Not All Carbs Are Created Equal. Carbtastic Ways to Eat Healthy During the Holidays
Article reviewed and approved by
Justine Bender RDN, LD
“I’m so sick of eating carbs”.....said nobody ever! Carbohydrates are the lifeblood of the human race. We are built to run on carbs and our bodies will do whatever they have to in order to get them.
But, we live in the heyday of low-carb fad diets. Keto, Paleo, Atkins, Carnivore, you name it…they all claim to provide a healthier lifestyle by limiting carbohydrate intake.
But why do carbs get such a bad rap if they’re the human body’s preferred fuel source? Shouldn’t they be healthy if the body loves them so much?
In this post we’re going to discuss all things carbs. We’ll talk about why we love them, what foods they’re found in, why they’re an important part of a healthy diet, and how to enjoy your carbs healthfully this holiday season.
Why the Carb-Hate?
It’s really an issue of balance. Humans seem incapable of balancing their food intake appropriately, especially when it comes to carbohydrates.
You see, most of our junk foods are made mainly from carbohydrates - pastries, ice cream, candy, chips, soda, crackers, etc. These foods provide our bodies with a quick, easy-to-digest form of carbs that they don’t really have to work hard to extract from among the other components of the food. This means the body gets its all-important glucose quickly and easily. These kinds of refined, fiberless carbs are called simple carbohydrates.
Since simple carbohydrates are rarely found in nature, and since for most of humanity’s history we’ve been battling food shortages, our brains are wired to reward us when we eat these carbtastic treats.
Reward Me How?
The body’s initial reaction when you eat a slice of birthday cake or a serving of french fries is very good. Your body sends out cascades of approving chemical signals that flood your brain with feelings of happiness and enjoyment.
You see, our bodies are lazy on almost every level and thank us profusely when we give them energy that they don’t have to work hard to get. SUGAR RUSH!
Get to the Part Where Carbs Are Healthy
Not all carbs are junk food.
The carbohydrate food category is massive, and many healthy foods are carb-based, such as whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. These are called complex carbohydrates.
Complex crbs provide our bodies with glucose yes, but they’re also full of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
Also, our bodies have to work a bit harder to separate out all the components of these foods, such as fiber, so most of them don’t provide an instant spike in blood sugar. This is a good thing. Complex carbohydrates provide a slow release of nutrient-dense energy for long-lasting fullness and satisfaction.
Check out this Healthline Article or this article from the Cleveland Clinic for more in-depth information about the types of carbs.
Then Why Don’t I Crave Them Like I Do Cake?
Our brains don’t have the same affinity for complex carbs as they do for simple ones because we’re wired to love a short-cut.
When you have a slice of whole grain toast with peanut butter, or carrot sticks and hummus, your brain is a little less enthusiastic than it is about ice cream or chips.
This is your classic case of delayed gratification. In the moment, your brain can be sassy and ungrateful when you eat healthy foods, but enthusiastic and approving when you eat junk foods. You can think of this instant reaction as your brain’s immature, child-like response to food.
While complex carbohydrate foods that are full of fiber and other nutrients may not provide the instant flood of happiness and approval that foods made from simple, highly refined and processed carbohydrates do, they are very healthy and your body will thank you in other ways.
Ooo What Other Ways?
Do you crave clear skin, long-lasting energy, balanced blood glucose, and a healthy metabolism? Complex carbohydrates could help get you there.
As we all know by age 30, junk foods make our bodies angry once the initial pleasure has worn off. They can cause weight gain, lethargy, acne, and more.
On the flip side, complex carbohydrates generally promote healthy weight, good energy levels, and clear skin, etc.
Take the Mediterranean Diet for example. This eating style has been lauded by researchers as one of the most healthful eating patterns for people of all ages and health conditions.
As you can see in the image above, carbohydrate foods make up the base of the diet with one caveat… simple, refined carbs represent only a small portion of the pyramid and are consumed sparingly.
Could You Sum it Up for Me?
Carbs get a bad rap because we tend to indulge our child brain and eat junky ones, which cause health problems such as obesity, diabetes, digestive problems, inflammation, cancer…the list goes on.
We associate negative outcomes with carbohydrates because of the kinds of carbs we choose.
Eating junk can make our adult brains pretty upset when we realize our food choices have led to things like weight gain, acne, headaches, indigestion, constipation, and long-lasting fatigue.
On the other hand, when we eat healthy foods and our bodies feel good, we often still let our child-brain control the narrative. We associate the healthy outcomes with deprivation at the dinner table rather than with abundance.
Tell Me More About Abundance; I Like Food
With the holidays just around the corner, we’re here to discuss the mountains of food that you’ll be buying, cooking, baking, and EATING.
The idea of abundance can conjure images of mashed potatoes drowning in gravy, decadent cakes and pies dusted with powdered sugar, and fluffy, white rolls straight from the oven and dripping with butter.
Ironically though, most of these foods are not nutritionally abundant. They are filled with simple, refined carbohydrates and they lack the kinds of nutrients your body desperately needs in order to function and stay healthy during the hectic holiday season, such as vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients.
You may love white bread, but it’s empty. It’s soft and fluffy because they took out all the good stuff. The fiber and micronutrients, such as those listed above, were removed to make it all fluffy and soft. It’s just savory white sugar really.
So Deprivation is Healthy. You Lied.
Not so fast there. We think there are many ways to indulge and enjoy abundance in the holiday season while still prioritizing complex carbohydrates over refined ones.
Abundance could look like this: Baked potatoes with the skin on and drowning in mushroom gravy, herb-roasted carrots drizzled with honey, shaved brussel sprout salad with toasted nuts and dried cranberries, crusty whole-grain bread with thick slices of farm-fresh cheese, and a sweet potato pie for dessert of course!
Call us crazy, but we honestly think the second meal sounds so much more decadent, and what’s more, it’s filled with nutritious, health-promoting carbohydrates. Just add in your protein of choice and you got a meal that is indulgent without being harmful, nay the opposite! The second meal is filled with health-promoting complex carbohydrates.
Check out this resource from the Mayo Clinic to find complex carbtastic recipes for every occasion and flavor palette.
You Mean I Can Eat All the Carbs I Want?
Balance is really key here. If you have diabetes, or any other medical condition that makes it hard for you to process carbohydrates, you can’t eat as much as you want of the healthy carbs just because they’re healthy. They will still raise your blood sugar levels, albeit more slowly than their simple counterparts.
Similarly, if you struggle with overeating, just remember that healthy foods still have calories and can cause weight gain if you overindulge.
However, if you thought you had to go into the holiday season either avoiding carbs completely or feeling guilty for not avoiding them, just know there’s another option.
You can choose health-promoting carbohydrates like whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. For the most healthful preparations, choose to pair them with healthy fats like olive oil or salmon, and lean proteins like turkey or lentils.
You can also choose to limit the amount of refined flour and sugar you use in your cooking and baking. Try making whole wheat pie crust, using less sugar than the recipe calls for, or choosing fruit as a sweetener.
If you prefer your desserts “unadulterated,” then perhaps focus on getting more dinner and less dessert.
There is also the tendency to eat like it’s a holiday every day for all of November and December. But, you can choose to strictly limit your refined carbohydrates on all days except the actual holidays. This could go a long way in helping you keep your carbs in check throughout the season.
For those watching their carb intake, take a peek at this article to learn how to calculate net carbs, aka DIGESTIBLE carbohydrates, by subtracting nondigestible ones, such as fiber, from your total intake. Woo hoo!
The Short Version
There are many healthy carbohydrates you can use to make indulgent holiday meals during this festive season, such as squashes, broccoli, whole wheat, oatmeal, sweet potatoes, and beans of all varieties.
While you may still need to keep a lid on your overall carb consumption, prioritizing complex carbohydrates over simple ones will go a long way in promoting overall health by providing you with a plethora of fiber, vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that are only abundant in carbohydrate-rich foods.
You can substitute complex carbohydrates for simple ones in your cooking and baking and/or limit your intake of refined holiday foods to just the actual holidays, and not all the weeks before and after.
We hope that you feel inspired by this post to make delicious, nutrient-dense foods that you can feel good about eating this holiday season!
Do you feel like carbs have been demonized for you? Has this information helped you to know how to better incorporate carbs as a healthy part of your diet in the holiday season? Find us on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and TikTok to let us know your thoughts!
In parting, remember that eating healthy, whole foods, and lots of plant foods is one of the simplest, safest, and most effective things we can do to promote good health in our bodies. As with every preventative/restorative measure though, sometimes these changes alone are not enough to help our bodies function the way we want or need them to. If you are struggling with health problems, please contact your doctor or other healthcare provider such as a Naturopathic Doctor, Dietitian, or Mental Health Professional, to see if they can offer appropriate guidance and care. We at Wholesome Story believe that healthy communities require community effort, so we advise you to keep your healthcare community aware and involved in your journey as you pursue better health.