This article originally appeared in UltraMetabolism.
When most people think of "carbohydrates" they think of big fluffy loaves of white bread and pasta dinner for four. It's true, these are carbs—highly-processed, highly-refined carbos, and they do lead to ill health and weight gain. They are the exact kind of carbohydrate you need to avoid when you are on The Daniel Plan.
However, what you may not realize is that there are many different types of carbohydrates, and each interacts differently with your genes, leading to remarkably different effects on your metabolism.
Carbohydrates are not all created equally. Not by a long shot.
Carbohydrates are actually the single most important food in your diet for long-term health. Without carbohydrates you won't last long. Carbohydrates found in their natural form contain many essential nutrients and specialized chemicals that keep you healthy and turn up your metabolism.
Human beings are not designed to metabolize the highly processed carbohydrates so predominant in our current diet. These processed and refined carbs slow down our metabolism and contribute to every one of the major diseases associated with aging including diabetes, heart disease, dementia, depression, and cancer.
However, there are some carbs that are simply perfect for us, and without them we perish.
What is a Carbohydrate?
There are three major ways human beings consume energy:
In the coming week's I will discuss fat and protein and why they are important in more detail.
Carbohydrates are essentially everything besides fat and protein. They constitute by far the biggest group of foods we eat. Without them we would starve and die. They comprise approximately 90% of the living world, and estimates have shown that 70-80% of all the calories consumed by human beings are carbs.
It is interesting to note that Americans currently only consume about 50% of their annual caloric intake in the form of carbohydrates.
As I alluded to earlier, when you say the word "carbohydrate" most people think of what I call "the white menace," namely white flour, white sugar, or variants on these. Most of the bread, pasta, and cereal you find in your local grocery store contain the white menace and are definitely bad carbohydrates.
These carbs are bad for one simple reason: The convert to sugar quickly in your body. This causes insulin levels to spike. Over time you develop insulin resistance and all of the problems that come along with it: weight gain, inflammation, and, if left unaddressed chronic illness.
But there is another kind of carb—the good carbs.
Did you know that vegetables are carbohydrates? So are fruit. Whole grains and beans are also carbs. And each of these is a critical element in the human diet and has been for millennia.
Practically the only thing EVERYONE agrees about in nutrition is that eating five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day can reduce your risk from almost every known disease of our "modern" civilization, including heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer's, cancer, and all of the brain and mood disorders so many suffer from.
These important plant foods protect us from disease for two simple reasons:
- They help you control your glycemic load
- They are full of phytonutrients
So let's talk about why this is so important. I want to start with glycemic load.
The glycemic load of a food or meal is defined as the total affect that food or meal has on your blood sugar. The food or meals you eat can have either a high glycemic load or a low glycemic load.
Bad carbs have a high glycemic load—they convert to sugar in your body quickly as I described earlier.
Good carbs, like vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and fruit have exactly the opposite effect. They convert to sugar more slowly in the body. They have a "low glycemic load."
Controlling the glycemic load of your meals is essential for long term health, and it is easy to do. Simply combine adequate protein, fats, and whole food carbohydrates at every meal or snack.
In addition to their impact on blood sugar, good carbs also contain another critical feature: phytonutrients. These healing chemicals may, in the end, be the most important reason plant foods keep us healthy. So let's talk about them.
Carbohydrates = Phytonutrients
Phytonutrients are healing plant chemicals. The word phyto simply means plant, so phytonutrients are nutrients that are found specifically in plant food. The only way you can acquire these important substances is to eat real, whole, unprocessed plant food.
Phytonutrients are essential for optimal health. They help turn on genes that make you burn fat and age less quickly, they are the source of nature's most powerful antioxidants so they reduce oxidative stress, inflammation, and mitochondrial damage.
We've all heard of the "glycemic index" of foods. In my view, this concept should be replaced by an index that judges how rich the carbohydrates you eat are in phytonutrients. This new index is called the phytonutrient index and it gives us much more valuable information than the glycemic index ever did, because it gives us a way to judge how rich our diets are in these healing plant foods. This way of thinking about food has not yet been widely adopted, but it is the simplest way of choosing high quality food.
While there are no good tables or charts to document a food's phytonutrient index yet, the general concept is extremely important to grasp. Another way to think about this concept is to consider the total amount or phytonutrient load of the diet.
To increase the phytonutrients load in your diet, here is what you have to do:
Just think if this is something your ancestors may have eaten. If so take a bite, if not put it back!
Just think of plants in their unadulterated state – fresh, whole, and unprocessed – vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, seeds, whole grains – and think lots of color and variety.
Almost all oils (except olive oil), refined sugars, refined grains, potato products, hard liquors, and animal products – regrettably, the chief sources of calories in typical Western diets – have NO phytonutrients.
These phytonutrients are a critical part of our diet. Actually our bodies are very lazy – if we can give up making something ourselves, we do. For example, we are one of the few mammals that have lost the ability to synthesize vitamin C by ourselves. This because it is so readily available in the foods we eat.
Phytonutrients fill the gap. They make up for what we no longer produce in our own bodies, and they are critical in controlling gene messages that affect our health and our weight. This is one of the major reasons to eat a predominately plant-based diet of whole foods. These phytonutrients turn on or off genes that control weight and metabolism and benefit us in preventing every known chronic disease of modern civilization.
More phytonutrients are being discovered in foods every day that fight disease. Here are some examples:
- isoflavones in soy foods
- lignans in flax seeds
- catechins in green tea
- polyphenols in cocoa
- glucosinolates in broccoli
- carnosol in rosemary
- resveratrol in red wine.
All of these compounds fight disease and obesity through a variety of mechanisms. They are part of the secret of The Daniel Plan, and the key way that we talk to our genes.
Our ancestors foraged for wild food – wild berries, grasses, roots, and mushrooms. Recently I found myself in a sea of phytonutrients in the wild islands of Southeast Alaska, foraging along with the grizzly bears for bog cranberries, blueberries, nagoonberries, raspberries, strawberries, all smaller, but much richer in color and taste and lower in sugar compared to their domestic cousins. Those berries were bursting with phytonutrients. The greater variety and the deeper the color of plant foods you eat, the higher the concentration of phytonutrients in the diet, the greater the power to prevent disease and promote weight loss.
For example, fresh vegetables score fairly high on the phytonutrient index while typical pastas and breads don't even make the list. This tells us that fresh vegetables are higher in healing phytonutrients than these other refined or processed carbs.
Processed carbohydrates score low on the phytonutrient index. When carbs are processed many of their important phytonutrient properties are stripped from them. This is one of the reasons processed carbs are so bad for you. They are basically empty calories. Ever wonder what they are empty of? They are empty of vitamins, minerals and PHYTONUTRIENTS. While increasing your sugar and energy intake, they don't offer any of the health benefits provided by whole plant foods rich in phytonutrients.
The takeaway from all of this is VERY simple:
Eat lots of whole, real plant foods. If it was grown on a plant eat it, if it was grown in a plant DO NOT eat it.
Foods grown on a plant are medicine. They will help you heal your body and lose weight. They are a critical part of The Daniel Plan and essential for lifelong health. Eat lots of them and your body will begin to heal itself.