What is a Carbohydrate?

It occurs to me from time to time as I discuss nutrition and diets with people that, while they may have a pretty decent understanding of which foods are protein rich — lean meats — and which are full of fat — butter, cheese, burgers — they often don’t have a firm grasp of which foods are primarily carbohydrate.

Withh that in mind, let me run down for you what I think I know about carbohydrate.

(Before I get started, by way of disclaimer, I’ll say — yet again — that I’m not a nutritionist or a doctor. I’m just a guy who reads a lot.)

Carbohydrates are essentially sugars, starches, and fiber. Sugary drinks, grains, fruits, vegetables are all primarily carbs.

Potatoes? Yup, those are carbs. Breakfast cereals? Carbs. Even unsweetened ones? Carbs. Plain oatmeal? Carbs.

I’d say that if you were to eat a lot of carbohydrate-rich foods (except the sugary ones, which are Poisonous Carbs, as you’ll see below) and include with them some good protein, you’d be dietarily solid.

But … but … what’s that I said parenthetically about “Poisonous Carbs”?

I categorize carbs into three primary groups:

  • Poisonous Carbs
  • Okay Carbs
  • Beneficial Carbs

Keep in mind that these are my classifications only. You can group carbs any way you like, but here at my blog, those are the categories.

Poisonous Carbs are those things that are created to satisfy a sweet tooth. I’m talking about things like ice cream, cupcakes, Cinnabons, red licorice, you get the idea? Oh, and you can put sugar-laden liquids into that mix, too: fruit juices, sodas, sweet tea. Right.

Those Poisonous Carbs are not part of my diet in any way, shape, or form. I consider them quite literally to be poison, and support for this way of thinking is growing, as sugar  is proving to be the architect of the current obesity epidemic in the U.S. (and world-wide). And we’re not just talking about high-fructose corn syrup that, while it may indeed be a Poisonous Carb, has been unfairly singled out. “Made with real sugar” does not mean healthy!

How can you tell if something is a Poisonous Carb? Look at the label. In the “Carbohydrate” section, you’ll see “Dietary fiber” and “Sugars”. Are most of the grams of carbohydrate sugars? Are there more than 5 grams of sugar per serving? (And I’m talking about a real serving, not the label’s 3/4 cup of cereal, which I need to at least double to make a single real serving). If so, you may have a Poisonous Carb there.

I have but one piece of advice about Poisonous Carbs: Just say no!

Okay Carbs are foods like potatoes, quinoa, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, rye bread, brown rice, legumes, nuts, berries, and fruit. I’ll leave anything that contains wheat off this list, because there are a lot of undiagnosed wheat allergies out there, including, I think, mine.

I’ll eat something from the Okay Carbs group 2 to 4 times daily, and not in huge quantities. I am not one of those Mark Sisson-inspired grains-are-evil fanatics, but I do agree that grains — particularly, as I said, wheat — probably have a bad influence on my body, so I try not to eat them too often.

(This is coming from a guy who used to eat pasta, bread, rice, or cereal — or some combination of them — at just about every meal.)

It may seem odd to limit fruits and berries — those are good for you, right? — but they do have a lot of sugar in them, so I limit my intake, even though I generally buy organic, which has less sugar (the way nature intended). I don’t even eat bananas, in fact, because they have so much sugar.

I also limit nuts. It’s too easy to let one handful of nuts turn into two handfuls, then three. Although in addition to the carbs, nuts have lots of good fats and protein in them, they pack a high caloric punch, so I keep them on the “Okay” list.

Beneficial Carbs really boil down to vegetables (which, btw, should not be boiled — ever — well, maybe if you are making a soup or stew). It would be difficult to overindulge in carbs if we only ate  vegetables — especially the green kind, like broccoli, lettuce, cucumbers — because of all the bulk and water they have. Some veggies like carrots and corn (which is botanically a grain, but culinarily a vegetable) are higher in sugar, so I tend to avoid them.

Speaking of grains, you have probably seen a lot of opinions about the benefits of whole grains and the fiber they contain, and that may cause you to wonder, “Aren’t whole grains Beneficial Carbs?” As I stated above, I shy away from grains in general, because I believe the health benefits — if there really are any — don’t outweigh the side effects. Read this article from Mark’s Daily Apple for a reasonable, well-read man’s opinion on grains.

I’ve also not touched on dairy products, so let me address those now.

I don’t consume animal milk primarily because I think it’s nasty and gross — I enjoy almond milk instead. Yogurt upsets my stomach — that’s the opposite effect it’s supposed to have, right? Cheese? I do love me some cheese, but the cheeses I like — havarti, brie — have very few carbs, so they’re not included here in a carbocentric discussion. For what it’s worth, I think lower-fat, and, therefore, higher-carb versions of cheeses seem to be okay inside my body, but I just don’t prefer them, so I stick with full-fat cheeses, when I eat cheeses.

Got it? Carbs are sugars, but not all carbs are sweet, so choose your carbs wisely. If your body reacts the same way mine does, you’ll be healthier, thinner, and you’ll just feel better overall.