Long ago (and far away), I was an English teacher and taught basic composition. I’ll never forget the start of one semester when I began by explaining to my students that all complete sentences are composed of a noun and verb, minimum, and one student raised her hand and asked “what’s a verb?” She had reached college and no one had explained to her what a verb was (which was probably why she was in Basic Composition.) But, as I told my students more than once, the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask!
Recently on one of the podcasts I just picked up on (The Paleo Women), a listener asked a question about carbs. (I think it was episode #81 if you want to try it out!) For someone like me who’s been doing this a while, the question seemed pretty basic- pretty “noun + verb” basic, but it wasn’t all that long ago that some of these “basic” ideas had me flummoxed (and I still get a little flummoxed by some of the short-hand out there!) I’m certainly not any kind of expert but I’ve been learning about this stuff for a while for my own edification so, in case anyone out there has any questions about carbs, macros and a few other “basics,” here goes nothing!
Carbs (carbohydrates) are one of three macronutrients (macros). The other two are fat and protein. Macros are your calorie sources. Each gram of carbohydrate and protein has 4 calories and each gram of fat has 9 calories, which is why when people try to crash diet, they usually go low fat. One ounce of fat is 28.35 grams, which is over 25o calories while one ounce of carb or protein is about 115.
Sometimes you might hear people talk about micronutrients; those are things like calcium, magnesium, potassium, etc. They are the vitamins and minerals in the foods we eat, and they do not have calories to speak of (tiny miniscule amounts if any!) Macros are what people pay attention to when they talk about losing weight and getting healthier. If you take care of your macros, you won’t have any problems with your micros, unless you have some kind of health issue. If you think you do have a health issue, then you really do need to see a professional (like a doctor!)
One of the things that gets bounced around a lot of the weight loss/ fitness community is the idea of “low carb.” When people talk and post things about the “low carb lifestyle,” they usually talk about or show things like pasta, bread, rice and cereal. Those are most definitely carbs! The problem comes when the consumer looks up something on a nutritional- clinical website and sees that the cabbage or broccoli or apple she just ate is logged or labeled as a carb. She gets confused because she’s “not eating any carbs” and why is this apple or salad being counted as a carb? Because fruits and vegetables are definitely carbs as well! There is also a lot of confusion when people start explaining things like fast carbs, slow carbs, simple carbs and complex carbs. These are just labels people use to explain what they are eating or not eating, or more realistically- what they are telling you to eat and not eat!
Macros: Fat, Protein and the Always Confusing Carbohydrates
There are a lot of different kinds of fats: saturated, polyunsaturated, monounsaturated and trans. Those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. In foods, they are basically your oils and butters. They are also in animal products, like meat, eggs, milk and other dairy, and they are in avocados and most nuts and seeds. The only ones I think you really need to watch out for (like avoid) are trans fats, because those are chemically unstable and people who are supposed to know this stuff say it’s best to avoid them. If you stick with whole unprocessed foods, you will most likely avoid them, although you may get plenty of saturated fats. If you want to limit your saturated fats, you will have to limit your animal products. I would caution you not to try avoiding fats altogether because your body needs fats to survive! Every cell you have and will ever make requires fats to function! No fats=no cells=NOT GOOD FOR YOU!
Proteins are mostly your animal products, like meat, eggs, and fish. Most nuts, seeds and legumes (beans and peanuts) have some protein in them, but they are not a complete protein. This means that the chain of amino acids that make a protein is incomplete in the plants, nuts and legumes, while in the animal product, it is complete. This is generally not a problem unless you are vegan or vegetarian. While some plants contain a little protein, it’s generally not enough to meet your daily requirements unless you work on it. (If you are vegan/ vegetarian, you will need to work on making sure you eat enough of a variety to get complete proteins.)
Carbohydrates are everything that is not a fat or a protein. These are your fruits, vegetables, grains and plants. Like I said, while things like nuts, seeds and legumes can contain fats and proteins, they are classified as carbs because that is what makes up most of their energy source. You can eat your peanuts and think you are getting protein or fat, but you are mostly getting carbs. People like to classify carbs as good, bad, fast, slow, simple, complex, refined or processed. The words I generally use are “complex” and “refined.”
Carbs are made up of chains of starches, which the body converts to glucose (a sugar), fiber and water. The reason people pay attention to carbs is because the more complex the carbohydrate is the more water and fiber it has and the longer it takes to break down which means there is less of glucose spike in the blood (and less glucose which gets stored as fat, ideally). If a carb is quickly broken down and does not have a lot of fiber and/ or water, it is a simple carb, which means there is usually a glucose spike in your blood and a lot of “sugar” which can be stored as fat.
The biggest confusion with carbs when people lump together things like noodles, bread and white rice and leave out things like broccoli, spinach and fruit. Those are all carbs, but the difference is the noodles, bread and white rice are simple carbs: mostly starches without a lot of fiber or water. They also don’t have a lot of those beneficial micronutrients either! I usually refer to these kinds of foods as being “nutritionally vacant” because they bring nothing to the party but calories! The broccoli, spinach and fruit are complex carbs: they have a lot of fiber and water (and micronutrients too!) (Elizabeth Benton at Primal Potential did a great podcast explaining this! I can’t remember what episode, but do a search on Golden Rules of Fat Loss at her website and you’ll probably find it!) That means when you eat the simple carbs like noodles (I call them refined because the product is processed), you get mostly the starches which are quickly converted to glucose (a sugar) and you get a lot of calories but not a lot of anything else. When you eat the complex carbs like an apple, you get the starches but you also get more fiber and more water and more micronutrients and the body takes longer to break down the apple because of the water and fiber. So you get less sugar, less calories, more fiber, more water and more nutrition in the apple.
When people talk about things like “low carbing” usually they mean they are cutting out the simple/ refined/ fast carbs but not the complex/ slow carbs. A bagel has a lot more carbs than an apple, although they might weigh the same, and they don’t have the same calories either. So you can eat a huge bowl of broccoli and get way fewer carbs and calories than if you eat the same size bowl of pasta. 300 calories of pasta is a lot smaller than 300 calories of broccoli (I don’t think I can eat that much broccoli at one sitting)! Remember the calories come from the grams of carbs. So you can essentially eat almost all the complex carbs you want in the form of vegetables (and some fruit) and still be much lower in carbs than if you ate the Standard American Diet (usually abbreviated SAD- for so many reasons- eye roll). Generally, if you are trying to avoid processed foods, you will automatically be “low carb” because you will be avoiding the processed foods that make up the bulk of refined simple carbohydrates available: things like breads, pastas, chips, cereals, and most grain and rice products.
There are some anomalies, like potatoes. They are a vegetable and they are starchier than most others, so they have more carbohydrates. Sweet potatoes are less starchier than white potatoes, but they still have more than broccoli or cabbage.
There has been some talk out there about “flexible dieting” and IIFYM. IIFYM (aka flexible dieting) is shorthand for “If It Fits Your Macros.” One of the ways people try to lose weight without actually going on a diet is by changing their macro ratios. Generally, most Americans eat a ratio of 40-50% carbs, 30-35% fat and 20-25% protein (somewhere in there). So by changing the ratios, you change your calorie intake. What people like about this is that they can eat whatever they want as long as they can “fit it into their macros.” So if they are eating 35% carbs, 30% fat and 35% protein, if they can squeeze in a corn dog, they’ll eat it! That’s kind of the bad thing about IIFYM, too: people will squeeze in junk food and think they are eating healthier. It’s too easy to focus on the macro label rather than nutrition on this “diet” and it gets abused a lot. It can also be well utilized! I aim for a certain macro ratio, but if I blow it, I blow it because I focus more on nutrition than hitting a macro target.
I personally follow a Paleo diet, which means I avoid processed foods and most grain products in general (as well as most dairy). This diet works for me and I feel a lot better eating Paleo. There are some hidden benefits to it, in that people start eating Paleo for whatever reason, realize they feel much better (hey, that’s me!) and then realize that one of their problems was a food sensitivity, like wheat/ gluten or dairy. I had known I was moderately lactose intolerant and I find limiting my dairy makes me feel a lot better. I would give it up completely but I like cream in my coffee and it’s not enough to bother me much- yogurt on the other hand- ugh!
If you are still a little confused or just want to know more, I read Nutrition for Dummies. I like the Dummies books because they assume you know nothing about the subject, and I find that even if I think I know something, I start at the beginning because just because I think I know something doesn’t always mean I do! If you are interested in Paleo, I also read Living Paleo for Dummies, which lays everything out pretty simply. I am also working on post about some of the resources I use to learn about nutrition, fitness and health and Paleo. I hope to have it up next week. If anyone has any questions, please feel free to post them as a comment and I will get back to you!