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It's trendy to go low-carb these days, even no carb. And, yes, this can lead to quick weight loss.
But ditching carbs is tough to do over the long haul. For starters, you're swimming upstream. On average, adults in the U.S. get about 50 percent of their daily calories from carbohydrates. And, if you truly cut out all carbs, you'll have to give up fruits, vegetables, whole grains and beans — which are the building blocks of a healthy diet.
So, why do carbs get such a bad rap? Well, as we discuss in our new Life Kit podcast, a lot of us are choosing the wrong kind of carbs.
"We've known for decades that different foods affect the body differently," says Dr. David Ludwig. He's a professor of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health and the co-director of the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center Boston Children's Hospital.
So, let's compare two carbohydrate-rich foods. If you're shopping in the bread aisle, you can pick white bread or a whole-grain bread, maybe pumpernickel or rye. They may have about the same number of calories, but the whole grain has a lot more going for it.
"When you eat a whole-kernel, minimally processed grain ... they take a while to digest. Blood sugar rises relatively more gently. You produce less insulin calorie for calorie," Ludwig explains. Think of whole grains as slow carbs because of this slow digestion. (Other slow carbs include fruits, vegetables, beans and grains.)
Whole grains — which include everything from whole wheat to brown rice to steel-cut oats and farro — are also rich in fiber. A new study published in The Lancet finds that people who eat a diet rich in fiber and whole grains have a reduced risk of Type 2 diabetes, stroke, coronary heart disease and colorectal cancer. (For more, we have this primer on whole grains. )
Here's what to visualize: When you eat whole grain wheat bread, you're getting everything that comes in the wheat kernel. This includes the fiber-rich bran. It also includes the germ, which is the embryo of the seed, so it contains everything that's needed to nurture new life. Think of wheat germ as a little packet of nutrients, including zinc, magnesium and Vitamin E.
But with white bread, all this good stuff has been stripped out during processing. All that's left is starch, which is one step away from turning to sugar in your body. "Refined starch is the hidden sugar," says Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the nutrition school at Tufts University.
And it's not just white bread. Many of the packaged snacks we eat, such as pretzels and crackers, are often made from refined starch. So when you eat these foods, that starch can "slam into your bloodstream, raising blood sugar and insulin," Ludwig says. And this can send a signal to the body to store fat and leave you feeling hungry.
I've experienced this. I know if I eat a scone or chocolate croissant for breakfast, I'm hungry an hour later. But, if I eat an egg and a piece of whole grain toast, I'm set until lunch. That's because I'm getting plenty of fiber — which slows down digestion — as well as fat and protein that leave me feeling sated.
So I've cut back on refined carbs. And the science suggests this is the way to go. The authors of the latest Lancet study say their findings "provide convincing evidence for nutrition guidelines to focus on increasing dietary fiber and on replacing refined grains with whole grains." U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that at least half of your daily grain consumption should come from whole grains. But currently, most Americans under-consume whole grains and exceed the recommended limits on refined grains.
David Ludwig says it's time we "just get off the roller-coaster" — the cycle of spiking blood sugar and hunger that refined carbs can cause. He says aim to replace refined carbs with whole fruits (the fiber in them slows digestion), beans, nuts, a variety of healthy fats and plenty of protein.
So, what does that look like on our dinner plates? David Ludwig has teamed up with his wife, Dawn Ludwig, a professional chef. They've collaborated on cookbooks designed to help people eat smarter.
"I don't want anyone to feel deprived ... or that they have to give up anything," Dawn Ludwig says. "I want to meet people where they are."
Here's how she thinks about building a quick and easy dinner meal. Pick a protein, whether it's plant-based — such as tofu — or meat. Include some healthy fats, such as olive oil. Chop up some vegetables. "Then, have the wholegrain be the side dish," she says. To tie the meal together, try one of her sauce recipes below. (For an example of a complete meal, check out this recipe for Dawn Ludwig's Japanese Buddha Bowl.)
"I do a lot of really simple five-minute sauces that I have in my fridge that I can pull out" for dinner, Ludwig says. She tosses all the ingredients for the sauces in Mason jars and mixes them in the jar with one of those stick-like immersion blender, so there's not much clean-up involved and they store well in the refrigerator.
And, here's one final tip for all of you who have a hard time turning down a baguette, croissant or warm basket of rolls: Eat them at the end of a meal.
Why? A small study published a few years back found that, compared with eating bread at the beginning of a meal, people who saved the rolls for the end had a 30 percent lower peak in blood sugar. Now, this may not have the same effect on everyone, but it suggests that timing matters.
NPR's Maria Godoy contributed to this report.
Dawn Ludwig's 5-Minute Sauces
Cashew Balsamic Dressing
Prep time: 5 minutes. Makes about 1 cup.
2 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons water
1/2 cup neutral-tasting oil, such as high-oleic safflower or avocado oil
1/4 cup cashews
Place all the ingredients in a wide-mouthed mason jar or cup that will fit an immersion blender without splashing. Pulse a few times to blend until the cashews are in small pieces but still chunky. Place a lid on the jar. For best results, set aside for at least one hour to allow the flavors to develop. The dressing will keep in the refrigerator for one to two weeks.
Ginger Tahini Dressing
Prep time: 5 minutes. Makes about 1 cup.
1/4 cup tahini
2 tablespoons white miso paste
1 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
2 teaspoons rice vinegar
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1/2 cup warm water
Place all the ingredients in a wide-mouth mason jar or cup that will fit an immersion blender without splashing. Blend, working the blender into the pieces of ginger until smooth. Add additional water as needed to reach the desired consistency. Place a lid on the jar. For best results, set aside for at least one hour to allow the flavors to develop. The dressing will keep in the refrigerator for one to two weeks.
Prep time: 7 minutes. Makes 2/3 to 3/4 cup.
1 2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and sliced into thin rounds
3 medium cloves garlic
1 3- to 4-inch piece fresh turmeric, peeled, or 1 teaspoon ground turmeric
(optional) 2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
Dash of freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground white or black pepper
9 or 10 sprigs cilantro, stems and leaves coarsely chopped
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
Dash of cayenne pepper, or to taste (optional)
Place all the ingredients in a wide-mouth mason jar or cup that will fit an immersion blender without splashing. Blend, working the blender in the jar until the garlic, ginger and turmeric are smooth. Place a lid on the jar. For best results, set aside for at least one hour to allow the flavors to develop. The dressing will keep in the refrigerator for up to two weeks.
Thai Peanut Sauce
Prep time: 5 minutes. Makes about 1 3/4 cups.
1 large orange, 4 small clementines or 2 large tangerines, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces
1 1/2-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled
1 teaspoon fresh lime juice
1/2 cup peanut butter (no sugar added)
1 teaspoons unseasoned rice vinegar
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
Place all the ingredients in a wide-mouth mason jar or cup that will fit an immersion blender without splashing. Blend until the orange is fully blended and the sauce is thick and creamy. Adjust seasoning to taste. Place a lid on the jar. Allow the flavors to develop for one hour or more in the refrigerator. The dressing will keep for about a week.
These recipes are excerpted from Always Delicious, by David and Dawn Ludwig, and Always Hungry? by David Ludwig and are used with permission.
STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Some people who watch what they eat may be overlooking the most important things. Counting calories is a bit too simple. Cutting carbs is a bit too hard. So what can you do? NPR's Allison Aubrey has a different strategy.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Have you ever stopped to think, what is a calorie? To find out, we're going to bring out a blowtorch.
MATT HARTINGS: If there's anything we chemists know how to do, it's burn things.
AUBREY: That's Matt Hartings. He's a chemistry professor, and we're in his lab at American University.
HARTINGS: What we're going to do is, we are going to burn our food. You ready?
AUBREY: We've got two different kinds of foods here. We've got a piece of white bread, and we've got a little handful of whole-grain wheat kernels.
HARTINGS: So I've got my propane torch here that we're going to use to start this bread. The way it needs to be going.
AUBREY: All right. Let's do it.
Now we need to measure how much heat each piece of food is giving off. That's where the calorie count comes from.
HARTINGS: You see the smoke coming up from in there?
AUBREY: That's a lot of smoke.
HARTINGS: It is a lot of smoke. These things are reacting with oxygen, or burning, and we're measuring the amount of energy that comes off when they burn. Right? It's the same reaction that goes on in our bodies.
AUBREY: It turns out that the white bread we burned has about the same number of calories as the wheat kernels. But...
HARTINGS: How the calories themselves burn in our bodies is different from one food to the next.
AUBREY: And once you understand how this really works, it just may change the way you eat. For me, I realized that if I start the day with a pastry or a bagel, I'm hungry an hour later. But if I eat an egg, I'm good until lunch. It's got some fat and protein.
DAVID LUDWIG: We've known for decades, if not a century, that different foods affect the body differently, apart from their calorie content.
AUBREY: That's David Ludwig of Boston Children's Hospital. He's a physician who founded a weight loss clinic. Now, remember those whole grains we just burned? He says they've got a lot going for them.
LUDWIG: They take a while to digest, leading to a gentle rise of blood sugar and insulin after the meal.
AUBREY: And that's good. But the white bread, on the other hand, is more likely to lead to a spike and a crash in your blood sugar. That's because all the good stuff, like the fiber and the germ, have been processed out. All that's left is the starch.
LUDWIG: According to one way of thinking, these processed carbohydrates raise blood sugar and insulin, and that directs calories more into storage in fat cells.
AUBREY: So eating a lot of refined carbohydrates can make us hungry, maybe put us on a path to weight gain and, over the long term, may increase the risk of Type 2 diabetes. And it's not just white bread. Think of all of the snack foods we encounter every day, even here at the NPR headquarters.
OLIVER DEARDEN, BYLINE: The biggest cause of obesity in the United States is offices.
That's Oliver Dearden. He works on All Things Considered, and he sits just a few feet away from one of the best free-food tables at NPR.
DEARDEN: Open bags of chips...
AUBREY: And some cookies left over from a meeting.
DEARDEN: People are like bees. They'll just come and just swarm around it. It's gone.
AUBREY: And it's pretty clear that none of this stuff has any whole grain left in it. It's just a bunch of refined starch and sugar. So David Ludwig's advice is this.
LUDWIG: Just get off the roller coaster.
AUBREY: In other words, you want to try to cut way back on all those foods that just don't give your body much of what we need.
INSKEEP: Allison Aubrey, I've got a question. What about just going with no carbs, as some people try?
AUBREY: Hi there, Steve. If you try to give up all carbs, you're going to set yourself up to fail. I mean, think of fruit and beans. They are loaded with carbohydrates. But when you eat a piece of fruit, you're getting a lot of fiber. You're getting a lot of micronutrients. When you eat beans, it's a great source of protein. So you don't want to give up all carbs. Instead of going no-carb, why don't you go slow-carb?
And by that I mean you want carbs that digest slowly, like the whole grains we just heard about, the fruits and beans. You know, when you eat rice, opt for the brown rice instead of the refined white rice.
INSKEEP: I guess it's not too hard to avoid white bread. I could just buy wheat bread, or whatever. But on some level, are the bad carbs - if that's the right way to phrase it - are they just going to be very hard to avoid?
AUBREY: They're just sort of empty carbs, and they are hard to avoid. But you can just sort of change the way you shop. I mean, here's what I had for breakfast this morning. This is a three-grain bread, just sort of, like, traditional pumpernickel rye.
INSKEEP: OK. Thank you.
AUBREY: Have a little bite. Now, if you look at that, it's got the grain. It's still intact. Now, that's a sign that it's a whole grain.
AUBREY: Here. I'm going to hand you this little wheat kernel here.
AUBREY: Now, if you were to pop that open, what you would find is a little germ. And I want you to think about that germ as a little packet of nutrients. It's got magnesium. It's got zinc. It's got potassium. All of that stuff is good for you. It's also got a ton of fiber.
But think about it. All that good stuff is stripped out of all of these refined snacks and breads we eat. Do you want to eat that way?
AUBREY: (Laughter). OK.
INSKEEP: But I'm going to eat this bread. It's pretty good. Thank you very much. Am I eating your breakfast?
AUBREY: You are just eating my leftovers.
INSKEEP: OK. Fine. Fine. Do you have any advice for when you don't bring me breakfast, like you just did?
AUBREY: (Laughter). You know what? I'm going let you off the hook here. I'm going to say it's fine to eat those croissants or that baguette out there. Because you know what? It's completely unrealistic to think that these things are going to go away. Right? Like, I love a good croissant. I mean, I'm sure you do, too. I'm sure all of you out there do.
INSKEEP: They can go away when I eat them.
AUBREY: (Laughter) Right. But here's one thing to remember. If you want to eat those kind of things, eat them at the end of a meal. And here's why. The timing of when you eat these refined carbs really does seem to matter. In fact, there was this cool little study done a few years back. It found that compared to eating bread at the beginning of the meal, if you eat bread at the end of the meal, it actually lowered the peak blood sugar of people in the study by about 30 percent, which is big.
Now, this trick might not have the same effect on everyone, but it does suggest that the timing really matters. So think about bread as dessert.
INSKEEP: And lower blood sugar means I don't get kind of a sugar high, I don't crash later, I don't get hungry later?
AUBREY: Exactly. Short-term effect of that would be maybe you don't get hangry. Long-term effect of that is you cut the risk of Type 2 diabetes.
INSKEEP: OK. We want to mention that these tips are from Allison's latest episode of Life Kit. What is that?
AUBREY: OK. Life Kit is our new family of audio guides to help you navigate your life, Steve. We've got one new one coming out today. It's on making smarter decisions when it comes to eating well.
INSKEEP: OK. So eat the bread at the end of the meal...
AUBREY: You got it.
INSKEEP: ...Listen to the podcast before the meal.
AUBREY: (Laughter). You're good.
INSKEEP: Allison, thanks so much.
AUBREY: Thanks, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Allison Aubrey. And you can find Life Kit guides wherever you get podcasts or at npr.org/lifekit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.