7 Surprising Facts about Carbs

Carbohydrates! Brain-fueling building block or fat-building boogeyman? Friend of athletes or enemy of Paleo-dieters? To eat or not to eat, and if to eat, how much? There are so many questions swirling around the concept of carbohydrates. With so many popular diets focusing on elimination of carbs, it’s easy to view them as an undesirable, if not dangerous, presence in your food.

While I can’t answer all the above questions, as a dietetics student, I have been learning my fair share about this one of the three “macronutrients” required for human life (the other two are protein and fats). I won’t say you should go out and carb-load yourself into oblivion, but, you know, they’re kind of essential to you continuing to live, so…

See? Even the Aliens guy says so.

Regardless of how you incorporate carbohydrates into your diet, they are a fascinating supporter of the body’s many functions. So for your information, here are just a few of the surprising things I’ve learned recently about them (and why they are so critical):

1. The brain is the only carbohydrate-dependent organ in the body. The brain exclusively uses glucose, a basic simple sugar carbohydrate, to function. And since your brain cells need twice the energy of any other cells in your body, give the man some dang glucose!

2. Some animal products contain carbs. Thought you couldn’t consume any carbs from animal sources? Surprise! The lactose in milk and other dairy products is a disaccharide, which means it’s a sugar, which means it’s a carb.

3. The name “carbohydrate” tells you what it contains. The chemical structure of carbohydrates is a carbon backbone with hydrogen and oxygen molecules attached. “Carbo” means carbon and “hydrate” means water–H20 (hydrogen and oxygen).

4. Carbohydrates are the only fuel source metabolized fast enough to support hard exercise. For an active person, a low-carb diet would definitely not be a wise choice. With a limited supply of carbohydrates in the body, engaging in hard exercise will result in low energy, muscle fatigue, and even mental fog.

5. Fiber is actually a carbohydrate–technically. While the body cannot digest fiber (and that’s why it passes through), it is technically a complex carbohydrate, since it’s typically made up of long chains of sugars. Unlike other carbs, it doesn’t provide energy to the body, but it still counts as one! Who knew?

6. The dramatic weight loss at the outset of a low-carb diet is usually water weight. Your body stores carbs in glycogen in your muscles and liver. When your diet does not provide adequate carbohydrates, your body must call upon its reserves, meaning it releases the glycogen, which is bound up with a whole lotta water. As your body burns through the glycogen, the water is also released, meaning the initial “success” of a low-carb diet may not be what it seems.

7. Final word: carbohydrates are the most important energy source for the body. Your body wants to use carbs. It stores them in reserves to make you use them, even if you stop feeding them to yourself. They are utterly essential to life and health, and they contain no more calories than any other macronutrient. In short, healthy sources of carbohydrate are your friend and in my humble dietetic student’s opinion, should be embraced, not avoided.

10 Things You Didn’t Know about Food Labels

I’m old enough to remember the days before the Nutrition Facts labels. It was 1990 when George H. W. Bush signed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act into law. I may have only been eight years old at the time, but I remember those little black and white rectangles suddenly showing up on food packages (about the time Beauty and the Beast came out, according a child’s powers of association). Now, though, it’s hard to fathom a time when consumers didn’t have access to information about the nutritional contents of their purchased foods (and, come to think of it, a time before Be Our Guest couldn’t get stuck in my head for days on end…). I certainly rely on label reading to be sure I purchase the healthiest, safest, least processed foods as reasonably possible for my family. Obviously, the best diet would be heavy in foods that don’t come with a Nutrition Facts label–fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs straight from a local chicken, etc.–but even the most devoted whole-foods-dieter has to break down and buy some M & Ms sometimes, right?

Bless me, Father, for I have sinned…(these bread crumbs were the worst thing I found in my pantry).

As I’ve pursued my interest in food and nutrition through lots of reading and taking some dietetics courses, I’ve gained some inside info on the whole Nutrition Facts game. Here are several things I didn’t know until recently. Stick with me as I let you in on the secrets…

10 Things You Didn’t Know about Food Labels

1. 2% or less: Seen this one before? I used to (blissfully ignorantly) assume that everything on the giant list following this phrase comprised 2% or less of the total contents of the product. Nope. “2% or less of the following” means 2% of each of the ingredients listed. Therefore, if 15 ingredients come after this phrase, up to 30% of the product could be contained in this list. Yikes. Also, for these lists there is an exception to the rule that ingredients be listed in descending order by weight. So once you see that 2%, it’s pretty much a free-for-all.

2. “Natural flavors”: You’d think that “natural” flavor was preferable to “artificial” flavor, right? After all, I’d rather eat a natural chicken than some artificial robot chicken, wouldn’t you? Well, come to find out, “natural” flavors are not as straightforward as all that. Under the Code of Federal Regulations, “natural” can mean anything derived from a natural source, such as plant or animal products (as in, not derived from chemicals). This provides a pretty wide range–as this article puts it, “from bugs to beaver butts.” Literally. Castoreum is extracted from beavers’ anal glands, and certain food dyes are insect-derived. But it’s natural!

3. Trans fat loophole: If a food contains .5 grams or less of trans fat per serving, the Nutrition Label can round it down to zero. That means if a product with, let’s say, .45 grams of trans fat has five servings, eating the entire container means you have consumed 2.25 grams of trans fat. Research has repeatedly shown that even a modest intake of trans fats significantly raises the risk of cardiovascular disease. The thing to remember is that trans fats occur when fats are hydrogenated, so if the ingredient list includes anything “hydrogenated,” it contains trans fats.

4. Don’t be afraid of everything with a long and/or unfamiliar name. Yay, something positive! Mixed tocopherols, for example, which you often see in cereal ingredient lists, are simply Vitamin E. Then again, L-cysteine, used in breads and other baked goods, is a frequently made from duck feathers or human hair….and the sodium benzoate in your soda is used as rocket fuel. So just do your research.

5. Soluble and insoluble fiber: Some Nutrition Facts labels offer the extra details of a food’s fiber–how many grams of soluble or insoluble it contains. What’s the difference between the two? Soluble fiber is, as it sounds, dissolvable in water. This means it can bind fat to help lower cholesterol, as well as reduce high blood glucose. Insoluble fiber, on the other hand, does not dissolve in water–so it’s certainly not gonna dissolve in your intestines. This is a good thing, though, as this is the fiber that absorbs fluid as it makes its way through your digestive tract. Translation: this is the one you need more of if you suffer from The Big Block-up.

6. Sneaky sugar: Sugar is sugar is sugar. You may pat yourself on the back as you consider how those Kashi granola bars use brown rice syrup instead of high fructose corn syrup, but keep in mind that’s still sugar. The sugar wolf has many sheep’s disguises. Alternate names for sugar include: maltodextrin, brown rice syrup, glucose, sucrose, dextrose, lactose, maltose, evaporated cane juice, crystalline fructose, sorghum, and barley malt syrup.

7. Courtesy calculations: The Nutrition Facts label has a couple of what I call “courtesy calculations,” meaning that you can actually calculate these figures on your own. Calories from fat, for instance, mean (of course) how many calories per serving are provided by fat in the food. If you happen to know that 1 gram of fat, regardless of the type, contains 9 calories per gram, you will always be able to determine this yourself. Go check your pantry. Every “calories from fat” figure is approximately 9 times the grams of fat listed.

The second courtesy calculation falls under the carbohydrate figure. You may be aware that sugars are carbohydrates and contribute to the final carb tally on the Nutrition Facts label. (As in, don’t be fooled into thinking you’re getting 15 grams of whole grain carbs when a cereal’s label says “15g carbs” if that cereal also contains 12 grams of sugar.) If you subtract the grams of sugar from the total grams of carbohydrate, what remains is your carbs from starches (like hopefully whole grain).

8. Why alcohol doesn’t have Nutrition Facts: The reason alcohol doesn’t have to have Nutrition Facts labels is that is it under the jurisdiction of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, not the FDA. Keep in mind, though, that the average 5 oz glass of wine has 120 calories and the average beer has 150 calories.

9. Why some labels include things like magnesium and phosphorus and others don’t: It always seems kinda random to me when I see a food label touting its percentage of vitamin K, zinc, or pantothenic acid (What the heck is pantothenic acid?). Well, this is because labeling of any micronutrients beyond Vitamin A, Vitamin C, calcium, and iron is totally voluntary. Products that flaunt their riboflavin all up in your face are just showing off…in a good way.

10. Nutrition Facts font: Okay, last one is a bit of trivia just for fun. The FDA doesn’t require a particular font/typeface to be used, so theoretically, companies could get creative and someday you might see a label in Comic Sans or everyone’s favorite adorable girly font, “Curlz.” Like this:

Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 1/2 cup
Servings per container 2
Eat me! I’m ADORABLE!!!

Seven Ways to Avoid Overeating on Vacation

French toast with berries and eggs over-hard at La Bicyclette, Carmel, CA

My husband Anthony and I just returned from a totally delightful trip to Carmel and Monterey, California to celebrate our ninth anniversary. It was quite possibly the best vacation we’ve ever taken–with no kids for three days, we stayed at an adorable inn,

The Candlelight Inn

slept in until 9:00, rode bikes around Monterey Bay, toured a historic lighthouse,

Pt. Pinos lighthouse, which had a female keeper from 1893-1914 (how cool!)

took in the gorgeous views on 17-Mile Drive, and even attended mass at one of the oldest missions on the West Coast.

San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo Mission

And we ate. Ohhhh, we ate.

Fact: Grown-ups on vacation are allowed to eat Ghirardelli sundaes for lunch.

For me, food can be the highlight of a vacation. As much as I love to cook, it’s exciting and inspiring to eat restaurant food created by real chefs (not to mention the fact that I don’t have to do dishes afterward). Restaurant dining gives me the opportunity to try cuisines I wouldn’t normally have the guts or experience to try at home. Unfortunately, though, day after day of eating out can also leave me wishing I had packed my Fat Pants. I always struggle with finding the balance between savoring the indulgence of restaurant meals and not returning home with a little excess baggage (not the kind you can check at the gate).

On this particular trip, however, I felt I was able to strike that balance better than I have in the past. (Ignore the photo above with the giant brownie sundae.) I’ve given quite a bit of thought to what made the difference this time and have come up with some tips on making it to the end of your vacation without needing the seatbelt extender on the flight home. (And lest you think I’m just some schmoe trying to tell you how to live your life, I am pursuing a dietetics degree….so I’m supposed to know about this stuff!)

Seven ways to counteract overeating/poor eating on vacation:

1. Purchase healthy snacks at a grocery store. When I’m eating meals at restaurants don’t have a pantry or fridge available in my hotel, I tend to get into a panic mode where I think, “I don’t know when I’ll get to eat again! Must stuff myself now!” (Come to think of it, that was pretty much my entire four years of college…probably why I was 30 pounds heavier back then.) Buying healthy snacks to keep in your car or hotel room gives you a buffer. If you know you can snack between meals, you’re less likely to overeat at the meals themselves.

2. Split meals. Yes, I am going to beat this dietary dead horse. Especially if you don’t have a fridge where you’re staying, you won’t be able to take leftovers home anyway, so split ’em up, baby. Split. ‘Em. Up.

3. Don’t feel like you have to order an entree every time you go out. When I go to a nice restaurant where the waiter takes ten minutes to tell about the entree specials, I almost feel this weird obligation to order a full entree. Like they’re going to know I’m a classless brute if I don’t eat their 16-ounce Porterhouse. But you know what? Who cares? There’s no law against soup and salad.

4. At a breakfast buffet, look at your plate and ask yourself, “What would my plate look like if I were eating breakfast at home?” Ah, breakfast buffets–the Achilles heel of every hotel guest. Scrambled eggs in a metal pan you could bathe a toddler in, syrupy fruit cocktail, and the ubiquitous do-it-yourself waffle iron. Would you eat this stuff for breakfast at home? If you’re generally a bowl-of-cereal or two-pieces-of-toast breakfaster, a heaping pile of pancakes and bacon slathered in syrup is not going to hold up to this question.

5. Write down your day’s eating goals. For example, “I will only eat one dessert today” or “I will make sure to eat a fruit or vegetable at every meal today.” Studies have repeatedly shown that this very small act can have a major positive impact on your day’s eating. Take it a step further and keep a food journal of the vacation. You’ll end up with a nice little souvenir to remember your trip by, and you’ll probably be a lot more mindful about what goes in your mouth.

6. Prevent post-full nibbling. At a restaurant, when I begin to feel full (but still have all that time with food in front of me while the waiter gets the check, we pay, etc.) I have a special trick to avert continued nibbling. I put my dirty napkin on my plate as a signal to myself to stop. It grosses me out just enough that I won’t eat off the plate anymore.

7. Drink plenty of water. When we’re away from our normal environment, any of our normally healthy habits can go haywire. You may be accustomed to drinking plenty of water throughout your day, but on a plane, in the car, or all day at Disneyland, you naturally have to be much more cognizant about your fluid intake. Water not only keeps you hydrated for your day’s activities, but can head off food cravings. The body easily mistakes thirst for hunger.

How about you? Do you struggle with eating poorly on vacation? What have you done that helps?