Choosing Wisely: The Best Ways to Get Your Daily Dose of Carbs
Leen R. Jaber
In the extra-cheese, super-sized world we live in today, many of us have found it difficult, if not impossible, to maintain a healthy body weight. As the obesity and diabetes epidemics began to spread throughout the United States, doctors, nutritionists, and researchers began to scramble to understand the source of these problems and the key to solving them. Slowly but surely, books on weight loss and fad diets swept the nation telling people how to lose weight quickly. However, in 2012, only 20 percent of Americans reported to be on a diet during any given week, which was down from 31 percent in 1991, according to data found by the market research firm NPD Group. Yet, according to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention, over one-third of American adults are obese. So, if the obesity rate is increasing, then why is the diet rate decreasing?
One of the greatest debates that exist around weight loss methods is about carbohydrates, or carbs. Messages telling us that carbs are bad and then that some are good have created much confusion for people wanting to get healthy and lose weight. Low-carb diets have become widely popular while few understand the nature of carbs and how our bodies process them, which has caused more people to give up on dieting and give in to cravings and overindulgence. Understanding what carbohydrates are and how to make better choices will help you understand your own body better and help you meet your fitness goals more safely.
Carbs are everywhere: grains, milks, vegetables and fruits, legumes, and all processed sugars (beet, cane, molasses, etc.) such as those found in desserts, sodas, and snack foods. Carbohydrates are essential to your body’s everyday functional needs. Blood glucose (also referred to as blood sugar) is the sugar in your bloodstream, which comes from what you eat, that gets transferred to all the cells in your body for energy and growth. When you are tired or listless, the first place your body goes for energy is your carb load. But, as been advised by the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him), everything is best in moderation. Therefore, the choices you make when eating carbs is crucial.
“I hesitate to label food as good or bad. When it comes to carbs, we should think of them as either simple or complex. Or even as ‘what’s the better choice?’” states Zaira Ahmad, a registered dietician and nutritionist. Ahmad explains that overeating and portion sizes are the biggest causes of obesity, but carbs also play a special role. Because proteins are molecularly more complex than carbs, it takes longer for your stomach to digest them, thereby leaving you fuller longer. Whereas carbs, especially ones that are more processed and refined (knows as simple carbs), digest quickly, leaving you to feel hungrier and consuming more calories than needed for your body to function. Simple carbs are the types found in white rice and bread, pasta, chips, and dessert. And most people are taking in more than they need. Generally, only approximately 45 to 50 percent of your daily calories should come from carbs. Whatever your body doesn’t use essentially gets stored as fat, which can increase the risks of not only obesity and diabetes, but also cardiovascular diseases as well.
One of the simplest forms of carbs that can be the most harmful is sugar. Although natural forms of sugar are good for you such as the kind found in whole, fresh fruits and vegetables, the added sugar found in processed food products can be unhealthy. It is also important to note that added sugar isn’t just found in sweet desserts but also in salty foods like chips, crackers, and other snack foods. And, as Ahmad notes, even fruit juices should be avoided as much as possible.
It is important to be aware of how much sugar is in the foods you consume, especially those that are pre-packaged or canned. But how many grams of sugars should a person consume daily? “Well, it depends,” answers Ahmad. “Added sugars? Ideally avoid them altogether or limit them as much as you can. Natural sugars like those in fruits? Consume in moderation.” It’s about better choices again. Be cognizant of how you are consuming your sugars. For example, if it is a hard candy then that is considered added sugar, so you should probably avoid it. But if it is an apple, which is a whole, natural form of sugar, it is a better choice because it is unprocessed and is a source of antioxidants, vitamins, and fiber. Fruits, vegetables, and dairy are the best ways to fulfill your daily needs of carbs and sugars. When choosing to eat breads, pastas, and rice, look for the whole grain options. Whole grains will keep you fuller for a longer period of time because of the natural fiber found in them. The fiber also helps with digestive health and heart health because it controls cholesterol. Also, whole grains have been processed much less than its counterpart, so it has less sugar, in general, thereby giving you more satisfaction and health benefits for the calories you are consuming. But keep portions in mind. As Ahmad explains, “You may be choosing to have quinoa as a complex grain, but that doesn’t mean you can eat four cups of it and expect your blood glucose to be controlled.”
Knowing the difference between which carbs you should and should not be eating can be difficult. Some sources of carbs should be eaten regularly, while others should only be eaten on occasion. Here is a list to help guide you in making the right choices.
✓ Vegetables (non-starchy)
✓ Low-fat milk
✓ Low-fat plain yogurt
✓ Whole-grain breads and pastas (darker or brown is usually the better option and in the right portion sizes)
✓ Whole-grain breakfast cereals (in the correct portions)
✓ Starchy vegetables (peas, corn, unprocessed potatoes)
✓ 100% natural juices (no sugar added)
✓ Full-fat dairy
x White breads, rice, pasta
x Desserts (candies, ice cream, cakes, doughnuts, pastries, chocolates)
x Processed/refined snack foods (chips, processed cheese)
x High-fructose corn syrup
x Soft drinks with added sugars (juices, sodas, iced teas, syrups in coffee drinks)
x French fries
x Sugary breakfast cereals
Perhaps not as trendy today as in the last couple decades, no- and low-carb diets are still quite popular. The idea, which is supported by science, is that if the body isn’t consuming enough carbs to fulfill its energy purposes, then it will begin to burn fat instead. Although this does work in the short-term, especially for those looking to lose a substantial amount of weight in a short period time, it is not a lifestyle that should be implemented for the long term. “The danger of breaking down fat only for long periods of time is a buildup of ketones. It is called ketosis,” explains Ahmad. “It causes headaches, nausea, bad breath, and is not an optimal metabolic state to be in. So yes, you can survive with no carbs, but you will probably be cranky all the time.”
In the long run, low-carb diets cannot be sustained. Your body needs complex carbs, and even sugars, in order to control and maintain several necessary bodily functions. Rather than focusing on carb quantity, instead pay attention to the carb quality. Weight loss will be gradual but healthy and more likely permanent, leading to more energy, better sleep cycles, and a stable mood.
Leen R. Jaber has been a published freelance journalist for over 10 years. She is currently working on publishing a volume of original poetry and short stories. Leen is also a singer, guitarist, and activist for Palestinian rights.