Are Carbs Good or Bad?

It depends.  The goodness of Nature is displayed in the root vegetables above.  The whole grains, dried beans and nuts kept in bins at the health food store look pretty good too.  If I wander the center aisles in my grocery store—where the 4 “C’s” of chips, crackers, cookies and candy are found—it gets sketchy.  Farm carbs look good, factory carbs not so much.  Is it that simple?

One thing to remember about carbs—without them the planet starves.  Carbs provide over 60% of energy calories around the world, almost 55% in the U.S.  Carbs are the stuff of life.  The biggest carb crops are rice, wheat, and corn.  To that add legumes and root crops.  There’s also a bit in the other vegetables, as well as fruit, and nuts. 

Carbs have to be humble.  Fats have fancy essential fatty acids like the omega-3s.  Eat them or lose your wits.  Proteins have essential amino acids critical to growth.  But carbs are just a clean-burning fuel that is the best value for energy and nutrients you can find.  Which is where the trouble started.  Factories thrive on cheap raw materials.  The first industrialized products were sugar, polished rice, and refined flours.  In each case vital nutrients were removed to provide white, sweet-tasting carbs with a long shelf life.  Tasty but unnatural. 

These refined carbs introduced a new problem—blood glucose peaks.  You’ll remember from the post The Skinny On Being Overweight that surges in blood sugar elevate blood insulin, and insulin packs the sugar away into our cells as fat and keeps it there.  So a key to solving the national excess of fat is to reverse the process by leveling the blood glucose level.  Real food stabilizes blood glucose and reduces the insulin level, which allows cellular fat to be burned for energy so we can have lean, healthy bodies. 

This works pretty well for most people, but not all.  We’re all different; some can add weight on a diet that others starve on.  In 19th century England there was an obese guy named William Banting who could not lose weight to save his life.  Excuse the play on words.  Long story short, Banting was introduced to what we call a low-carb diet (no bread, beer, sugar, potatoes, etc. and lots of meat), lost his excess weight, and restored his health.  Today the Banting approach to eating is known as the Atkins Diet.  The Paleo diet is a variation of this and the French are rediscovering it as the Dukan diet.

The conflict is that the Atkins Diet replaces grains with meat.  This is a simplification, as the diet also calls for low glycemic index whole foods of all types. (Glycemic index, G.I., is a measure of how fast the sugar in foods gets into our blood.)   Reducing dietary grain in favor of meat is a problem because it runs contrary to food tradition, the Word of Wisdom, and a lot of science.  Should a morbidly overweight person who has tried everything else try this?  It’s a question to take up with your doctor.  Whatever the decision, we wish you well.  Stay in touch and let us know how you do.

For most people, replacing factory carbs with farm carbs is the first step towards better health (and should also help with any excess weight).  The Healthy Changes are strategic steps towards doing this.  Here is some math to keep in mind: 

The recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2010 recommends that carbs comprise about 55% of our calories.  The AHA has recommended that refined sugars not exceed 5% of our calories (on a 2000 calorie diet, 5% of carbs is the recommended 6 tsp.).  Therefore, if we get 50% of our calories from whole carbs and limit added sugar to 5% of calories, a healthy but enjoyable diet totaling the recommended 55% carbs is possible.

Here are ten steps that lower G.I. by returning to whole carbs from the farm:

1. Reduce intake of sugary drinks, and candy.

2. Eat a healthy breakfast of whole grains.

3. Replace polished white rice with brown rice or long grain wild rice.

4. Choose whole grain pasta and prepare it al dente to lower the G.I.  Avoid tomato sauce with added sugar.

5. Eat 2-3 servings daily of whole grains.  See Harvard SPH’s “Health Gains from Whole Grains”. 

6. Apply the “whole grain, more fiber than sugar” rule to chips, crackers, cookies and pastries, and use them as special occasion treats.

7. Restore legumes to the daily diet—they’re the best value in food.

8. Choose fruit over fruit juices, or make your own juice from the whole fruit.

9. Eat more nuts and seeds—they’re high in energy but have other benefits.

10. Eat 4-5 daily servings of vegetables

Planning a weekly menu will simplify your life, improve your health, and save you money.  Please share your experiences—the challenges and the benefits—with menu planning. Later this week we will share a weekly menu plan which you can print and use.

Need a reminder? Download our Healthy Change reminder card. Print and fold, then place in your kitchen or on your bathroom mirror to help you remember the Healthy Change of the week.

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Reader Comments (25)

In order to eat more fruits and veggies this year, I expanded on the family menu (we have a 6 week rotation). It's fun to have a theme for each night of the week (Italian, Mexican, etc.) so I added one fruit and one vegetable to be eaten with each night of the week. For example, on Mexican night, we have corn and sliced peaches. This ensures that we have variety, that I know exactly what to buy, and that we have balanced meals. I also find it helpful to make meals that are mostly veggies with a good sauce and only a little meat, plus a grain like rice or pasta. It saves money!

March 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSacha

Excellent post!

It's almost tantamount to blasphemy to ask people to reduce refined carbohydrates; they'll scream, yell, and kick. The problem is that we've attached carbohydrates so much to white flour products that the unwashed public becomes really confused.

The fact is that most folks reading this blog consume far too many carbohydrates in order to maintain proper glucose levels. This endangers your insulin response and is a major factor in weight gain and diabetes.

It's not often considered, but compare the carbohydrate amounts in vegetables vs. grains. Even if you cut out grains entirely, you'll get plenty of carbs and fiber from vegetables. So really, our fear of running low on carbs is ridiculous !

For me, the easiest way has been to limit my total daily grams of carbs. Then, when I look at a white flour tortilla and realize I could eat several veggies in it's place, the decision becomes easier. Maybe that attack will work for some of you.

March 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterGdub

I meal plan for our family of four. I've found that although I don't always stick to the plan (largely because I'm a spontaneous person by nature) having it there helps me to shop more economically and throughly and it also relieves the hour-before-dinner panic.

Making a soup with homemade chicken stock at least once a week is the heart of my meal planning. We get a CSA veggie share nine months of the year, and so we always have tons of veggies to use. Putting veggies in soup is the best way I can assure that my little girls with get a good variety on a regular basis.

March 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterZane

Will you post a sample menu of what you eat following this rule? I love this blog. And I am inspired to make changes. Thank you.

March 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnnie

I try to plan dinners for Monday-Wednesday on the weekend before we go grocery shopping. Thursday I usually figure out midweek, Friday we make pizza, Saturday and Sunday we make what we feel like having that night...usually a roast of some sort on Sunday. We also get an organic box of fruit and vegetables every other week that helps dictate the direction of our dinners. We eat a mix of poultry, red meat, pork ,seafood and at least one veggie dish (but more often two) through out the week, as well as whole wheat pasta and brown rice. Our latest ritual is a fruit smoothie for daughter and husband love them.

March 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStacey

I usually sit down every Sunday night or Monday morning and plan the menu for our entire week. It is something I find fun and relaxing at the same time. And I find that when I don't do this--if we have a hectic week or something throws us off--we end up spending more money, wasting more food, going to the grocery store multiple times in the same week, and eating a lot more junk!

March 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Once again, I think you have done a great job of discussing this topic in a clear, nondogmatic, and reasonable way. I also appreciate your gentle way of pointing out the potential conflict between the Word of Wisdom and low-carb diets.

March 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterE

I did not grow up in a family that ate "healthy" because I had a single mother who worked hard and really didn't have time to prepare us food. This blog has helped me learn so much. But it also helps me realize how much I have left to learn. Could anyone please offer suggestions of how to get more legumes into my daily meals? I've really never used them and don't know how to incorporate them. Thanks!

March 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStacey

Stacy, a good topic for a future post. Briefly, legumes include peas, bean, and lentils. It's a big family of foods that are economical yet rich in nutrients. Peas are easy, you can eat them as a vegetable and though best in season, are available year around frozen. Ditto for Lima beans. Beans come canned or dried in bags. You can cook dried beans in a crockpot so though it takes time, it's only a little work. Canned beans can be served with flavoring, or added to a salad (garbanzo and kidney beans work well). Beans with rice are a diet basic in Latin America. I'd say more but I think the readers will have better ideas—they're real cooks. Best, Skip

March 28, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterskip hellewell

I've also wondered how to incorporate legumes into the menu. We don't have them much and I know we should!

March 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda D

I am wondering if you are eventually going to post what you eat (on average) during a day or a week, and what time of day you eat it. I love your blog and your diction is certainly easier to digest than industry jargon...but I sometimes don't know how to translate your knowledge into my meal planning. I realize you are doing this as a service and aren't necessarily "taking orders" - but I'd love to see a glimpse of What Skip Eats. Or you can call it Skip Living. :)

March 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

Hey! My good friend just recommended this blog to me. First. My favorite bean recipe right now is black bean soup made with lots of onion, bell peppers, and homemade chicken stock. I blend it with a hand held blender and serve it with home fried tortilla chips, sour cream and lime! SO YUMMY! Glad for the challange to eat legumes daily, I'm going to try that out!
Skip, with all your research have you noticed the Real Food movement, Weston A. Price Foundation, "Nourishing Traditions" by Sally Fallon? There is a market in Orem, Heber and Saint George, Utah "Real Foods Market" that sells only "Real Food". Have you read Elder John Widtsoe's book "A modern Interpretation of the Word of Wisdom" (Find it here: It is out of print unfortunately but Real Foods Market has had it printed to be sold in their store.

Any way, your blog is right in line with all of these resources. I didn't see any mention of them so I just had to ask!
Thank you for your blog! It is a great work to re-teach our society how to care for our bodies with the right food! Thanks for your work!

March 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRachael

I plan our menu for the whole month and try to keep us at two or fewer meat dishes per week. We're great at eating fruits, and most of our main dinner dishes contain a vegetable or two in them, but we definitely are not getting 4-5 vegetables per day. I know part of my problem is that I'm not usually thinking ahead enough to make a side dish (which would usually be a vegetable) along with the main dish. I'm trying to remedy this a bit next month. But, any other suggestions for how to get in the veggies? Particularly at other meals than dinner?

March 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin

Rachel, you mentioned pre-WWII pioneers in healthy food that I admire. I do have the book by John and Leah Widtsoe, both the original 1937 edition and the 1950 revision. Most of what they wrote is still applicable. Not everyone wanted to hear their message but they were resolute advocates of eating whole foods. And I greatly admire Weston Price, a dentist-researcher who worked outside the university establishment and was generally ignored. You know his big point, that dental cavities could be stopped and even cured by a healthy diet with the necessary minerals. As drilling and filling cavities is where the money is in dentistry he was not well accepted. If talking to dentists, I always ask if they have heard of Price and have not yet met a dentist who has. I will check out the Real Foods market; thanks for the the recipe. Best.

March 29, 2011 | Registered CommenterSkip Hellewell

Amen to Rachael's post. I know the owners of the Real Foods Market which is based on the Widstoe's book so I have a copy. We read it for our book club and the owner gave a presentation--life changing info that goes perfectly along with this whole blog! They sell RealSalt, Redmond Clay, and Virgin coconut oil, among other things. Excellent products.

About the legumes....I thought I posted this but didn't take so I'll try again.
I was first introduced to lentils when I spent a summer in Spain.
A 1lb bag costs about a dollar.
I cooked up about a cup of it in 4 cups chicken stock, chopped onions, and added a tsp. each of garlic and cumin--simmered for about 30 minutes. Fed my family of 6. (I have 4 little kids) In Spain they added sausage, I skipped.
There's a super cheap, healthy legume!

March 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLC

Thank you for your common sense approach to the food groups. I recently read a post by a friend who's planning on engaging in the Whole 30 challenge and it made me want to cry. Food on the 'bad list' include any and all beans/legumes, all dairy, all grains and pretty much any root veggies. When will people learn that anything that requires you to cut out entire food groups is nothing but a fad diet that will do you more harm in the end? Alas.

Michael Pollan said it very well in Omnivore's Dilemma. Pasta, one of the most affordable and simplest foods on earth, just flour and water at its most basic, has been demonized by the low-carb diet. Instead of realizing that it was the 32oz. soda and the 1000+ calorie fast food meals that was making them fat, people chose to ditch the homemade spaghetti and instead, get a Whopper without a bun. So ill-advised. I can say it because as a teenager, my family did this diet. I can honestly say, I am still dealing with the adverse affects on my metabolism that crazy fad dieting caused.

I've really enjoyed reading your posts and although I'm not currently committing to ALL the goals you suggest, it certainly has made me think twice about what I buy at the grocery store! In fact, the last time I went I left with nearly an empty cart because I just couldn't bring myself to purchasing half the things I usually do after reading this blog :-) If I could get my husband to be on board with me in following the "healthy changes" I would definitely commit. It's just very hard to do it on your own when you have to cook meals for other people who hate vegetables and other healthy foods.
I've also been reading a food storage / recipe blog that has been focusing on the use of beans for the month of March. I'm not sure if I'm supposed to paste in a link but here it is.
The gal gives some very helpful recipes along with techniques on how to cook and use them in many different ways. Her focus is more on food storage, but it's nice to know that you can have food storage and eat healthy as well.
Thanks for all of the great info! Keep it up!

March 30, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChelan

I have menu planned since I started living with my boyfriend, and I would never go back. It saves unnecessary extra trips to the shop, usually helps with not buying any unnecessary extras - as long as I'm not hungry when I shop. It's one of the best things I do week to week to stay organised, and I love food so I enjoy anything to do with it.

I have eaten whole grain carbs for many years, another thing I wouldn't change. I certainly notice the difference when you go out for a meal and you're given a white tortilla, or white rice etc. It just seems flavourless and empty. I have noticed a lot of different theories on whether carb grains / glutinous grains are needed at all, but I don't have any adverse effects so I see no reason to stop.

Love your blog, it just makes so much sense and you make it easy to understand!

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLydia

I have made weekly menues periodically and then stopped again because I got out of the habit. I know life gets so much easier if you keep it up, especially if you eat basically all meals from home (when I had an office to go to, I used to bring lunch to heat up at the office rather than go to the cantine or supermarket) but for some reason I keep forgetting it. For the last 9 months I have gotten a delivery of veggies every other wednesday, if I put the reminder up on the fridge door I might remember to write a menu when I get the veggies. Hopefully!

I love lentil soup, and often do one with an Indian twist by sauteeing chopped red onion and a clove of garlic in some oil together with some curry powder, a pinch of chili and some allspice, add a sliced apple and red lentils and let fry a minute or so, then add vegetable or chicken stock and simmer for 15 minutes. Serve with freh coriander and some bread. I also often add a can of beans to some kind of tomato sauce and serve woth whole rice. Or put some in a stir fry, soup, stew or any vegetable dish that needs some extra protein. Just remember, canned beans need to be rinsed in cold water before they are used.

Also, beans (except for soy beans) do not contain a complete protein unless they are combined with grain (the south American standard rice and beans is a good example of that).

March 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMims


Knowing you have read the work of Weston Price, what do you think about sprouting or soaking grains, nuts and legumes? Do you think it necessary to good health to neutralize the phytates?

April 10, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

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