With the explosion of low- and no-carb diets, these basic nutrients have fallen out of favor. But are they really that bad for you?
Q: So, are carbs “bad”? I’m confused.
—Joshua H., Myrtle Beach, S.C.
A: Everyone is unique, and we all need to experiment with different diets to find what works best for us. Be open and honest with yourself about which food choices help you to stay healthy, and which foods you need to give up. It can be a complex process, but there are a few basic principles:
There’s nothing revolutionary there—but you do need to mostly stick to the plan.
Food used to be grown within 5–10 miles of where it was consumed, minimally processed, always organic, always in season. Since the so-called Green Revolution of the 1970s, the agriculture industry figured out grains were easier to manipulate than fats or proteins (though these get processed too). Mass-produced corn is used to make sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, as well as corn starch, vitamin C powder, corn oil, beverage and industrial alcohol, and fuel ethanol. I’m not a big fan of corn other than fresh corn-on-the-cob.
Soy is another mass-produced plant that is added to many processed foods. The Japanese first pioneered the use of soy, but traditionally it is served fermented (miso, tempeh, tofu) and with high-iodine seaweeds. Soymilk isn’t a traditional food, and if you’re looking for nondairy alternatives, nut and seed milks may be better choices. Health-wise, soy can block the uptake of iodine necessary for the formation of thyroid hormones.
Examples of good protein include wild salmon, free-range eggs, venison, fermented soy, and organic nuts. Bad protein can be found in things like hot dogs and cheap salami. Good fats abound in avocado, organic butter, coconut oil, and olive oil. Bad fats are most commonly found in stale oil used for fried foods at drive-through chains.
When it comes to carbs, the good ones come in the form of fruits, veggies, and minimally processed whole grains. American wheat is extremely high in gliadin, the specific protein in gluten that makes baked goods “fluffy,” but is irritating to the intestinal lining of many humans. Gluten-free includes wheat-free, and if you’re trying to avoid wheat, going “gluten-free” will get you there, but may be overkill. It’s more common to be sensitive to wheat than to gluten.
Everyone should assess whether their bowel movements, skin, and mood improve on a wheat-free diet. Stay off wheat completely for at least two weeks. (Six weeks is better to clear the gliadin protein completely.) Then eat a bunch of wheat and see how you feel. If your bowel function continues perfectly, your skin doesn’t break out, and your mood stays pleasant and steady, you’re one of the lucky few who isn’t sensitive to gliadin.
While a high-fat/low-carb diet can have many benefits, it’s important to remember that carbs are not all “bad.” I have found that a diet of low-glycemic fruit (e.g., berries and apples) and moderate portions of rice, quinoa, or oats works well for me. You may find that a stricter ketogenic diet works better. Or a vegan diet (although vegans need to eat fermented foods or take a B supplement).
Diet is never a one-size-fits-all proposal. Pay attention to how food choices and timing—what you eat and when you eat it—affect your quality of life. Self-awareness is key to personal growth, and that’s as true when it comes to diet as it is in all other areas of your life.
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