Fruits Are Not the Devil, and Other Carb Concerns
Although I espouse a fairly “low-carb” lifestyle for optimal health and a lean physique, this certainly means different things to different people. For some it means a strict Atkins-style diet of virtually no carbs, save for green vegetables. For others it means the inclusion of fruits, starchy vegetables such as yams, and legumes. For others it means any and all carbs – grains, rice, beans, pasta – that are complex or “whole grain” rather than refined and processed (pastries, crackers, breads, white pasta).
My “low-carb” philosophy is essentially grounded in my belief in fresh, whole, natural foods. In other words, a lot of plants. Organic, grass-fed or wild animal products (eggs, beef, salmon) are also included in my “natural” categorization. I’m not at all opposed to carbs that are from vegetables; the American diet is sorely lacking in adequate vegetable intake and it’s lunacy to avoid vegetables in the hopes of losing weight, as many low-carb dieters do. Since I believe fiber is king when it comes to health, I’m all for eating 6 servings of veggies daily – at a minimum. I recommend fresh or frozen vegetables and a small amount of starchy vegetables and legumes for your daily diet.
But, I personally don’t encourage the consumption of grains, even whole grains. I think an occasional slice of sprouted-grain bread is fine, particularly if you’re an avid exerciser (and I hope you are). Additionally, I think the lectin fears about grains are rather overblown (another one of those marginal nutrition areas like wine, coffee, and dark chocolate). But a combination of vegetables and lean proteins offer more antioxidants, vitamins, protein, fat and even fiber (surprise!) than do grains.
This type of diet is easier for most humans to digest, as wheat gluten in particular is not friendly to the G.I. tract. Grains stimulate improper liver, thyroid, and pancreas responses in many people, and grains can also foster reduced immunity, fungal infections, skin problems, anxiety, depression and weight gain. Vegetables and lean proteins are more readily handled by your liver and pancreas, among other organs. Coupled with some much-needed beneficial fats such as organic butter, olive oil, nuts, avocados, and fish oil supplements, a vegetable-and-protein based diet is the most respectful to the human design. Consuming crackers, pasta and breads – even those manufactured with whole grains – is simply not ideal for the human body.
That said, other carbohydrates beside vegetables are, in fact, quite healthy – even some starchy ones such as yams, brown rice, and legumes. My concern is that many people rely on mostly refined and/or whole grains for their fiber intake and tend to “add in” some vegetables, when it ought to be the other way around. When it comes to vegetable sources of carbohydrates, we Americans favor starchy barely-vegetables like potatoes and corn. (Corn, by the way, is actually a grain, and a very low-protein, high-sugar grain at that.) Vegetables are a far superior source of carbohydrate because they do not impact blood sugar to the extent that grains do, they have important antioxidants and phytonutrients, they have far fewer calories, they are easier to digest, and they often have more fiber.
Clearly, we need to be eating more vegetables. But it’s perfectly reasonable to eat some starchy vegetables and legumes on a daily basis, provided you are at a healthy weight you feel comfortable with, provided you exercise enough to burn your calories effectively, and provided you are not fighting diabetes or trying to reduce elevated blood sugar or triglycerides. If stress, inflammation, high triglycerides, type 2 diabetes or elevated blood sugar are medical conditions you are striving to overcome, you would do well to consider both eliminating grains and limiting starchy vegetables and legumes. And absolutely avoid the refined grains!
So, yes, there are plenty of “good” carbs. I don’t think eating bacon and steak is the path to fabulous health; no extreme diet is. (Although, it’s interesting to think about why we define certain things as extreme. What is extreme?)
I have my own version of the food pyramid. I call it my carb pyramid.
- At the base are vegetables – 6-11 servings daily.
- In the middle are things like legumes, brown rice, quinoa, wild rice, tempeh, soybeans, and oatmeal. Also in this category are the “whole grains” like sprouted bread, whole-wheat pasta, corn, and whole-grain crackers. These are best on a very infrequent basis or, if you have any of the previously mentioned health issues, not at all.
- And at the top are the no-no’s: pastries, cookies, cake, sweet sauces, breading, candy, sweetened beverages, white bread, white pasta, juice, chips.
A Word on Fruits
A reader recently emailed me about the issue of dried fruits. Are dried figs, dates, raisins, cranberries, apricots and the like a wise idea for those interested in health and weight loss?
Sure. The key is to realize that dried fruits are extremely caloric, and very high in natural sugars. Fruit is healthy, but fresh fruit provides more water content and fewer calories than dried fruit. Like fats, dried fruits are very nutritionally dense, so you don’t want to eat more than a handful now and then. I think a few servings a week of dried fruits is not a big deal at all – fruit is a natural, fiber-rich, vitamin-loaded food source. But because it is high in sugar – especially those dried fruits – you want to be careful to favor vegetables over fruits. Fruits taste better than vegetables to many people because fruits are so sweet. Who doesn’t love fruit? I do. But it’s important to make sure that, on balance, more of your plant carbohydrates are coming from vegetables. I think one or two fruit servings daily is plenty. Dried fruit is often the equivalent of four or five servings of fruit, so I’d recommend enjoying them just once or twice a week.
The other important thing to remember is that diet is not the only factor in weight management and good health. If you work out several times a week, not only will you live longer, boost immunity, reduce stress, and strengthen your bones and muscles, you’ll speed up your metabolism. If you don’t work out, you probably would need to live on steak and bacon and limited greens to lose weight. If you exercise, you can usually afford some starchy carbohydrates and certainly some fruit. Don’t overlook the vital necessity of exercise.
Note: if you’re one of the lucky devils to have a speedy metabolism that keeps you on the too-thin side of lean, enjoy fruits and starchy vegetables and legumes for those extra calories, but increase your fat intake a bit. This will help keep your blood sugar and triglycerides in balance.
What do you think?
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Very, very edible.
The folks at Fiber Gourmet recently plied me with a selection of their one-of-a-kind “light” pastas. Hey, I’m not one to turn away free food, so I gave their spinach, tomato and standard pasta noodles a taste try.
The Fiber Gourmet folks say “since fiber has 0 calories, as the fiber goes up the calories go down” – hence the “light” labeling.
As you all know, I’m cautious about the types of carbohydrates I consume. I rely on vegetables for the majority of my carbohydrate intake. I do eat some starchy carbohydrates such as brown rice, legumes, yams, quinoa and sprouted grain bread. But typically I don’t eat more than one starchy serving per day. Pasta, in particular, is hardly one of my favorites because it is refined wheat, making it high in empty carbohydrates that have a rapid, deleterious impact upon blood sugar. This is stressful to the body for a number of reasons, and the scientific evidence is compelling: excessive intake of refined carbohydrates is linked to our skyrocketing rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
And while I understand that “low-carb” pastas like Shirataki can be helpful for jump-starting weight loss, I don’t personally recommend carb substitutes. (Although I am all for the jump start – start somewhere!) My preference against substitutes is not only because I favor whole, unprocessed, fresh foods for both weight loss and health maintenance. I also refuse to eat anything that tastes like cardboard, which seems to be a prevailing problem with light, low-carb and other assorted diet food products. Food will always taste better than a food product. If you can sustain a food product weight loss plan for more than a few months, you’re made of some tough stuff! But seriously, in my opinion, substitutes don’t successfully address the underlying problem with eating unhealthy foods: rather than shifting your cravings to healthier foods, they merely serve as a temporary fix to sate existing unhealthy preferences.
All right, Mark, we get it. What about this pasta? Fiber Gourmet pasta is made just like regular pasta, but contains 40% fewer calories (roughly 130 per 2-ounce serving). Of course, I don’t know anyone who can stop after just 2 ounces of pasta – and that’s the problem with carbs. Refined carbohydrates – sugars – are incredibly addictive.
The total carbohydrates of this product are not low by any stretch – about 43 grams (18 from fiber and 25 from starch). I recommend ruthlessly aiming for fewer than 20 grams of refined carbohydrates in a given day. In fact, I think we’d all be better off if we avoided refined carbohydrates entirely.
Now to the taste factor:
The Fiber Gourmet pastas tasted good – exactly like “real” pasta. Texture was not gritty, gummy or weak. The exception was the spinach pasta, which didn’t hold up well with the olive oil and sea salt I doused it with. The flavor was pleasant enough, but an actual spinach salad would have had better peppery bite and a much more satisfying, chewy texture. And, of course, fewer refined carbohydrates. The tomato and regular pastas were just as chewy and substantial as regular pasta.
Bottom line: I’m really not a pasta guy. I just don’t “do” refined carbohydrates. I genuinely prefer vegetables and more natural, flavorful sources of starchy calories such as yams and brown rice, both for taste preference and health reasons. If you are trying to lose weight and gotta have the pasta, you might want to give those slippery Shirataki noodles a try to get started (good luck!). If you are maintaining your weight successfully and really love pasta, then I think Fiber Gourmet is a smart replacement for standard pasta. In fact, I really wouldn’t consider it as a substitute food product, because it’s virtually identical in taste and texture to regular pasta. It’s really more like an improved food product.
Still, my health philosophy remains fundamentally the same: there’s food, and then there are food products. We can substitute and switch and modify to our hearts’ content, but ultimately, I believe that optimal health comes from fresh, whole, natural foods.
Now I’m off to enjoy my daily salad. What are your thoughts?
- Do you think that improving existing popular foods will be effective for addressing our country’s health and weight concerns, or do you think we need to take a more radical approach by shifting our food habits altogether?
- What are your views on carbohydrates?
I’d love to get your point of view and hear what works to keep you lean and healthy.
Worker Bees’ Daily Bites:
What’s shakin’, Apples? I’m here to highlight the best links to get your week off to an informed and healthy start:
Do you trust Big Pharma? You shouldn’t. (I know we said we’d lay off those guys for a while, but this is pretty important news. Official laying-off begins now.)
Dairy Ads Pulled
More Scams Debunked
Deer velvet is my personal favorite. Come on, gimme a break! This site is no-frills but nicely summarizes some popular supplement scams. I disagree with the last one. What do you think?
Buy Milk in the Dark
This milk advice is one of the most odd, but useful, health tips I’ve seen yet. Buying milk that’s been exposed to fluorescent light destroys precious nutrients. (As you’ll note from reading our assorted research into Big Moo, I think your best bet is to buy raw milk from a reputable local source, but this is not recommended by the federal government.)
Mother’s Milk Vs. Nestle
To say I’m bothered by the fact that Nestle pushes baby formula on new mothers in regions that lack potable water would be an understatement. Breast-feeding is the obvious choice for nourishing infants in impoverished areas where clean water and good food are scarce for mom, let alone baby, but apparently Nestle would rather turn a quick profit and shove sugary formula (deficient in EFAs) down newborns’ throats. Thousands of babies are dying as a result. Read about it here. I for one am boycotting Nestle. They make a LOT of products – they’re the biggest food company in the world. Fortunately, they don’t typically make healthy food, so it’s easy to avoid supporting them.
How could I forget? Duh! Just Make Every Drop Count!
An easy solution to the bottled water problem is to slurp soda and sugary drinks. I mean, sparkling beverages. The body gets thirsty, and liquids make it, you know, unthirsty, or something. Being thirsty is bad. Being unthirsty is good! This is healthy, and fortunately, it’s also environmentally friendly, because many of these sparkling beverages come in cans instead of plastic! Did I mention that beverages quench thirst, so this makes all beverages healthy? Because, you know, they quench thirst? Coca-Cola says so, and the American Dietetic Association agrees, so this must be healthy.
Isn’t is great to know that coffee and soda are hydration alternatives to water? Now, if this little pipsqueak would just drink from a metal can instead of a plastic bottle, she’d be showing us how to stay hydrated, healthy and environmentally safe! I was really concerned about what alternatives might be available now that I’m avoiding buying bottled water. Sodas, I mean, sparkling beverages, come in cans, which are better for the environment. But until now, I thought sodas, I mean, sparkling beverages, were unhealthy. That just goes to show, boy, what do I know! All this time, the real health issue has been hydration. Nothing more, nothing less. Thanks, Coca-Cola!
“Why Hydrate? Coffee, water, sparkling beverages. Every drop you drink makes a difference.”
A “difference”. That’s one way of putting it, all right.
I’ve received many questions about various H2O health issues: reverse osmosis, filtration, distillation and bottled water. I plan to discuss the various concerns throughout the month of May. For the record, I am not in favor of distilled water and I think many of the water fears we have are unfounded. But I’m especially critical of the bottled water scams I see.
In general, I understand the reasons people prefer bottled water – hey, we want to be drinking pure water, not chemicals. I’m right there with you. But there are some major considerations if you are concerned about the environment, about water pollution, about resources and sustainability, and, as a matter of fact, about your health.
For now, I’m going to direct you to Wise Bread’s three-part series on bottled water hype. It’s one of the best investigations of bottled water I’ve ever read. I urge you to read each segment. If you care about your health, your bank account, and your planet, you will.
Truth time: I like having bottled water on hand, especially that Fiji…am I falling for great marketing or what? But now that I’ve read Wise Bread’s series, I’m done with Fiji. It’s possibly the very last thing we should be drinking if we care about our health or want a future that includes clean water.
I’m not saying no to bottled water entirely. It’s a must for health and fitness. I keep a bottle in the car and I always grab one when I head out for a run, and it would be unreasonable and unhealthy to stop these habits. But I think it’s a good idea to buy a low-cost filter for the kitchen faucet as well as to refill those water bottles instead of contributing to the Pacific Ocean’s Texas-sized carpet of trash Sara discussed last week.
Here’s something serious to think about: how healthy is it to drink something stored in plastic?
Especially considering the enormous amount of pollution that’s dumped into our waterways and pumped into our skies just to make that plastic bottle? This isn’t about being an environmentalist; this is about fighting for our health. Our air and our water are nearing toxic soup status thanks to plastic that has to be refined and produced and then shipped on fuel-hungry boats and trucks just to get to us. I don’t think this makes me some nutty tree-hugger (although I really don’t get why, like vegetarians, nice people in general are deemed so threatening). I think this is a critical health issue, and I believe we’re being snookered by the bottled water industry. Someone’s sure enjoying the private jet.
I’m not fooling myself into believing the water that comes to us via the city pipes is ideal, but taking that same city water, sloshing it into a toxic, inefficient plastic package and dragging it thousands of expensive miles away to a different city to be chugged exotically strikes me as a pretty profitable scam.
This brings me to my favorite quote from Wise Bread’s debunkery:
“I’d argue that they’re [people who buy bottled water] probably health-conscious people who have bought into an idea sold by the water bottling companies – that their clean, pure water cleanses your body and flushes out toxins. The irony of this is that people who are concerned about environmental toxins in their systems are only helping to perpetuate the pollution and enviromental degradation by buying bottled water, the production of which just makes everything worse off in the long run.”
Bottled water – we drink it with the best of intentions for health and wellness. Water does nourish and cleanse our bodies. I’m certainly in favor of that. But bottled water comes with many problems, and the more I research, the more the quackery red flags begin to fly. I want this blog to exist in service of the truth, even when it goes against our assumptions and what we’re comfortable with telling ourselves. As I’ve said many times before, I think we owe it to ourselves – and our children – to critically examine all our health beliefs. Change can be mighty annoying – I thought I was doing myself a favor, and maybe you did, too. When it comes to bottled water, I am increasingly inclined to believe much of the issue boils down to some very successful marketing:
1) “Safety“: Turns out, it’s rarely any “better” than tap water. (Which is quite drinkable – at least in this country – contrary to popular opinion.) Drinkable doesn’t mean perfect, but bottled water purity standards are often identical to tap standards, and much of the bottled water we buy comes from the tap, anyway. Moreover, buying bottled water only makes the entire water problem worse. It’s a short-term fix that isn’t even a fix in most, er, cases (pardon the pun). And I have serious reservations about consuming any substance housed in plastic for any length of time.
2) “Purity“: As Wise Bread points out, no water is completely pure, anywhere, anymore. You’re better off filtering the water at home and saving yourself a lot of money, sparing the rest of the world some much-needed resources, and keeping the planet clean. I’ll still keep a few bottles around for guests and my Santa Monica mountain hikes, but that’s it.
3) “Marketing“: Just check out the Starbucks Ethos scam. Think you’re helping kids get pure water? Think again. I’m livid. What’s really sad is that, while our water isn’t perfect, it’s a lot healthier and safer than the water the rest of the world has access to, and our bottled water addiction only worsens their plight.
4) “Environment“: Think about the massive resources required to get a few ounces of questionably “pure” water into your hands from thousands of miles away. That’s a lot of fuel, shipping cost, electricity, water, plastic packaging, and pollution. Again with that irony: our waterways have become so polluted by fuel and chemical runoff, we pay to drink water that is supposedly free of these pollutants. Yet why do these pollutants increasingly seep into our waters? Bottled water is one big reason. We’re treating a very real problem with a solution that only worsens the problem – dramatically so.
The truth is often inconvenient and discomforting. Fortunately, this is offset considerably by one other characteristic: it’s inexpensive.
What do you think?
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