Wednesday, August 6, 2008

How Evil is a Molecule?

To come back to the recent discussion on Carbs, recently i've seen more discussions that take it as given that there are good carbs and bad carbs.

This kind of understanding may be Gary Taube's fault for his good/bad dichotomizing of food stuffs.

But let's back up a step here. What do we mean by "bad" or "good" foods. Some folks may say that's obvious - a krispy kream is full of bad carbs - a spinach salad is full of good carbs.

Just to get clear, carbs are sugar molecules which in some combinations are starch (complex) carb molecule formations (more about simple/complex carbs here - with pictures!). So right away the good/bad thesis starts to tremble: what's wrong with a molecule? it's neither innately good or evil if good or evil can be innate, but the carb on the morality scale must be pretty neutral, devoid as we assume it to be of intent.

So what are we likely saying when we talk about 'good carbs' or 'bad carbs' - i don't know, but i'll guess we're actually talking about the foods in which they appear. And that foods that are high in starchy carbs tend to be high in other Bad things like Sugar and / or Salt and/ or processed white flour. Voila the donut or french baguette.

So, why are these things "bad" (and spinach "good"). As per usual, it's about scale, isn't it? about context.

Most of these foods are highly refined, which means most of their nutrients found in their whole product version (whole wheat vs white white) get stripped out. So these food stuffs end up being calorie dense (lots of cals) but very low nutritional value. Hence, eating these means weight gain with low to no nutritional value - they may fill a fast energy need, but may get a lot of the product processed into extra fat we don't want and do nothing for our digestion ( no anti-oxidants, no fiber, few vitamins etc etc)

So, these foods don't do anything for us, really. We indeed often experience them feeling good being ingested and then feel like crap after eating them. So they're "bad"? Bad for us? Will a krispy kream kill?

One? not likely. If we're trying to lose weight, well they cost at least a good half hour of intervals on the bike to get rid of them. Once in awhile? who cares?

It is a pretty good understanding that krispy kreams are not good for us in most circumstances, but that's not the same as saying they're "bad" for us. Context is important. And most reasonable people get that if they eat one once in awhile, they're not going to have horrible consequences.

So is calling something good or bad really a problem?

Perhaps not, but it seems that such terms (a) do nothing to help people understand why something is not good for us; how to make better food choices that are still healthy (have good quality chocolate rather than a krispy kreme) and taste good and (b) just perpetuates a moralizing head space about bad foods, guilt and puritanical punishment or catholic/jewish guilt that is well sinful (little joke there).

Michael Pollan talks about trends in north american diet where one nutrient is demonized and another celebrated. Carbs were good and fat was bad. Now, it seems, fats are in and carbs are out.

Food is more richly wonderful and complex than the recipe of a krispy kreme. Stupid simplifications that lead to these equally stupid and unfounded dietary prescriptions "reduce carbs! ahhhh!" give us nothing with which to understand our health. Heh, as pollan points out, the health press was wrong about the anti-fat prescription; will anti carb be any smarter?

So let's try to talk about food. Eating a rich pageant of it. Whole food. That's a simple prescription too: eat a variety of whole food types at each meal. lots of colour. if you want to lose weight, eat less of it. that's even simpler than thinking about nutrients - "reduce carbs"

But it's perhaps harder to apply because it may mean learning to cook real food meals for oneself. but is taking the simple way out of Dis the Nutrient good? or is it bad? or just stupid. and therefore a kind of evil of good intentions.

We can handle The Truth: that we need to get real about eating and cooking again and make some time for doing so. Anything else seems to be just cheating. The good news is, based on anywhere besides north america or most of the commonwealth, that means eating a great mix of foods, yum, and not some austere sprig of protestant work ethic parsley.

Eat Well rather than good, perhaps?


Ron Ipock said...


In your last few entries, you've shown that carbs are not the Great Satan and that the world eats too much meat.

Is the implication that we should cut back or cut out meat and replace it with amaranth or quinoa?

As a Precision Nutritionist that isn't a cheerful proposition. I would have to eat 2 cups of amaranth to get my protein.

Of course, I could abandon PN and muscle mass, and sacrifice my physique for the betterment of the globe by eating less protein.

dr. m.c. said...

rip, you're just being willfully evil, i can tell. :)

Since you're on PN you know Ryan Andrews, RD, is a vegan and healthy as a horse and has been posting many posts of late about healthy folks who are vegans and massive or vegan and elite athletes. or vegan and on PN.

You may also know that the Vegan Muscle Poster Boy, Mike Mahler is a PN practitioner.

So your last suggestion that you need to abandon PN to be vegan and an athlete is not supported by the evidence before you.

I'd suggest you head on over to the PN forum thread "living a vegetarian lifestyle" and ask there about the issues around
a) keeping carbs in balance while
b) going to a more carb based protein source
c) maintaining lean muscle mass.

you may be pleasantly surprised.

and by the way i think it's really really cool that you're even exploring this approach as a possibility.

Ron Ipock said...

well, it is summertime and with no students I have to harrass somebody.

PN is fairly clear regarding what I need to do to make this switch. The only variable I haven't figured out is portion size. I experimented with a 1/4 cup of lentils (1/4 cup before cooking). Do you have any input on portions? This will be essential for me since I have little discretion. Being a fairly experienced baker I could easily make and eat a baguette of pain à l'Ancienne before I knew what had happened.

dr. m.c. said...

rip, i promise i'll come back to this - am offsite till next week, but if you don't post this very good question on that forum in PN i'll be sad sad sad. but i will come back to you...

dr. m.c. said...

Rip, as promised, there's a ton of info at PN on these points exactly. you are not alone. Here's the starting post on your query exactly.

let me know what you think


Ron Ipock said...

thanks. The PN forums in which I was looking weren't as helpful. Yours had almost too much. Every link seemed to have two more of its own.

After I boiled it all down and de-sissified the recipes and took out all the fancy ingredients and laboratory products, it seemed rather simple:

eat a cup of legumes (increase/decrease as needed) or some nuts/seeds, eat vegetables as always, eat grains if it is a post workout scenario.

Yesterday, after training with a GS coach, I had two cups of cranberry beans, a green bell pepper, and 1/2 a whole wheat baguette I made.


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