When I say “carbohydrates,” do you picture bread, bagels, pasta and pastries? Well, yes. But that’s not the WHOLE picture. See the gorgeous plant foods above? These have carbohydrates in them, too, what are called COMPLEX carbohydrates. I want to be clear as a bell that the effects of simple vs. complex carbohydrates on the body are totally different.
Stepping back for a moment, every decade we seem to decide one macronutrient or another is out of fashion. Remember when fats were bad? This decade we’re throwing carbohydrates under the bus. But let’s be careful: carbohydrates include vegetables, nuts, dried beans, lentils and peas, whole grains, and fruits. When you go on a no-carb diet… are you going to skip anti-cancer cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and dark leafy greens?
Keep the nutrient-dense vegetables and whole grains!
Plant foods are PACKED with powerful nutrients and are your FIRST choice for promoting health. Michael Pollan on the cover of his landmark 2009 book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto makes it plain and simple: Eat Food, Not Too Much, Mostly Plants. By which he meant whole foods, not processed foods nor food-like substances. Partaking of whole foods, full of fiber and especially accompanied by health fats, releases insulin slowly into the body. Why does this matter?
Understanding carbohydrates is, of course, critical to prevent and manage diabetes. But are you also taking into consideration our second brain, located in our gut?
It’s a brain chemistry thing.
When you eat a refined carbohydrate (remember Snackwell cookies), it travels from the stomach to the brain, producing dopamine, the neurotransmitter of pleasure! It’s a chemical reaction, affecting the reward center of the brain, which is why you can’t eat just one.
Known as the enteric nervous system, the second brain consists of sheaths of some 100 million neurons embedded into our gut wall. Sugar being addictive… your body just doesn’t know when to stop! Because it’s never enough. Ooops! You just ate a whole bag of pretzels! Better to go for those sweet potato oven fries, so the fiber and the fat s l o w down that release of insulin.
Vegetables good, processed foods not so good!
Does that mean when you’re in Paris, you can’t have a baguette? No, my dear — once will not an addict make. But if you are indulging a lot, responding to that pleasure by wanting more… it’s time to become conscious of your carb intake. What does your plate look like? Keeping simple carbs to a minimum will keep us from getting on that hamster wheel of more, more, more. If you are one of those people who eats 3 bowls of cereal — you know who you are — it’s time to fall in love with vegetables!
The smart carb menu
Must I give up pleasure in avoiding the unhealthier carbs? Heavens, no! Try these delectable options, for example.
Kale is quirky; with the right touch it shines like an emerald and tastes delish, but if you ignore a few key steps it can resemble Astroturf. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much to get on kale’s good side. Once it’s ripped and stripped it loves a bath in olive oil, lemon juice, and salt. This spa treatment break down the kale’s fibers, making it easier to digest (the olive oil’s fat also increases the bioavailability of kale’s fat-soluble nutrients). I’ve included mint, parsley, quinoa, cumin, and coriander in the dish and added one additional surprise: red grapes. There’s something about chomping on a sweet grape that’s just joyous, and the anthocyanins that give the grape its deep color are also phenomenal antioxidants, with other studies showing they may also enhance memory.
This is certainly a case for visuals drawing you to the plate. Served with salmon, this rice—an indigo delight—pops like a painting, beckoning you to come closer, closer . . . and that first bite seals the deal. The rice and bell pepper play delightfully against the creaminess of the avocado, while the mint and cilantro roll all around your mouth like pinballs, blasting taste here, there, and everywhere. This salad enchants all the senses—and the rice is a whole grain as well, feeding the mind in more ways than one.
This simple combination of kale, sweet potatoes, and Mexican spices from Laura Russell’s marvelous book, Brassicas: Cooking the World’s Healthiest Vegetables tastes great on its own as a basic side dish, but it can easily work as a main course, as well. I have added a fried egg to each serving to turn it into a breakfast hash and have used it as a taco filling. It also makes a nifty topping for tostadas: pick up tostada shells (crisp corn tortillas) at the grocery store and top them with the sautéed vegetables, chopped fresh cilantro, avocado cubes, and a scattering of crumbled queso fresco.