Lessons from a Carb-o-vore

Confession: I adore carbohydrates.  Pasta, bread, rice, cereal, potatoes, corn, etc.  If it has a carb, it is going in my mouth.

This post is inspired by a friend of mine, Scott, who was joking about how much bread he is currently eating.  See, he’s currently a baker (Renaissance style) and is creating an unbelievable amount of bread in his little oven (see what I’m talking about at his blog: http://renaissanceartisan.blogspot.com/)

Sad news for carb-lovers: one of the trendiest diets now, as it has been for years, is the low-carb/no-carb diet.  Also annoyingly trendy? Gluten-free. Now, first let me say this: if you do have Celiac disease or an actual gluten-sensitivity…then PLEASE stay away from gluten.  I cannot imagine the pain you go through trying to digest something your body thinks is poison.  But this post is still for you – because there are a lot of carbs out there that are gluten-free!

First, let me debunk some myths.

Myth: No human can sufficiently digest gluten.

Truth: 1% of Americans actually have Celiac disease.  That is 1 out of 133 people.  Only 5% to 10% of Americans have a form of gluten-sensitivity.  The other 90% are just following a fad.  The other 90% can digest gluten just fine and have simply fallen into this belief that “gluten” is going to kill us all.  But here’s the thing about gluten.  It’s a protein.  You know. That macro-nutrient that we are all trying to get more of in our diets.  It is one of the reasons ancient people ate bread-like foods.  Because grains are a decent source of non-animal protein. In fact, the first supposed instance of wheat (the major source of gluten) being used is 9,000 BC in modern day Turkey.  We’ve been digesting gluten for over 11,000 years.  I think we’ll be okay if we keep eating it.

Myth: All grains contain gluten, so we can’t eat them

Truth: Any smart Celiac suffer will tell you you’re wrong. The major gluten offenders of the grain world are wheat, rye, and barely.  But there are many grains that are perfectly safe forms of carbs and protein: corn, rice, millet, amaranth, teff, sorghum, quinoa, and sometimes oats (but make sure the oats are certified gluten-free…they like to sneak gluten in while processing). Not to mention potatoes! The best news is that most of these grains are as easy to cook as rice AND many of them make very successful loaves of bread.

Myth: Carbs make people fat.

Truth: Carbs don’t make people fat.  Food makes people fat.  Specifically, too much food makes people fat.  Yes, I know.  There is all this research saying that low-carb diets work.  Of course they do.  A carbohydrate has 9 calories per gram.  When you switch to a low-carb diet, you generally replace those carbs with protein (4 calories per gram) and vegetables (mostly water, nutrients, and fiber). Long story short: when you eat low-carb, you automatically eat fewer calories.  Fewer calories = less you.  But here’s the problem.  You need carbs.  Your brain needs carbs.  Here are just a few things carbs do for you that other foods just don’t:

  1. Convert quickly to energy AND store up for future energy.  The glucose in carbs converts very well into ATP (the stuff cells need for energy).
  2. Without carbs, your body will use all that protein you’re eating for energy.  Sounds good in theory, right? Wrong.  If your body is using protein for energy…it ISN’T using it to build lean, healthy muscle.  And that’s something we could all use more of.
  3. Help keep you regular.  Carbs (good carbs) have tons of fiber.  And fiber keeps you happy.  Enough said.
  4. According to the Mayo clinic, carbs can also protect you against cardiovascular diseases and other bad things.  Cool.

Now, am I telling you to fill your plate three times a day with pasta and call it dandy? No! I’m very well aware that there are “good carbs” and “bad carbs” and that moderation is key. And I do believe that very much.  Nothing in this next sentence will be anything new: eat whole grains!  If it is made of flour and it is white, just say no!  We’ve heard this recommendation for quite a while now. We’ve also heard all the recommendations about when you should or shouldn’t eat carbs (never for dinner!) and how much a serving should or shouldn’t be (it should fit in your hand!) and blah blah blah. Blah.

Let’s get real and infuse a little “Real World Healthy” into this conversation.  First, I have a few confessions about my own relationships with carbs.

  1. I. Love. Carbs. And no matter what all the health professionals say, I am not satisfied with a meal any time of the day if it doesn’t include a carbohydrate. I am okay with that.
  2. If I don’t eat carbs, I don’t have friends.
  3. I am happy to eat whole wheat bread and experiment with various grains. But I strongly dislike brown rice and I refuse to eat whole wheat pasta.
  4. If given the opportunity, I could eat bowls or cereal and/or pasta for every meal for the rest of my life.

Now.  Since I’m doing a pretty good job of being a carb-o-vore and not packing on a hundred pounds a year…how about some of my tips and tricks to living a carb-full and carb-happy life.

  1. Mix it up!  I try to have a variety of different carbs every day.  Example: if I have toast with breakfast, I try not to have a sandwich for lunch.  It’s a pretty simple way to make sure I get a variety of grains and nutrients (and not go through a loaf of bread in four days).
  2. One carb per meal.  When I was younger, my favorite school lunch was anytime I got bread to dip in my mashed potatoes. Yum!  These days, I do my best to make sure I only have one carb in every meal.  Yes, this typically means no garlic bread with my pasta, no french fries with my hamburger, and no mashed potato sandwich.  It is really a very tiny and easy sacrifice that helps ensure I keep my carb-munching in check.
  3. Measure your pasta!  Pasta is the easiest food to eat too much of (much like peanut butter…).  I always, always, always weigh my pasta.  If the pasta is the main food item in the meal (like spaghetti or mac and cheese), I will measure 4 oz per person.  If I’m making a pasta side-dish, it is 2 oz per person.  My scale is a life-saver when it comes to pasta.  Left to my own devices…I could easily eat a whole pound bag.
  4. Eat what you like!  If, like me, you hate brown rice and continually force yourself to eat it…you will forever be craving huge bowls of white rice.  And you know what will happen if you ever get that bowl of rice in front of you.  So, go ahead.  Eat the white rice.  Just be mindful of the amount you’re eating and, most importantly, don’t beat yourself up for eating it!
  5. Get moving!  Like I said earlier, carbs are the building block of cellular and physical energy.  So…if you eat a giant bowl of pasta one night (we all do it sometimes!)…maybe don’t go to sleep right afterwards.  Get up and go for a walk, go biking if your neighborhood/city is good for it, or even just clean the dishes and give the house a quick pick up.  Even a little bit of that energy used up will be good for you!

The moral of my story is this: I love carbs and that’s okay.  If you enjoy eating carbs (and they don’t make you sick), please don’t let society tell you that they are bad.  Carbs will not kill you or make you fat.  Carbs have the ability to sustain you and keep your energy flying!  We just have to respect their mighty power…