If there’s one area where modern day thinking is completely confusing it’s the question of what is the best diet? Are carbohydrates necessary? Should I change my diet for one that is lower in carbohydrates? Is keto the answer to my weight problems?
The answer to the first question is quite simple: there is no “best” diet. There is the diet that is best for the individual and their unique needs. So long as your diet includes sufficient nutrient dense foods, closest to their natural form, then you’re on your way.
Are carbohydrates necessary?
In this article, we’ll break down what you need to know about carbohydrates, and help you determine if they should be part of your nutrient dense diet.
If fat is the most misunderstood macro-nutrient, then carbohydrates are not far behind. If you follow the trends of the last few years, the low-carb diet and keto diet have been trending strongly1.
This come after years of push back, when carbohydrate heavy vegan diets have been hitting all time highs. If we go even farther back we remember the high-fat high protein Atkins diet. And round and round we go.
There is just so much information out there it is hard to keep straight! So let’s dive right in to everything you need to know about carbohydrates!
What are Carbohydrates?
There are three main types of carbohydrates: monosaccharides (found in fruit), disaccharides (sugars) and polyls (sugar alcohols). So long as your digestive system is working well, monosaccharides and disaccharides are easily absorbed whereas polyols are more difficult to digest2.
What are Monosaccharides?
Monosaccharides are simple sugars, and the easiest to digest. You find them in honey, fruits and vegetables. Your body will immediately use some of the glucose for energy. What is not needed right away gets converted to glycogen for storage in the liver and skeletal muscles. (If your glycogen stores full, then the liver transforms glucose to triglycerides for storage as fat.)
What are Disaccharides?
Disaccharides are “double sugars”, though technically they are still considered to be simple sugars. You will best know them as “sugar” such as cane sugar, maple syrup, and most grains.
During digestion, polysaccharide and disaccharide carbohydrates are broken down into monosaccharides: glucose, fructose and galactose, which are absorbed in the small intestine3. Fructose and galactose are then converted into glucose.
What is the role of carbohydrates in the body?
Carbohydrates serve two primary roles in the body. First, they are a quick source of energy. Your body has to do very little work to digest and use the energy from carbs. Because carbohydrates break down into glucose, it is quick fuel for your brain and muscles.
Second, the fiber found in carbohydrates can serve an important role in feeding your gut microbiome. Microbes are necessary to break down fiber! This means that if you are suffering from some type of dysbiosis, you may have more trouble digesting carbohydrates.
When microbes break down fiber in your gut, they release biproducts such as vitamin K2 and vitamin B12, as well as some organic acids and short chain fatty acids.
Insoluble fiber, in particular, helps to bulk stool and decrease transit time (the time from when you eat the food to when you excrete remnants), making it easier to have consistent bowel movements. Examples of insoluble fiber include most vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds.
Carbohydrates in the form of fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes, can also contribute to the the immune system helping to fight infection. They can become a component of proteins, called glycoproteins, that help cushion our joins. Finally, they help in the digestion of proteins and fats. All the macronutrients work best together.
So Do You Need to Eat Carbohydrates?
Yes and no! Technically speaking, your body is only comprised of about 2% carbohydrates and you are able to make enough in your body so that you don’t need to consume them.
You can get an abundance of micronutrients, vitamins and minerals, from including fresh fruits and vegetables as part of a nutrient dense traditional foods diet!
The answer to whether YOU need to incorporate carbohydrates in your diet, will be determined by looking at your activity level, insulin sensitivity, and digestion status.
Grains and Nuance
Grains fall into the grouping of disaccharides above. When most people think of carbohydrates- they are actually thinking of grains: wheat, rice, corn and oats, specifically, and all of the products made with them: bread, pasta, tortillas, chips, etc.
The simple truth is that humans have been eating grains for a relatively short amount of time, since the agricultural revolution.
Because grains contain anti-nutrients that make them harder to digest, people figured out how to prepare them properly in order to best absorb what nutrients they do provide. These preparation methods involve soaking, sprouting, souring and fermenting.
Unfortunalety, modern day food processing does not observe these traditional methods, leaving most grains with lower bio-availible nutrients- meaning that most of what you get from them is simple carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates in processed form typically spike your blood sugar which can lead to a cascade of consequences, from mild hormonal imbalances to straight-up diabetes.
So this is where nuance comes in. If you have a strong and healthy digestive system, you may be able to incorporate properly prepared grains into your diet. You will want to make sure to balance the high carbohydrate content with healthy fat and protein to slow down the release of glucose into the blood stream.
If your digestive system is not as strong (you suffer from any digestive symptoms such as bloating, constipation, diarrhea, etc), you will usually find that eliminating most grains, but especially eliminating wheat, will be very supportive.
The Paleo Diet, which removes grains and focuses on meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables is extremely supportive for most people. Clinically, I haven’t yet found anyone that hasn’t done well on it! The Primal Diet or Sapien Diet, are similar to paleo with the addition of dairy, and also seem to work well.
Carbohydrates on the GAPS Diet
A quick note about carbohydrates on the GAPS diet. As you may know, those exhibiting symptoms of GAPS conditions have a compromised gut. Therefore to make digestion as easy as possible while healing the cells of the gut lining, we limit certain forms of carbohydrates.
The Full GAPS diet incorporates monosaccharides (fruit, vegetables and honey). This is based on the research of Elaine Gottschall and the Specific Carbohydrate Diet, which found that lower carbohydrates support the crowding out of pathogenic bacteria, a main factor in gut dysbiosis.
However, as always bio-individuality is key. There are different forms of GAPS that incorporate different amount of carbohydrates. Ketogenic GAPS can help support severe mental illness and systemic illness. While More Plant GAPS can support other body types and conditions. As always the answer is full of nuance.
Should you eat more or less carbohydrates?
Like we said above, this is dependent on your activity levels, age, stress levels, insulin status, digestive status. There is no specific amount of carbohydrates that works for everyone.
If you would like help coming up with a personalized nutrition plan that best serves your health goals, click the button to schedule a free consult call!
Tortora, G. J., & Derrickson, B. (2019). Introduction to the human body.