We life to talk about nutrition in small doses, so today we’ll dig just a bit deeper. Time and time again, I’ll find myself seated in front of a plate of food. Weird. With some kind of animal on my plate surrounded by an assortment of vegetables, I’ll hear the observational, “Ah, not eating carbs, huh?”
Rarely does this ruin my meal anymore, but it does make it clear that I am sitting with someone that doesn’t understand nutrition. Here’s the deal, there are three macronutrients: protein, carbohydrate, and fat. While some foods, like nuts and seeds for example, contain elements of protein, carbohydrate, and fat, they are nearly universally regarded as “fat” because of their nutrient profile is primarily fat. For instance, one hundred grams of almonds totals 49g of fat, 22g of carbohydrates, and 21g of protein.
Similarly, you might have a co-worker who is Spanish, very intelligent, and an asshole, but since he’s mostly an asshole, you don’t refer to him as the brilliant, rude, Spanish guy at work. You just refer to him as an asshole.
Back to my plate. For the nutrition conversation’s sake, the plate in front of me, then, is covered in carbohydrates (the vegetables) and some protein (the animal). While the vegetables have protein and carbohydrates and the animal has both protein and fat, we simplify them to their dominant macronutrient. Part of the reason these comments don’t bother me is that they are very understandable, in part, because we recognize the category we call “carbohydrates” as the typical, less nutrient dense characters like rice, pasta, and bread. These are notorious carbohydrates, but so are fruits and vegetables.
Why would someone call the plate I mentioned above “low carb,” then? That’s easy. If real, non-processed foods all had their own “Nutrient Facts” panel on the back like you’d see on a box of cereal, the statistics would show much heavier carbohydrate load for bread (41g of carbohydrate per 100g) and pasta (27g of carbohydrate per 100g) than for, say, broccoli (6g of carbohydrate per 100g). All three, however, are certifiable carbohydrates. Period.
If all these things are carbohydrates, then how do you choose which ones to eat? We still agree broccoli is generally healthier than, say, bread, right? Rather than arbitrarily saying irresponsibly simple things like broccoli is healthy and bread is not, let’s consider two objective reasons for considering one carbohydrate over another.
- Nutrient Density. Fruits and vegetables are carbohydrates, but they generally pack far more nutrient rich profiles (via vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants) than the infamous “carbs” we think of. This is where they earn the nickname “complex carbohydrates” whereas breads and pastas are less nutrient dense and are often referred to as “simple carbohydrates.” For body composition and weight-loss purposes, there is the added bonus which can be inferred from the nutrient breakdowns (per 100g) above which indicates a self-limiting carbohydrate load. For example, it’s a gigantic task to consume 100g of carbohydrates of broccoli, while very simple to do so with, say, pasta.
- Inflammatory Consequences. Acute food allegories aside, choosing carbohydrates that have less inflammatory consequences and gut issues is worth considering, too. Wheat and other lectin laden carbohydrates can have inflammatory responses that, separate of the nutrient conversation, can adversely affect the body and can be an argument to justify avoiding them in and of itself regardless of nutrient density.
Hopefully this can clear the air on carbohydrate confusion. Carbs are your friend.