposed to like them.  They're bad for you, right?  They make you fat. We have some idea that there is a difference between starch and sugars, but we're pretty unclear about what the difference means, so just to be safe, we should probably avoid both.  Because they make you fat. 

Our confusion didn't come out of nowhere.  While the low-carb movement was not actually started by this infamous man, we can put the blame for the popularity of carbophobia squarely on his pudgy shoulders: Dr Robert C. Atkins.  Most of us know all about this diet, but just to recap, Dr Atkins looked around at the widening waistlines of contemporary America, and decided that the reason behind our plumpness, is that we weren't eating enough meat and cheese.  Genius!  He looked around at our inability to turn off the TV, the computer, and the playstation; our obsessive intake of chocolate; Mcdonald's 245 billionth sale of greasy burgers; our massively excessive intake of animal protein, grease, and fat; our continuously effed-up relationship with food and body image; and our overdependence on machines to do everything for us including walking, and decided the problem wasn't the Big Mac, the problem was the bun the Big Mac came on. Ok, I'm exaggerating a little (but only a little).  What he actually decided was that simple carbs, including white flour and sugar, were responsible for the obesity crisis.  Ok, sugar's culpability is something Bob and I can agree on; sugar is a big, fat problem in our society, which I will give a big, fat post all on it's own later on.  But I can't help feel that he was missing something, namely, the burger.  And greasy fries.  And the fatty milkshake.  And the minivan you stuck your arm out of in order to obtain the food.

Atkins proposed a diet in which the first phase restricts your carbohydrate intake to 20g a day.  To limit your carb intake to only 4% of your diet you must not only out cakes, cookies, and white bread,  you also have to do away with wholemead bread and pasta, potatoes, both white and brown rice, fruit, and most veggies.  Ah yes.  Raspberries and their infamous fattening powers. The final "life maintenance" phase of the Atkins Diet restricts you to 90g of carbs a day.  That's still only 18% of the average diet, and general medical recommendations are to consume no less than half of your calories from carbohydrates.  So what can you eat without restriction on Atkins?  Red meat, chicken, fish, cheese, eggs, mayo, cream and butter.

Let me repeat that, because you probably thought you misheard me.  To lose weight, you must replace the brown rice and apples in your diet with cream and steak.  Really?  Really?  Are we that stupid, really?

Yeah, we are.  Atkins died a millionaire.  Proof, if we ever needed it, that people will believe anything you tell them if they think there's a chance it will make them skinny. 

But carbs make you fat, so who cares, right?  The low-carb movement has a lot of followers, and there is a reason for this loyalty.  When people go on Atkins or the Zone, or any of the similar diets, they tend to lose a lot of weight very quickly, as much as 10lbs a week.  You can see how the diet made the evening news.  The problem is, this weight loss mostly comes from water loss and muscle loss.  Muscle is heavier than fat, but more if you trade in some muscle for fat, the number on your weigh scale will be lower, but you will look heavier.  And lumpier.  Do we think the lumpy look is coming back anytime soon?  What's more, muscle tissue burns calories even when you are at rest; therefore losing muscle mass means a decrease in your metabolism, which is not exactly condusive to continued and sustainable weight loss.  

Low carb diets are notorious for being unsustainable.  Know anyone who initially lost a lot of weight on one of these diets?  Maybe.  Know anyone who kept it off for more than a year or two?  Doubtful.  These diets are unsustainable because your body hates them.  Studies have found that these diets cause artery damage,  long-term damage to blood vessels, inflammation that is linked with heart and artery disease, reduce blood vessel dialation (this is a bad thing), and could more that double your risk of certain cancers.  In 2001 the American Heart Association stated that low-carb diets contribute to heart and kidney disease, and that high protein diets are missing certain essential vitamins, nutrients, minerals and fiber.

The problem isn't just what low-carb diets lack: fiber, fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes, and the above mentioned essential vitamins.  Low-carb, high-protein diets also contain too much, well, protein, and we've already discussed the problems with that in the protein blog.  They also contain way too much saturated fat.  The American Heart Association recommends that fat intake in total comprise no more that 35% of your diet, but only 7% of your calories should come from saturated fat.  Eating less than 7% saturated fat is pretty much impossible on a low-carb high protein diet.

I ran a sample Atkins diet through an nutritional anaylisis tool, and eating this menu would involve consuming 103g of fat (64% of this hypothetical daily menu) and 24.4 grams of saturated fat (27% of the hypothetical daily menu).  I feel greasy and gross just looking at those numbers.  I'll do a seperate post about fat someday soon, but for right now I'll just say that the confusion over saturated fat is driven, not by the general medical reseach community, but by the media and a few rascally instigators.  Saturated fat is just as bad for you as we thought it was in the 90's.

I know that a lot of people are confused about the difference between good carbohydrates and bad carbohydates, so here's a quick explanation for you.  Carbs are a ideal source of energy for our bodies.  They are more readily converted into glucose than either protein or fat, and sources of complex carbs tend to be high in fiber.  They are divided into two main different kinds:  Complex (good) and Simple (usually bad).  Complex carbs are composed of starches, which are again divided into natural starches, such as some fruits and veggies, beans, legumes, wholemeal bread, potatoes, and whole grains, and refined starches, such as white bread, white pasta, and white rice.  Simple carbs are divided into natural sugars (still good), such as those found in fruits and vegetables, and refined sugars (bad), such as found in, well, sugar, as well as, cakes, cookies, and all kinds of other sugary crap.  Complex carbs are the carb heros, they provide slower, more sustained release of energy.  Refined sugars should comprise of no more than 10% of your diet; your focus should be on the fruits, veggies, beans, potoatoes, wholemeal breads and pastas, and whole grains.

It's probably no secret that the vegetarian community and the low-carb community are constantly at ends with each other.  Following a diet like Atkins and being vegetarian would be pretty darn difficult, and trying to do it vegan would be pretty darn impossible.  So, while it's true that when you attack carbs, to some extent you attack vegetarianism, I'm not promoting the consumption of carbs to trick anyone into vegetarianism.  Everyone should be eating complex carbs, whether vegan or steakatarian.  Reading stories about diabetics avoiding carbs hurts me deeply, especially when they are one group of people who so desperately need the fiber present in complex carbs.  As long as you are getting at least 10% protein and 10% healthy fat in your diet, you are very unlikely to eat too many complex carbs.  Really. You need to focus on the quality of your carbs rather than the quantity.

So what makes for high-quality carbohydrates?  Just like in drinking buddies, a lack of refinement is best.  The less stuff done to your carbs, the better.  Think about it: sugar cane is ground, juiced, clarified, evaporated, crystalized, and then refined to removed any remaining molasses and minerals, then evaporated again, and then dried.  Not health food.  The much maligned potato is...plucked from the ground.  And then washed, but even that part is optional.  Generally speaking, the closer the food that you are eating is to the state it's found in nature, the more you can pat yourself on the back for eating it.  What does this mean when it's at home?  Good, unrefined sources of carbs include fruits, vegetables, beans, lentils, potatoes, and whole grains.

Now, those of you who know me well probably assume that I'm going to spend the rest of this post talking about potatoes.  Well, I'm a little tempted.  I love potatoes.  I love them a lot.  But no, I think there is another group about the deserves more attention right now.  The mysterious whole grain.  I say mysterious because I think that a lot of people don't really know what to with whole grains, and sometimes don't even know what they are.  I'm not saying this to make anyone feel stupid; whole grains simply aren't talked about enough in the media, which is unfortunely the main source of nutritional information for most of us.  I mentioned wholegrain pasta and bread above, and while I do think these foods are nutritious sources of complex carbs, I really think that wholegrains should have a higher place in our diets than any flour product, which are always more refined than the humble grain.

Here are some grains with super-amazing nutritive powers of complex carbozation.  Most of this info is borrowed from Alex Jamieson's The Great American Detox Diet, (UK), (Can).

Barley:  Not only fun to make Brits pronounce, this high-fiber grain has been traditionally used to support the gallbladder, digestive system, and nervous system.  Barley also prevents dietary cholesterol absorption, which is something those Atkins diet followers could sure use.

Buckwheat (gluten-free):  Known around Eastern European parts as kasha, buckwheat is a complete protein, neutralizes toxic acidic wastes in the blood (I'm not really sure what this means, but it definitely sounds like a good thing), improves circulation and kidney function, and is high in calcium and vitamins B and E.

Millet (gluten-free):  If you attended Brownies or Boy Scouts, this grain might sound familiar.  Possibly you earned your bird-feeding badge by filling a bird feeder with this stuff.  Good for the birds.  Millet is high in protein, iron, lecithin and choline, and is once again good for keeping cholesterol down.

Oats (not technically gluten-free but most people with gluten sensitivity can handle them):  Oats are not only comfortably familiar, they are high in fibre, used to stabilize blood sugar levels, high in protein, lower cholesterol, and according to Jamieson, improve stress resistance.  Whatever that means.

Quinoa (gluten-free):  Quinoa is so trendy right now, you can't look at a hippie menu without running into it.  But who's complaining?  This sacred grain of the Incas is a complete protein, a good source of iron, B3 and B6 vitamins, and phosphorus.  It's also kidney supportive, and just darn cute.

Brown rice (gluten-free):  Switch from white rice to brown rice and in a few months you will see the obvious superiority of nutty, chewy brown rice, not just nutritionally, but gastronomically.  Brown rice is simply more flavourful and has a more pleasing texture.  I hear you groaning that it has to be cooked more than double the time of white rice, which is true, but it's worth the wait.  Brown rice is packed full of protein, lysine, fibre, vitamin B6, vitamin E, calcium, copper, folate, and iron.

Wild rice (gluten-free):  Wild rice not only gave it's name to the Southern Ontario lake I grew up nearby, it is also rich in protein, vitamin B3, calcium and potassium.  It does tend to be very expensive, so you may want to mix it in with other, cheaper rices.

Other grains worth getting to know are cornmeal, kamut, rye, spelt, amaranth, sorghum, and teeny-tiny teff.  Preparing these grains and fitting them into your diet is easy-peasy.  A general method is to combine one part grain with one to two parts water or vegetable stock, a dash of salt, and bring to a boil, then lower the heat, cover the pot and simmer until ready.  The cooking time varies from the quick cooking quinoa, to slow cooking brown rice, so check the package.  Grains can be used in salads, pilafs, as the base for curries and stir-fries, porridge, or mixed with nuts, herbs, and dried fruit for a side dish.  Remember that grain has been at the base of many cultures for years.  Asian countries are fanatical about their rice, South American countries love their corn and quinoa, Ethiopian runners blow Westerners away fueled by teff, and Italians fight off heart disease with pasta and polenta.  And we too used to reap the benefits of barley and oats until we decided to kick our own asses and replace grain with meat and fast food. 

Dr. Atkins liked to broadcast his own good health as a promotion for his diet.  However, at the age of 72, he died after injuring his head, apparently falling after slipping on a patch of ice.  Through some morally questionable actions of a fellow doctor, his medical examiner's notes were released to the public.  Ethics of this relase aside, we now know that Atkins suffered from coronary artery disease, had suffered a previous heart attack, and was overweight.  Quite a lot of debate has occured over the last revealation.  The medical report shows that at the time of his death Atkins weighed 258lbs, which at his height (6 feet) was obese.  Both his wife and brother have claimed that this weight was due to the coma he suffered as a result of the fall, and that upon being admitted to the hospital, he was only 195lbs.  Well, his wife and brother may well be correct, but I think it's worth a passing mention that 195lbs is still overweight for a 6 foot tall man.  I'm not bringing any of this up to make a personal attack on a dead man.  He is, after all, a dead man, and we will never know how much he really believed in his own diet, and how much he was motivated by money, so we may as well give him the benefit of the doubt.  But I don't think we can ignore his medical status, any more than we can ignore the fact that in 2000, 16 year old Rachel Huskey died of cardiac arrest, after following the Atkins diet for seven weeks.  She had no pre-existing health complications.

Vital Vittles

Rice Pilaf with Dates and Almonds

This recipe is borrowed from the vegetarian/pescatarian, Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home, (UK), (CAN), a very useful cookbook that is one of my favourites.  This sweet dish seems and tastes very decadent, but is really very healthful.  The concept of this pilaf could be adapted for a variety of different grains, or even wheat products such as bulgar and cous-cous. Serve it as a main dish, or serve it as a grain side dish with some steamed greens and tahini dressing, and spiced chickpeas.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced or pressed
1 bell pepper, finely chopped
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup dates, chopped.
3 cups cooked brown rice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup hot water
1/2 cup chopped toasted almonds
salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a large frying pan, and add the onions and garlic.  Saute on medium high heat until soft.  Add the bell pepper and mix in.  Stir in the turmeric and cinnamon.  Add the chopped dates, rice and parsley.  Sprinkle on the water, and heat for a few minutes.  When the rice is hot, stir in the almonds, season with salt and pepper, and serve.


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