Client question of the week: Can you help me understand where potatoes land in the world of carbohydrates?

Two things are required for lasting weight loss: a balanced metabolism and lower calories. For this reason, both the caloric and hormonal effects of carbohydrates are important considerations. Many people think carbs are the reason for weight gain; however, it’s more about finding the amount that works for your specific metabolism.

All of the foods we eat fall under one of two general categories: macronutrients (nutrients needed in large amounts by humans) or micronutrients (nutrients needed in trace amounts by humans)

Macronutrients include:

• Carbohydrates (CHO)

• Proteins

• Fat

Micronutrients include:

• Vitamins

• Minerals

• Antioxidants

Did you know that humans need more than 50 different micronutrients for optimum health!

Macronutrients are more familiar to us than micronutrients since we hear about them all the time. Most foods have more than one macronutrient in them and various different micronutrients. Each food that we eat has a proportion of macronutrients, and the one with the highest percentage is how we classify the food.

For example, grains have a high carbohydrate content, so we commonly refer to grains as “carbs” instead of fats or proteins. A similar example is beans. Beans have a high carbohydrate content, yet we commonly refer to beans as “proteins” instead of carbohydrates. Both beans and legumes (and some grains) contain significant amounts of protein, but the carbohydrate content is higher.

Eating all three types of macronutrients is important because they work together to give us enough sustainable energy in the form of calories. One of these is not more important than the other, as all macronutrients are essential parts of eating a healthy diet that supports different body functions.

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are found in a wide array of healthy and unhealthy foods and come in a variety of forms. The most common forms include sugars, fibers, and starches.

Carbohydrates provide 4 kcal of energy per gram. In the body, carbohydrates are digested and broken down into glucose, which is converted to energy.

The type of carbohydrate providing this energy is important because of the different hormonal effects of sugars, fibers, and starches.

Why do we need carbohydrates in our diet?

• Unless intentionally restricted, carbohydrates are replenished daily through foods in the diet.

• Provides energy for training and post-exercise recovery.

• Stimulates muscle glycogen resynthesis (the storage of muscle glucose for energy).

Enhance exercise performance because the body’s stores of glycogen are limited.

Carbohydrates are powerful movers of metabolism, both for better and for worse.

The Goldilocks Effect

Many people think carbs are the reason for weight gain; however, it’s more about finding the amount that works for your specific metabolism. This is where a health coach can guide you.

Too much and you raise insulin levels, making it more likely that extra calories get stored as fat rather than muscle. Too little and you may induce your body’s deprivation signals, raising cortisol and cravings while slowing your metabolic rate.

One of the best things you can do is find the right type, amount and timing of carbs for your body. This is called the “carbohydrate tipping point.” It is the amount that is enough to keep SHMEC in check without going too far and causing excess caloric intake and insulin production.

A commonly used classification system for carbohydrates is the glycemic index, which assigns a value to foods based on blood sugar (glucose) response.

High Glycemic Carbohydrates

• Higher sugar content

• Raises blood glucose quickly

• Causes an insulin “spike”

• May trigger cravings in some people

• Examples: processed foods and high sugar fruits

Low Glycemic Carbohydrates

• Lower sugar content; more fiber & water

• Stabilizes blood glucose levels

• Does not trigger insulin “spike”

• Examples: unprocessed or minimally processed whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans

Two things are required for lasting weight loss: a balanced metabolism and lower calories. For this reason, both the caloric and hormonal effects of carbohydrates are important considerations:

“Food is not simply a packet of fuel and nutrients. It is also a complex bundle of instructions to your metabolism. The most beneficial foods fill you up fast, produce stable energy, keep you full for hours, and don’t make you crave all the wrong stuff later. Those foods usually have certain attributes (high fiber, high protein, high water, with lower amounts and combinations of fat/starch/sugar/salt/alcohol)”

– Dr. Jade Teta

What kinds of carbohydrates should you eat?

Eat what works for your body! This is where a health coach might come in handy. Together, you and your coach will work together to find your carbohydrate tipping pointthe amount and type of carbohydrate you need in your diet to keep SHMEC in check. If you’re navigating this on your own, then be sure to utilize your metabolic detective skills and biofeedback tools, such as SHMEC, exercise performance & recovery, digestion, and menses (if applicable), to guide you.

Don’t forget the 4Ps! Your practical circumstances, physiology, personal preferences, and psychology will dictate the type, amount, frequency, timing, and order of carbohydrate intake that best balances your metabolism and supports your goals.

For your reference, I’ve included the following list of carbohydrate foods to guide you. This list is not exhaustive. It is intended to illustrate the differences between carbohydrates based on starch, fiber, and water content. Generally speaking, meals that include higher amounts of non-starchy, high-fiber, and/or high-water vegetables and low-sugar fruits will support post and between-meal fullness. These foods may also stabilize energy and reduce hunger and cravings (keep HEC in check).

Low/Non-fiber, Starchy Carbohydrate Choices

Vegetables: Artichokes, leeks, lima beans, okra, squash (acorn, butternut, pumpkin), sweet potatoes or yams, potatoes, corn, peas, beets, and turnips.

Legumes: Black beans, adzuki beans, chickpeas, cowpeas, Great Northern beans, kidney beans, lentils, mung beans, navy beans, pinto beans, split peas, white beans.

Grains*: Barley, brown rice, buckwheat groats (kasha), bulgur (tabbouleh), millet, polenta, steel-cut oats, tapioca, and quinoa.

Bread and crackers: Whole grain bread, whole grain cooked cereals, crackers, Ezekiel bread, whole grain tortillas, pasta, pretzels, chips, cakes, junk foods (cookies, candy, sweets, soda, etc).

Fruits: Bananas, melons, cherries, pineapple, mango, and kiwi.

*Note: some starchy foods are higher in fiber and rich in water (ie. beans, oats, brown rice, sweet potato). These foods are useful for energy.

High-Fiber, Low-Starch Carbohydrate Choices

Vegetables: Arugula, Asparagus, Bamboo shoots, Bean sprouts, Beet greens, Bell peppers (red, yellow, green), Broad Beans, Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, Cabbage, Cassava, Cauliflower, Celery, Chayote fruit, Chicory, Chives, Collard greens, Coriander, Cucumber, Dandelion greens, Eggplant, Endive, Fennel, Garlic, Ginger root, Green beans, Hearts of palm, Jicama (raw), Jalapeño peppers, Kale, Kohlrabi, Lettuce, Mushrooms, Mustard greens, Onions, Parsley, Radishes, Radicchio, Snap beans, Snow peas, Shallots, Spinach, Spaghetti squash, Summer squash (zucchini), Swiss chard, Tomatoes, Turnip greens, Watercress.

Fruits: Apples, Berries (blackberries, blueberries, boysenberries, gooseberries, loganberries, raspberries strawberries), Grapefruit, Lemons, Limes, Pears.

Final thoughts. Establish your own personal criteria around what carbohydrate foods are good for YOU.

I know it’s difficult to avoid “black or white” thinking when it comes to nutrition. But let’s try to remember the difference between foods that are “good or bad for your metabolism” rather than simply “good or bad“.

When in doubt, choose higher-quality foods more often by establishing your own criteria for “better”, eat less processed food, add more whole, minimally processed foods, and most importantly, experiment and explore my metabolic detective friends!

Photo by Merve Sehirli Nasir on Unsplash