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When It Comes to Carbs, Don't Be Dense

As the obesity and diabetes epidemics progress, the search for causes and explanations becomes ever more urgent.  Why, now, are so many people struggling with these diseases? There are many theories…  I recently came across one interesting idea that appeals to my sense of possibilities, and it came from a 2012 paper entitled, "Comparison with ancestral diets suggests dense acellular carbohydrates promote an inflammatory microbiota, and may be the primary dietary cause of leptin resistance and obesity." Quite a mouthful. But author Ian Spreadbury makes a pretty simple and interesting point in this paper. The notion is that ancestral foods, (foods that humans have been eating for thousands of years), are not particularly dense with digestible carbohydrates, but many modern foods are.

Maybe our body’s mechanism for managing carbohydrate calories is gradually overwhelmed by our modern low-fat diet, rich with foods that are very dense with carbohydrate calories. Could these modern foods be driving the twin obesity and diabetes epidemics? The low-fat diet, introduced and encouraged by our government in the late 70’s and early 80’s, pushed us away from some traditional foods (they asked us to decrease consumption of  meat, animal fats, full-fat dairy, and eggs) and toward modern foods (they asked us to increase consumption of grains like bread, cereal, and pasta). And, since that is when these epidemics picked up speed, it seems like a point in time that deserves some scrutiny.

Calculating the carbohydrate density of a food is simple. In a 100 gram serving, take a look at the grams of total carbohydrate and simply subtract the grams of fiber.  Like so:

Although the author provides his own nifty graph in Figure 1 of his paper (scroll down a bit), let me offer a more colorful version of the carbohydrate density of various modern and ancestral foods. Note that the scale (0-100g) is the same in these two graphs...  You will see that there is very little overlap. With the exception of cassava, taro, and plantains, ancestral foods are all less dense (from a carbohydrate perspective) than the modern creations listed.

Carb Density of modern foods.png
Carb Density of Traditional Foods.png

Are there modern creations that I left out that are lower in carbohydrate density? Yes. I cheated a little to make the graphs look better. For example, the mysterious creation, Kraft Free Singles (fake, fat-free cheese), has a carbohydrate density of only 11.5. Although low, this is more than triple the carbohydrate density of real cheddar cheese (3.1), so the pattern of higher carbohydrate density in modern foods is intact. Likewise, low-fat fruit yogurt scores 19.1 -- again, lower than most modern creations, but quadruple the carbohydrate density of plain full-fat yogurt (4.7).

Of course, one of the reasons most of these modern foods score so high on this scale is that they are not a real, whole food full of fiber and/or water. So, might it help to drink a lot of water when chowing down on that granola bar? Maybe... it certainly could not hurt. Note, also, that it definitely does NOT help to wash the granola bar down with soda or Gatorade or Snapple or Red Bull or apple juice.  Nor does it help to add a big glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice to your breakfast of Post Honeycomb cereal. VERY BAD IDEA. That would add to your body's carbohydrate load, now wouldn't it?







Thirst Quenching 101

Soda. Juice. Snapple. Gatorade. Energy Drinks. Lemonade. Diet versions of all of these...  what is a mother to serve?

Here is a basic way to think about hydration. Every mammal on earth drinks water. Carnivores, like wolves, drink water. Herbivores, like deer, drink water. Primates, like gorillas drink water. Humans are primates and mammals. So, if you or someone in your family is thirsty, water is your go-to drink. If family members are drinking something to accompany a meal, think of this as hydration, and go with water.

What if my child is playing soccer? Should he drink a sports drink like Gatorade or Propel? Probably not. Water is the best drink to replenish fluids during and after athletics. Water does not contain extra and unnecessary sugar and salt. Are there exceptions? Yes. Is your child playing soccer for more than three hours straight? Or, is your child playing soccer in extreme heat? Unless your child is engaging in endurance athletics or you are concerned about hot weather to which your child is not accustomed, water is best.

What about milk? I like to think of milk as food - something to drink when you are hungry, not thirsty. So, if you are looking for a snack, whole, unsweetened milk might be a good choice, assuming you or your family member does well with dairy. But for thirst, go with water. (If you have an underweight child into whom you are always trying to sneak calories, maybe milk is a good choice anytime.)

What about alcohol? If you are thirsty, drink water. If you want to get a buzz on, drink alcohol. If you want to get a buzz on while maintaining your weight, avoid adding sugary beverages to your cocktails, and try to keep an eye on how many drinks you consume each week.

What about soda, lemonade, Snapple, Sweet Tea, fruit juice, and other sugary beverages? Again, if you are thirsty, drink water. If you are choosing a beverage to accompany a meal, drink water. If you are celebrating a special occasion, perhaps you might choose to splurge and have a soft drink. And, when you drink it, think of it as special treat, not a daily privilege. (Note to self: keep these celebrations to once or twice a month.) For day-to-day hydration, drink only water. 

May I flavor my water with citrus, berries, tea, herbs, or other unsweetened additions?  Sure. Although unnecessary, it adds variety.  Go for it.

It seems we are so sophisticated and so affluent that the obvious choice of what to have to drink - water - has been eclipsed by the multi-billion dollar beverage industry's menu of enticing, expensive, and health degrading choices. Many people think water is boring. But it is also a critical step on our collective path back to health. We are lucky enough to live in a country where clean, drinkable water flows at almost no cost from our taps. Let's start turning the faucets and filling our glasses.