I’ve been thinking a lot about how I think about food since I’ve started my journey. Things that I’ve always thought of as inherently bad for me versus things I know must be good for me. When I first started dieting (pre-vegan me) back in March, I thought that I should just cut out all of the things that are too good to be true (and the things that we obviously bad for me although I didn’t have a clue as to why). Obvious things included everything from cakes and candies all the way to pasta and breads (thank you diets like Atkins and South Beach that have thoroughly demonized the carb and made us feel bad about having second helpings of grains).
Now, (one month strong) vegan me would like some answers. The running side of this investigation has taught me that carbs are important before, during and even after your run. Who knew? In an article on Livestrong by Justin Cresser, Are Carbohydrates Good For Running? he notes that
“The body gets its carbohydrate fuel in the form of blood glucose or muscle glycogen–a storage form of glucose. Reliance on both energy sources increases as the tempo of the run increases, and according to A. Foskett in the January 2008 issue of the “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise,” provides up to 70 percent of the total energy expended during high-intensity events. Low blood glucose or hypoglycemia and depleted muscle glycogen stores lead to fatigue and reduce performance during running.”
But I digress. I’m circling around the issue and I don’t know if I’ve quite hit it yet. I don’t think I’ve even talked about what they are yet. An article put out by Harvard University, Carbohydrates: Good Carbs Guide the Way, was particularly helpful in explaining what carbs are, why we need them, and which ones are actually bad for you. The most helpful bit of information came from the Glycemic Index portion of the article (but read the whole thing it’s not that long)
“Dividing carbohydrates into simple and complex makes sense on a chemical level. But it doesn’t do much to explain what happens to different kinds of carbohydrates inside the body. For example, the starch in white bread and French-fried potatoes clearly qualifies as a complex carbohydrate. Yet the body converts this starch to blood sugar nearly as fast as it processes pure glucose. Fructose (fruit sugar) is a simple carbohydrate, but it has a minimal effect on blood sugar.
A new system, called the glycemic index, aims to classify carbohydrates based on how quickly and how high they boost blood sugar compared to pure glucose. Foods with a high glycemic index, like white bread, cause rapid spikes in blood sugar. Foods with a low glycemic index, like whole oats, are digested more slowly, causing a lower and gentler change in blood sugar.”
Something satisfying: although this was not a pro-vegan article, there are vegan undertones (am I just imagining this?) It goes onto suggest:
- “Start the day with whole grains. If you’re partial to hot cereals, try steel-cut oats. If you’re a cold cereal person, look for one that lists whole wheat, whole oats, or other whole grain first on the ingredient list.
- Use whole grain breads for lunch or snacks. Check the label to make sure that whole wheat or another whole grain is the first ingredient listed.
- Bag the potatoes. Instead, try brown rice or even “newer” grains like bulgur, wheat berries, millet, or hulled barley with your dinner.
- Pick up some whole wheat pasta. If the whole grain products are too chewy for you, look for those that are made with half whole-wheat flour and half white flour.
- Bring on the beans. Beans are an excellent source of slowly digested carbohydrates as well as a great source of protein.”
Still having trouble deciding which carbs you should be eating and which you shouldn’t? Thanks to Webmd and Emaine Magee, she notes that it’s not all that difficult when you stick to the following:
- “We can reap the health benefits of good carbs by choosing carbohydrates full of fiber. These carbs that get absorbed slowly into our systems, avoiding spikes in blood sugar levels. Examples: whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and beans.
- We can minimize the health risk of bad carbs by eating fewer refined and processed carbohydrates that strip away beneficial fiber. Examples: white bread and white rice.”
So what does that mean? What does fiber have to do with carbs? Fiber’s one of those things that people know to be good but they have no idea why (it just so happens that fiber is a subcategory of carbohydrate). I see a commercial on TV about concerned parents wanting to make sure that their child is getting enough fiber so they’re pleased when he chooses the high-in-fiber breakfast cereal that also tastes good. Great. Except for what is it and why are we so concerned with getting enough of it? I mean, what does it do if half of it (the insoluble part at least) doesn’t even get digested? In an article on Fiber by Dr. Betty Kovacs, MS, RD, I learned that there are 2 types of fiber:
- “Soluble fiber dissolves in water to form a gel-like substance. Sources of soluble fiber are oats, legumes (beans, peas, and soybeans), apples, bananas, berries, barely, some vegetables, and psylluim.
- Insoluble fiber increases the movement of material through your digestive tract and increases your stool bulk. Sources of insoluble fiber are whole wheat foods, bran, nuts, seeds, and the skin of some fruits and vegetables.”
Very interesting findings if you ask this veg-head. Fiber is also responsible for reducing the chance of and controlling a slew of different diseases ranging from heart disease and diabetes all the way to bowel disorders.
Now more about my latest obsession: carbs and running. Having been overweight pre-vegan, a lot of this investigation has included making changes to my mind, body and soul at the same time. This has had a sort of blurring effect on why exactly I feel so good. Is it the exercise or the food? Is it because I’m eating morally and spiritually? The answer is just yes I think (to everything) and I’m going to have to understand that changing everything at once connects everything all the more closely. Instead of shying away from food because I’m afraid that if I carb up I’m going to get fat again, I need to ask myself what I need to fuel my body (and my brain) especially since distance running is agreeing with me so well. In an article by Jackie Dikos, RD Fueling the Runner: Cabohydrates—Battling a Bad Reputation, she notes that:
“A runner should never question if they should follow a low carb diet. The major role of carbohydrates is to produce energy. Fuel your body with a diet rich in carbohydrates to maximize your training and performance. However, you can modify your diet in the kinds of carbohydrates you choose.”
If I’m going to make it as a runner, I have to un-teach myself a lot of things that are ingrained into the minds of young/old/men/women/people everywhere (and especially in America). Carbs are not bad, they’re essential. Just like everything, moderation seems to be key here. And if you’re going to be burning the carbs off in that run anyway, enjoy that bowl of whole grain pasta! I have to stop worrying about it so much! So I’ll have a salad before my main course so I won’t be as tempted to overdo it. I’ll snack on fruits and veggies. And I’ll put beans on everything- they’re good for my heart- the more I eat em… (well… you know). I’m taking back the carb! I’m sure my head and my heart will thank me!
More Food For Thought: Here are some tips from Dr Magee on how to get fiber in almost every meal:
- “Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables. Just eating five servings a day of fruits and vegetables will get you to about 10 or more grams of fiber, depending on your choices.
- Include some beans and bean products in your diet. A half-cup of cooked beans will add from 4 to 8 grams of fiber to your day.
- Switch to whole grains every single possible way (buns, rolls, bread, tortillas, pasta, crackers, etc).”
Disclaimer: I just want to note that you should do your own research and talk to your doctor about how many carbs/how much exercise that you need for your body-type. Even the research that I did shows some varying results for men/women/people trying to lose weight/gain weight. I’m not an expert or a doctor and I just want you to make the best decisions for yourself!