Have you noticed that the culture of popular nutrition is to be on a “side” of fat or carbs? It’s an interesting phenomenon that’s taken place in the modern western world where, with the abundance of food, comes intense emotion about it!
Well, I hope that if you have found food a topic of stress, and confusion that my feedback here helps lift you out of that funk and brings you back to a place where food is fun and pleasurable, not to mention a source of health!
If you’ve been following the trend of eating more good fats, you might find yourself reluctant or fearful of all things carbohydrate. But the truth is carbs are an important part of good health – there is a synergy between quality sources of carbohydrates and gut function. But before we get into the “guts” of how carbs affect gastrointestinal health, let’s visit a term that may be unfamiliar to some of you: the “microbiome.”
The human microbiome is a diverse assemblage of trillions of microorganisms living in and outside the body and it’s the subject of a vast body of emerging research revealing links to cognitive development and mental health, immune function, healthy weight management, and cardiovascular health, to name a few.
These microbes live in our hair, in the gastrointestinal tract, our mouths, teeth and gums, the sinuses, the vagina and urogenital area, and within and on our skin. Like our fingerprints, no two humans have the same microbiome. And it appears that the more diverse our microbiome, the higher our immune resilience and protection against disease. This is because more than 70% of all immune cells reside in the gastrointestinal tract, and the greatest concentration of bacteria in our microbiome occurs here.
Both internal and external influences can create imbalances in the finely tuned microbial community of our gut, including stress, medications, various health conditions and, most importantly, our diet. And that leads us back to carbs.
Many of the sources of information about carbs these days might lead you to believe that all carbs are evil and counterproductive to good health but there is no one-size-fits-all blanket recommendation on carbs, it’s more about the type of carbs you choose and when you eat them that actually make carbs key players in supporting your gut microbiome and productive contributors to your health!
Additionally, just like some people are less tolerant to the casein in dairy or perhaps have a food sensitivity to corn or eggs, some people are less able to tolerate carbohydrates. So it’s worth repeating that each of us deserves the freedom to eat the type and amount of carbohydrate most suitable for our unique needs. What works for your best friend may not work for you – and that’s okay. Here’s why.
Fat First, Carbs Last
The low-fat, ‘fat is evil,’ ‘fat will make you fat’, ‘fat is unhealthy,’ craze of past decades was wrong. For years, dietary fat was portrayed as the primary reason for heart disease and many other maladies. And so we replaced it with loads of sugar and other junk that actually wreaked havoc on our health.
Evidence now shows that fat does not clog our arteries, or raise cholesterol, and doesn’t necessarily make us gain weight. On the contrary healthy good fats play an essential role in helping us achieve optimum health. Fat is the only “neutral” macronutrient we eat that does not promote the release of insulin. Instead, fat can prevent erratic spikes in blood sugar as well as keep you satiated. Best of all, fat promotes our natural cellular detoxification process known as autophagy.
When you eat fat is nearly as important as the intake of fat itself. Fat intake at the time of waking seems to improve the fat metabolism process and you’re satiated throughout the day. Perhaps one of the most interesting and helpful reasons to have fat first is that it carries the flavor in the food. The more fat you eat, the less sugar and salt your taste receptors require to register satisfaction. We’re biologically wired to feel pleasure from food, and fat is the macronutrient that most satisfies this need for pleasure. I encourage you to embrace healthy fats, such as those found in cold-water fish including salmon and sardines. Other healthy fat providers are olive oil, nuts, and seeds, and avocados—more details about the types of fat to use for boosting autophagy can be found here.
So now that we’ve talked about fats first, let’s revisit the link between what carbs to eat when to eat them, gut health and overall wellness. When you first wake, your body is nearing ketosis— a natural metabolic state in which your body uses fat as fuel in the absence of carbohydrates — which is one of the best ways to boost autophagy. Saving carbs for later in the day can maximize your energy levels and performance, plus prolong autophagy. Here’s why: Carbs can kick you out of autophagy and also cause blood sugar spikes and crashes, and result in sluggish performance, brain fog and low energy. Your body can use carbs for energy and fuel certain organs, and simply eating them later in the day helps you avoid the blood sugar roller coaster, as your body can utilize and process them while you’re sleeping. By always starting your day with fat first and ending with carbs last, you can reap the cell-renewing, life-enhancing and life-extending benefits of autophagy every day.
So now that you know when to eat carbs, which ones should you eat? Well just like with the fear of fat in previous decades, carbs should not be feared but (just like with fat) do consider that the quality and type you choose matters. When you eat foods high in refined and processed carbs, such as cookies and plain bagels, your blood sugar level rises. If you eat these foods on a regular basis, you could be setting yourself up for insulin resistance and diabetes. I recommend plant-based, fiber-filled, vitamin and mineral-rich, carbohydrate sources that help increase the body’s sensitivity to insulin, allowing for a slow and steady release of fuel to keep your energy consistent and balanced.
Some examples of high-quality carbohydrate sources include:
- Whole grains (Non-inflammatory): Quinoa, buckwheat, oats, millet, amaranth and black rice.
- Starchy Carbohydrates: Sweet potatoes, squash, lentils, beans, beets.
- Non-Starchy Carbohydrates: Greens, chicory/Belgian endive, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, mushrooms, arugula, cabbage, celery, radish, etc.
- Herbs: basil, cilantro, dandelion greens, thyme, parsley, etc.
The Link between Healthy Carbs, Healthy Gut and Autophagy
I want you to appreciate the connection between carbohydrates, gut function, and wellness. Not only do high-quality carbs help keep your energy level on an even keel, they provide fiber which travels through the digestive tract and feeds the bacteria in your intestines, where they are converted to short-chain fatty acids (SCFA’s) that actually improve your health.
- SCFA’s support the health of the gut lining which greatly affects overall health
- SCFA’s have been suggested to play a role along with probiotics in decreasing risk of metabolic syndrome which is linked to abdominal obesity
- SCFA’s along with healthy fiber and good gut flora are linked to defense against colon cancer, not just fiber as previously thought.
By feeding your gut microbiome with healthy versus junk carbs you promote a healthy balance of intestinal flora and SCFA’s which can affect sleep, digestive health, inflammatory response, disease risk, a healthy weight, good mood, skin health, hormone balance and overall health. Additionally, healthy gut microflora is critical for sending signals that turn on autophagy and remove damaged parts of your cells.
In my New York Times Best Selling Book, Glow15, I talk in detail about the critical role of healthy sources of carbs and fats, and when to eat them to maximize your autophagy. You can order the book here to get a head start on your glow. Meanwhile, eat those good-for-you healthy fats, stay away from the empty carbs and discover your renewed energy and sense of well-being.