Recently my son (he’s in grade one) has been learning about healthy eating choices. He had to fill in a pie chart or a ‘Healthy Eating Plate’ with pictures (or in his case blobs of colour) of the foods he’d eaten that day. The chart was from the ‘Australian Guide to Healthy Eating’ and two-thirds of it was allocated to ‘bread, cereals, rice, pasta, noodles’, a smaller portion again to ‘vegetables, legumes,’ and the three smallest portions equally to ‘fruit’, ‘milk, yogurt, cheese’ and ‘lean meat, fish, poultry, eggs, nuts, legumes’.
I posted the picture on Facebook and asked what everyone thought of the chart. Thankfully, most of you thought that vegetables should have the biggest piece of the pie and I agree. But what I’ve discovered is that there seems to be a lot of confusion about carbohydrates and the healthiest choices. I’ve also received a few comments about the lack of carbohydrate in my kids lunch boxes (I post pics daily on social media). My kids lunches are mostly carbohydrate, just not always of the grain variety. Thought I’d better weigh in…
The primary role of carbohydrate in the human body is to provide the cells with glucose for energy and brain function. Carbohydrates are generally classified as ‘complex’ or ‘simple’ (generally refined). All carbohydrates are broken down in the body to glucose just at different rates (much faster the more simple it is). When excess amounts of glucose (that aren’t needed) build up in the your blood it becomes toxic to the body, so the body ships it off the liver and muscles to be stored as glycogen. The liver and muscles have a finite capacity so once the glycogen receptors are full, the body turns excess glucose to fat within the body. I’m cutting corners a little, but at this point a vicious cycle of elevated insulin levels, insulin resistance and subsequent disorder begins (resulting in metabolic syndrome, obesity, type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer).
In all my years of clinical practice and analysing people’s diets, I’m yet to meet a person with an inadequate carbohydrate intake. In fact, many adults and the vast majority of children I have treated over the years do, I believe consume considerably more carbohydrate (especially simple) than required.
Grains are not the only source of carbohydrate. In fact, many people thrive on a diet of no grain (this is the basis of a paleo or primal diet).
Just to clarify sources of carbohydrates which includes vegetables, legumes, beans, nuts, seeds, fresh fruit and whole grains – these are all complex carbohydrate. Simple or refined carbohydrates include many pieces of bread, pasta, noodles, white rice, dried fruit, sugar in its multiple forms, fruit juice (even freshly squeezed), cakes, biscuits, crackers, muffins, sauces, all confectionary – pretty well most things that have a long shelf life and or come in a package.
Making every mouthful count
My approach to healthy eating is quite simple – I endeavour to eat a low human intervention whole foods diet, as close to as nature intends. This includes the sorts of foods I would have to eat if I were growing it myself and there were no supermarkets or shops down the road. I know that this is not our reality, but when choosing the best foods to eat and feed my family, I try to pick foods in their most bio-available, nourishing, whole form. For this reason, grain sources of carbohydrate are not high on my list. I’ll explain why…
Veggie versus grains
Vegetables are by far the most nutrient dense source of carbohydrate. As well as carbohydrate you are consuming a great source of fibre, minerals, vitamins and many highly protective Phyto (plant) chemicals. So on my personal dietary pie chart, I do all I can to make sure that they have the biggest piece of the pie.
What about whole grain?
From a nutrient perspective grain just can’t compete with vegetables. Yes, there are some nutrients in whole grain, but remember they are all but lost to processing (hence fortification). It is also worth noting that many of the nutrients in whole grains are bound by anti-nutrients (that make their goodness largely unavailable). For much more detail about anti-nutrients and grains, I like this Wellness Mama post, here.
I do believe soaking and sprouting grain make it more digestible (from personal experience). For the record, I personally do not follow or promote a paleo or primal diet and I do eat and feed my children a little grain. But I do so very much in moderation and I try where possible to prepare my grains well. Everyone is different, I have a robust digestive system and feel okay with a little grain in my diet (though if I overdo it, I don’t feel so great).
In summary, my message in this post is that if you are looking to truly nourish yourself and your family, then vegetables should be your primary source of carbohydrate. You or your children don’t need grain for energy or nourishment, but if you choose to consume it then do so in moderation, using well prepared, unrefined whole grains is best.