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.
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Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.