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As a lifelong vegetarian, here's what I've learned about carbs
Not all calories are created equal.
My journey into the science of metabolic health started with a routine physical a few months after my baby was born. I skimmed past the test results on my phone as I did every year, expecting to see nothing of mention. Then my doctor’s note caught my eye.
Elevated blood sugar over time (A1c), in pre-diabetic range. Minimize pasta/rice/bread/sweets.
That was it, verbatim. Elevated blood sugar? I felt judged. Maybe I had indulged a little during my pregnancy, but who doesn’t? I knew I had to lose a few pounds (okay, 25, to be precise) but again, who doesn’t? I had reactivated my gym membership (pre-Covid) and expected to be well on my way into shape. I have been blessed, genetically, and never been considered overweight. I had eaten healthy home-cooked food for several months (thanks to my mom and mom-in-law) and felt nourished. I took spinning lessons, come on!
Now onto the advice, which was a bit of a head-scratcher. Minimizing the sweets was a no-brainer, and easy to do because I’ve never had much of a sweet tooth. Why did I need to minimize the pasta, rice and bread? And what was I supposed to eat instead? Lunch was usually rice-based with plenty of vegetables, or a sandwich at the office. Dinner was often rotis with dal and vegetables. I can make a mean pasta, so we’d have that a couple of times a week. But this was all healthy, right? It was home-cooked, so it had to be.
That’s when I started to do my research. I learned that white carbs from starchy foods are broken down almost as fast as sugar in your body - and you can eat a whole lot more pasta than you can eat sugar! I learned that ‘whole wheat’ today usually meant ultra-processed wheat in modern mills, that still metabolized pretty darn fast to glucose. I learned that I wasn’t eating nearly as many vegetables as I was supposed to. I learned that I didn’t need to avoid fat. And I learned about insulin resistance and the science behind why we put on weight.
Carbs break down into their component sugars in your blood when consumed. Insulin is then released by the pancreas and set to work to “unlock” your cells to use glucose for energy. Any unused energy is stored as fat. Refined (simple) carbs like white rice, pasta and bread that have been stripped of their fiber and germ break down immediately into glucose and cause a sharp insulin spike - think “sugar rush” - while whole (complex) carbs such as whole grains, beans and non-starchy vegetables take longer to break down and cause a lower spike. Eating sugary and starchy foods often becomes a vicious cycle - as your blood sugars get depleted - “sugar crash” - you feel like eating again and the cycle repeats. Over time, the body can become “resistant” to the insulin (ever yell at someone so often that they stop listening?) and you need more and more insulin to do the same job.
The high levels of insulin in your blood encourage fat storage. However, your body isn’t able to use the fat for energy and cries out for more food - thus the paradox of carrying around energy in the form of fat and still being hungry. Eventually, when blood sugar levels get out of control because your pancreas can’t keep up the insulin production, you are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and prescribed insulin. But you become insulin resistant long before you become overweight or diabetic.
Even if you don’t follow the ultra-processed Western diet of cereal, pop-tarts and TV dinners, you are probably eating too many refined carbs. It’s hard to avoid, particularly if you’re vegetarian or vegan. It’s hard to find a satisfying main course that doesn’t have white rice or bread or noodles - they spell comfort. And with busy and stressful lifestyles, we are always reaching for comfort whether cooking at home or ordering in. I certainly was, and I have been eating this way for years, long before I had my baby. Our diet has transformed from whole foods to a refined, high-glycemic version within a couple of generations - along with the advent of industrialization, modern mills, the “low-fat” craze, sedentary lifestyles and stress. As Michael Pollan writes in In Defense of Food, refined grains and flour became easier to store and transport because even pests would not eat them - they were so devoid of nutrients!
Insulin resistance is deeply linked to almost all modern-day chronic disease - diabetes, cancer, heart disease, PCOS, obesity and hell, brain disease. Did you know Alzheimer’s is being called “type 3 diabetes” now? Dr. Ben Bikman, in his groundbreaking book, Why We Get Sick, weaves together all of these eloquently and paints a vivid picture of an epidemic we rarely hear about but is all-pervasive: it is estimated that at least half of all adults in the US, India, Mexico and China as well as many other countries may be insulin resistant. Most have no idea until they are in the pre-diabetic or diabetic range.
But here’s the good news. Insulin resistance can be reversed significantly through diet control. Reduce or eliminate refined carbs and added sugar, focus on your protein intake and don’t be afraid of fat from whole foods. Also, reduce your eating window -i.e., fast for at least 12 hours or longer if you can, between dinner and your first meal of the day. When you do this, your body gets “trained” to become metabolically flexible - it is able to switch its energy sources from carbs to your stored fat. Doctors like Mark Hyman, Jason Fung, Michael Mosley and journalists like Gary Taubes who have done the research have been shouting this from the rooftops for years - see my recommended resources section at the bottom for a great selection of books on this topic.
Convinced of the rationale behind this theory, I transformed my cooking and started to follow a moderately low-carb diet. I ate tons of vegetables, all my favorite legumes, unrefined oils, full fat dairy, eggs and some whole grains. I fasted 12-14 hours a day, sometimes longer. A few months in, I had lost all of my pregnancy weight and a follow up at the doctor revealed normal A1c. More than anything, I found my energy levels elevated. This was a sustainable way of life, and a revelation to me.
While my turnaround was not very dramatic, others have reversed their type 2 diabetes or even reduced their cholesterol medication with this approach. So many long-term vegetarians struggle with chronic disease - chances are you know someone near and dear to you. It starts with awareness - even omnivores turning to plant-based food these days can avoid these pitfalls if they understand how to replace the meat in their diet the right way.
I wrote a cookbook and created We Ate Well to share my recipes and make eating healthy easy, fun and most importantly delicious. But I also want this website to be a resource for my readers to understand why and how to eat healthy - to be mindful of what you eat. It’s going to be a joyful journey, as we explore traditional cuisines of the world, highlighting their uniqueness and rejoicing in their commonalities. And it’s going to be sustainable, because we want to make the right choices both to save ourselves and our planet. Join me on this journey. Looking back, you’ll know you ate well.
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Recommended resources: these are books or research I have leaned on heavily while learning about this topic.
Bikman, Benjamin. 2020. Why We Get Sick. Dallas: BenBella Books, Inc.
Fung, Jason. The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss (Why Intermittent Fasting Is the Key to Controlling Your Weight). Vancouver/Berkeley: Greystone Books.
Hyman, Mark. 2012. The Blood Sugar Solution: The UltraHealthy Program for Losing Weight, Preventing Disease and Feeling Great Now! New York: Little, Brown Spark.
Mosley, Michael. 2020. The Fast 800 Diet: Discover the Ideal Fasting Formula to Shed Pounds, Fight Disease, and Boost Your Overall Health. New York: Atria Books.
Pollan, Michael. 2008. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto. New York: The Penguin Press.
Pollan, Michael. 2006. The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New York: The Penguin Press.
Taubes, Gary. 2008. Good Calories, Bad Calories: Fats, Carbs, and the Controversial Science of Diet and Health. New York: Anchor Books.
Bhardwaj, Bhaskar, Evan L. O’Keefe, and James H. O’Keefe. 2016. “Death by Carbs: Added Sugars and Refined Carbohydrates Cause Diabetes and Cardiovascular Disease in Asian Indians.” Missouri Medicine Sept.–Oct.