It's no secret that cookies, candy, soda, biscuits, and pasta have a negative impact on our health. But, what if we consume these foods within our daily calorie and macronutrient targets; then we can eat as much of them as we want, right? This is the concept behind the recently popular "all foods fit," or "IFYM (if it its your macros)" diet approach. It's a common belief that as long as someone's hitting their calorie and macro goals, they can afford to eat whatever they please. ...If only it were that easy! In reality, this idea is far from the truth.
If I were given the opportunity to provide one single piece of nutrition advice for someone to follow for the rest of their life, it would hands down be to minimize sugar and processed, refined carbohydrates from their diet. This category includes sugar-sweetened beverages, baked goods, pasta, bread, tortillas, crackers, chips, plus any other flour-based foods. It also includes caloric sweeteners such as white sugar, brown sugar, raw sugar, coconut sugar, agave, maple syrup, and honey. The impact these foods have on our health extends far beyond weight management. They create imbalance in blood sugar, hinder energy levels, throw off our mood, and put us at higher risk for virtually all forms of chronic disease.
There is certainly some truth behind the "calories in, calories out" concept, however it's an incredibly oversimplified diet approach. A calorie refers to the unit of heat energy it takes to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree celsius. One calorie equals one calorie no matter which food it's coming from, just like how one inch equals one inch no matter which object you're measuring. The "calories in" side of the equation is simple. We are entirely in control of how many calories we consume throughout the day. It's the "calories out" part that's incredibly complicated. The human digestive tract can be up 30 feet long, and is host to trillions of yeast and bacterial cells that play an enormous role in digestion. This population of microorganisms is referred to as the microbiome, and no two people's microbiomes are the same. That we all extract exactly the same amount of calories and nutrients from our food is an erroneous assumption. In addition to the individual variances in energy absorption and nutrient assimilation, different foods also illicit different responses from our hormonal signaling and immune system pathways.
It's important we focus on consuming nutrient-dense foods that provide all of the vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, and essential fatty acids our body needs to function optimally. While fiber, protein, and healthy fats are an essential part of a healthy diet, sugar and processed carbohydrate-based foods, on the other hand, do much more harm than good. Here are some reasons I recommend minimizing their consumption:
They decrease nutrient density in the diet.
Foods are comprised of a combination of carbohydrate, protein, and fat, with most of them being more prominent in one of these three macronutrients. Sources primarily composed of carbohydrates include beans, legumes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, oats, and grains such as quinoa, rice, and wheat. Moderately consumed in a wide variety and in their whole food form, these sources make up a healthy part of a well-balanced diet. They contain fiber to support healthy digestive function and lower LDL cholesterol, antioxidants to promote cellular health, and many vitamins and minerals to catalyze the billions of biochemical reactions that occur in our body every second. Once these foods have been broken down and processed into a flour-based product, however, they not only lose many of their healthy properties, but they can also become harmful to our health. For example, a cup of organic, whole yellow corn kernels provides four grams of fiber, eight percent of our daily potassium needs, and four percent of our daily iron needs. Take a look at the nutrition facts label on a bag of corn tortillas, however. While made from what once was corn growing in the ground, the ultra processing of this food turns it into an entirely different product that is now nearly devoid of its nutrition. After refining this whole food and stripping it of its nutrients, we're left with calories, carbohydrates, and not much other than that. As you can see, when we crowd out healthy, whole food-based carbohydrates from our diet with their processed counterparts, we miss out on the healthy constituents such as fiber, water content, and micronutrients that are removed during processing, yielding a diet lacking in key nutrients our body needs to function optimally.
They create blood sugar imbalance.
When we consume foods primarily composed of carbohydrates, our body breaks them down into glucose in our blood, referred to as blood sugar. Then, insulin is released to allow the glucose into our cells to be used as energy or stored for later use, which brings our blood sugar back down to baseline. Consuming a large carbohydrate load in one sitting will lead to a greater spike in blood glucose, therefore triggering a larger insulin response. When a large dose of insulin is released, our blood sugar can come crashing back down quickly and drop too low, leading our body to then crave more fast-absorbing sugars to spike it back up again. I call this the blood sugar rollercoaster, and trust me, it is not a ride you want to be on! Constant spikes and drops in blood sugar throughout the day lead to ups and downs in our energy level, mood, and appetite. No wonder people lean on coffee and sugary snacks for pick-me-ups all day!
As you can see in the illustration above, protein- and fat-based foods have a much smaller impact on our blood sugar curve. This is why, in addition to consuming modest, appropriate carbohydrate portion sizes at meals, we want to include plenty of protein and healthy fats to keep things in balance. Fiber is also a key player in stabilizing our blood sugar, as it helps slow the absorption of glucose into our bloodstream. This makes it important to choose carbohydrate-based foods in their whole, unprocessed form where the fiber remains in tact.
They trigger constant sugar cravings.
When we are constantly pining for sugar and refined carbs to bring our blood sugar back up (which usually results from consuming those foods in the first place), we get stuck in what I call the Crave Cave! This state of pesky, insatiable appetite is always there in the background and makes it nearly impossible to stop thinking about food. It makes us peckish and draws us to the fridge and cabinet to graze all day long. In addition to the blood sugar highs and lows that create this imbalance in appetite, we also need to consider the hormonal response that foods have on our body so we can make healthy, satiating choices. When we fill up on sugar and processed carbs, not only do we miss out on the helpful hormonal signaling pathways that tell our body we are full, but these foods also illicit the opposite effect and drive us to keep on eating. This is in part because, as demonstrated in many research studies, our brain releases dopamine in response to eating them, which is a neurotransmitter that triggers the reward center in our brain. It leads to feelings of pleasure and makes it very difficult to stop, similar to the effect of many recreational drugs. Fiber, protein, and fat, on the other hand, trigger the release of various hormones such as leptin, CCK, and peptide YY. These beneficial neurochemicals signal that we are full and prompt us to stop eating. The differences in these hormonal responses help explain why it's so easy to scarf down an entire bag of potato chips, but, if you had a plate with three chicken breasts on it, you'd likely want to stop after just eating one.
After learning about the detriments of ultra-processed carbs, it's important to understand how to include healthy carbohydrate sources in your diet. Here are some ways to incorporate them in your daily routine:
Use fruit for the healthy carbohydrate in meals and snacks. For example, pair berries with turkey sausage and eggs for breakfast. Or, add apple sliced to a turkey salad with lunch. Munch on dry roasted edamame or roasted chickpeas with a piece of fruit for a snack.
Make a bean salad to add some fiber and mineral content to your meals. Check out this Mediterranean Chickpea Salad from Delish.com, or this Black Bean and Corn Salad from bowlofdelicious.com. Both make great side dishes to keep in the fridge throughout the week. Also, the flavor becomes even better as they marinate over time!