A carb is (not just) a carb [infographic!]

Updated: May 3, 2019

A carb is a carb is a carb, right?

That's the assumption behind the popular suggestion to steer clear of 'white' carbs - bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, grains, sugar.

But is it justified or not?

Like most things, there's an element of truth here. But it's been stretched, sensationalised and simplified into a neat package. The label suggests that all foods that fall under this banner should be treated equally - they lack nutrients, spike your blood sugar and make you fat. This is dangerous and misleading thinking.

I admit that I've had my fair share of carb-phobic moments. And even after learning more about the role of carbohydrates in decreasing chronically elevated cortisol, enhancing thyroid function, supporting hormone production, influencing menstrual cycle regulation and the obvious benefits for athletes around promoting anabolism and fuelling training performance and recovery, my ingrained carb prejudice hasn't been easy to shake. It's easy to fall into old habits. The problem is that often it's the same people that default to restricting carbs that stand to benefit from breaking this mentality.

I've learned to be sceptical of any broad label that claims to apply to many different foods based on a single attribute, especially if that attribute relates to its macros. High carbs. High protein. High fat. These are the criteria used to categories foods today. I used to apply it fanatically. But these days, it scares me. The popular messages about our foods tend to be generic, distorted and sometimes even biased. It's a distraction from asking questions, listening to our bodies and finding the foods that complement our goals.

It's too simplistic to single out an entire macronutrient. Carbs alone are the least of our troubles. It's the processed, chemically laced and inflammatory foods that eliminate other nutrients and fibre that's the bigger issue. Refined grains and packaged foods are usually full of numbers, artificial substances and other manufactured substances that our bodies aren't designed to handle. The danger is that it has become all too common to demonise carbs completely. This can quickly create nutrient deficiencies that hide under the macro surface. And if you treat all carbs alike, you can't spot the differences.

The 'evil' white potato?

The humble white potato is a perfect example of this arbitrary labelling. White potatoes have been cast aside in all of the carbohydrate confusion and demonised as fattening, nutrient deficient and off limits. It's a lot of unnecessary fuss about a little old vegetable.

But the connection ends at 'carbohydrates. Potatoes are whole food and an excellent source of nutrients, in particular vitamin C, manganese and potassium. Actually, these days potatoes are one of my staple sources of potassium (just one potato contains about 1000 mg). And have you noticed that while the white potato suffered all of the blame, the sweet potato attracted a health halo status? It's true that sweet potato is a better source of beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, but it's probably safer to focus on foods that contain vitamin A in retinol form for that because many people can't properly use beta-carotene (the inactive form of vitamin A) to make retinol (the active form of vitamin A) in the body.

And the 'rapidly digested sugar' thing? You've probably come across the glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL). These are general tools that you can use to predict the effect that a food has on a person's blood sugar. High GI carbohydrates are absorbed quickly and raise blood sugar. Your classic culprits include breads, cereals, pasta, potatoes. Foods like potatoes are labelled as high GL because they spike your blood sugar. Fruit also attracts the same sort of labelling. But the GI and GL metrics only really tell us about the likely effect of a certain food in isolation. It's really going to depend on the macro composition of your entire meal. If you're eating a baked white potato all alone, that's probably not ideal for your blood sugar. But a proper meal that contains proteins, fats and plants reduces your body's glycemic response to the foods in that meal because it delays digestion and moderates insulin secretion. Also, how you cook it matters. For example, baked potatoes have a higher GL than boiled potatoes. And research indicates that if you cook and cool white potatoes, this more than doubles the resistant starch content (a prebiotic that 'resists' digestion in the small intestine and feeds microbes in the gut) to about 5.8 grams per 100 grams of food.

Potatoes demand butter and salt! Set your oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Place your whole potatoes in a dish and add about half to 1 tsp of organic grass fed butter or coconut oil to each potato. Use Himalayan pink salt to season. Bake for about 1 to 1.5 hours until delicious (use a fork to test if it's cooked and soft enough to eat.)

You could translate this information into practice like this.

  • If you're fit and healthy, eating to boost your energy or to recover from a training session, enjoy your potato fresh out of the oven to promote easy digestion and maximise the caloric potential of that food.

  • If you love eating potatoes but you're also a couch potato, eat your potato on a plate that also contains protein, fats and fibre. Or, you could refrigerate it and then add it to a home made salad to bump up the resistant starch and reduce the net calories.

The take away message

It's time to look at the broad nutrient profile of our foods. Yes, real foods like potatoes contain carbs, but they contain other things too. The macro and micro nutrient profile of potatoes is completely different to that of a processed loaf of bread or pasta. If you just equate 'potato' and 'carbs' and then see if it fits your macros, you're missing the bigger, nutrient picture.