Sit down, honey. We need to have a talk. It's about... *breathes deeply* ...carbs.
If you’ve spent any time in nutritional circles recently, you might’ve noticed there’s a bit of a “war on bread” happening right now.
Fall down a low-carb-loving Reddit rabbit hole and you’ll hear lifestyle advice to the tune of:
“Look at me, I'm eating pork rinds for breakfast and I'm healthier and happier than you’ll ever be!”
(This is a real comment by the way.)
Or: “Bacon > Bread. Always. Period.”
Or this picture, accentuated by the caption: ”I gave up carbs and sugar, so this is how my family celebrated my birthday. I love them.”
Then, on the opposite side of this argument, you have the whole #CarbsAreGood movement, filled with sourdough-obsessed biohackers and jacked up bagel-eating Instagram influencers.
Who to trust?
Let’s get to the bottom of this by taking a brief walk through history…
Rewind the clock to the mid-1800s with the invention of the roller mill. Before this, grains were ground in whole form, including the germ and the bran. Since the 1800s, however, we’ve found progressively ingenious ways to extract certain parts of the grain, primarily the starchy endosperm, to create fluffy-soft white grain with an exceptionally long shelf life.
As you might’ve guessed, this process of extraction diminishes the grains’ nutritional content, and the pillowy, white product that results is, at its core, what we’ve come to know as “white bread.”
Funnily enough, “white bread” is also what my neighbors used to call me when I lived in Washington Heights. It’s cause I’m so pillowy soft!
Jump ahead to the 1960s, when Norman Borlaug, who would one day go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, invented a type of hybrid wheat that, when grown with fertilizers, produced three times the yield of normal wheat and, subsequently, helped nourish a famished India and Pakistan. “Go Norman,” right? Unfortunately, this came with some unintended consequences, as it sent an inspired agribusiness industry down a mass-monoculture-production-path of no return. (Mono-cultured crops, by the way, equal less nutritious crops.)
All of that brings us to today, where mass-produced, nutrient-depleted, refined grains have become utterly ubiquitous.
But wait a second!
What about “whole grain” bread? That’s better, right?
But let’s first start by acknowledging that many breads claiming to be “healthy” or “whole grain” are actually not that at all.
Make sure, when bread shopping, that the first word in the ingredients list is “whole” — you’d be shocked how many “healthy” bread products are actually just variations on refined white bread. Any labels claiming “Made with Whole Grains” or “Multigrain” most likely mean “Various Refined Flours with a Sad Pinch of Whole Grains.”
What’s more, depending on how much of a conspiracy theorist you’re willing to be, suspicions might arise once you start to explore the controversy surrounding whether these 100% whole wheat products are actually healthy at all, as many are simply roller-milled flour with the germ and bran added back in after the fact. And, in case you were wondering, no, the FDA does not currently verify these products’ compositions before they land on your supermarket’s shelves, where they miraculously still retain their long shelf lives.
But just to be clear, none of this means that I don’t want you to eat bread.
My goal is for you to make better carb choices in general, and when you do consume bread, to remember the first-word-in-the-ingredients-list-should-be-“whole” principle. Or, ideally, opt for breads that are sprouted or fermented, two preparation processes which unlock the bread’s nutritional properties.
Cause here’s the bottom line: not all carbs are equal. Despite what many Reddit threads may have you believe, carbs themselves are not bad for you, nor do they make you gain weight. Processed carbs do, but healthy, whole carbs? No way.
Fruits, starchy veggies, legumes, and tubers are all nutritional powerhouses.
Steer clear of refined and processed carbs such as chips, baked goods, and all non-natural sugars.
(And, yes, sugar is indeed a carb. Sorry.)
That said, this day and age it’s nearly impossible to avoid refined sugar altogether, so just do your best to reduce consumption as much as possible. Also, keep in mind that sugar goes by many names and is in nearly everything. Here are some of the disguises sugar wears on packaging and food labels:
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Evaporated Cane Juice
…And many others. (If you’re unsure what a certain ingredient is, Google it.)
Here’re some of my favorite healthier carb swaps:
Baked Goods —> Fresh Fruit
Candy —> No Sugar Added Dried Fruit
Processed Bread —> Sprouted Grain or (Real) Whole Grain Bread
Pasta —> Banza (Chickpea Pasta) — it’s sooooo good!
White Rice —> Brown Rice, Quinoa, Farrow, and Other Whole Grains
Potatoes —> Potatoes (See what I did there? Potatoes, as it turns out, are a vegetable, and vegetables, as it turns out, are good for you.)
In conclusion, a calorie is not a calorie is not a calorie, which is to say that not all carbs (or calories) are created equal. Carbs themselves won’t make you overweight, lethargic, or sick, only certain types of carbs will do that. So eat more whole foods, less processed ones, and please, whatever you do, do NOT pretend that a steak could ever take the place of a birthday cake.