Eat Your Way to Better Health - Tip 3 - Reduce Processed Carbs
Are you on the gluten-free bandwagon? Wow, hasn't that gained momentum over the past couple of years. Now many food manufacturers have also jumped on board to cater for this market. Six years ago I was aware of gluten allergies and intolerance, but I hadn’t made changes to my eating habits in this regard myself. That’s despite my holistic chiropractor at the time muscle-testing me at every appointment and saying, ‘Mandy, you should give up wheat.’ In my head I’d consider it, but when I got home to the realities of life, it just seemed too hard.
Part of the reason it seemed hard was that wheat products included all the convenience foods. I don’t mean takeaway foods, but rather quick and easy food choices like making a sandwich, or having a piece of toast for breakfast. And back then (BGFM – before gluten-free mania) the alternate bread options available were pretty ghastly – more like eating cardboard. And of course wheat was in all those lovely foods I enjoyed – pasta, cakes, biscuits, and did I mention Tim Tams!
Then I started the weight-loss program that involved eliminating processed carbohydrates and grains. I'm sure you've heard of 'low carb' diets and the view that carbohydrates are 'bad'. Well they're not all bad, and we do need some in our diet. The carbs in whole foods such as fruit, vegetables, nuts, seeds and legumes are fine. It's just the processed (refined) ones that are problematic. Processed carbohydrates are plant-based foods that have the whole grain extracted during processing. The process of refining a food this way not only removes the fibre, but also removes much of the food's nutritional value, including B-complex vitamins, healthy oils and fat-soluble vitamins. Sometimes food companies will then infuse the product with some of the nutrients that were extracted once the refining process is complete (crazy system), but this doesn’t always happen. Processed carbohydrates include breads, pastas, snack foods, cereals, and biscuits, as well as many sauces and condiments. (OMG no pasta! Can you hear my Italian ancestors wailing?) And of course many of these processed foods are made from wheat.
So I cut out processed carbs and a funny thing happened. That bloated stomach I had suffered from forever eased. My digestion improved out of sight. Mild skin conditions I’d had for years disappeared. The arthritis I’d started suffering with a few years prior eased (and hasn’t progressed since.) And combined with the other dietary changes I was making, the kilos started dropping off. If you’ve already read my blog about eliminating sugar and the impact this had on me, ditching processed carbohydrates had the next biggest impact. And the good news is if you eliminate processed sugar, you’ll by default eliminate lots of processed carbs as well. These two go hand in hand in a range of processed foods such as packaged biscuits, cakes, deserts, sauces and more.
Ditching processed wheat products definitely changed my health for the better. If arthritis of any kind is an issue for you, I strongly recommend eliminating wheat. Wheat is highly inflammatory, and some believe that arthritis only became prevalent when wheat became a big part of our diet. There are other issues with wheat and grains which are gaining greater awareness too. For example, the implications of genetic modification. And what about the way these foods are grown and produced? Think pesticides. The use of Roundup (glyphosate) is common practice. There are many who believe that sensitivity to wheat is actually not a gluten sensitivity, but rather the adverse effects that the chemicals in wheat have on our body. Yes, these chemicals will still be there in all processed wheat products, unless the wheat was grown organically of course. It amazes me that so many of our food production practices are questionable and are working against our health. The reality is that there’s a lot that’s wrong with the way grains are grown and processed.
Cutting out processed carbohydrates when I was trying to lose weight meant cutting out bread. Bread has been equally as entrenched into our diet as processed sugar has been. It’s not uncommon for people to have toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch and bread as a side dish with soups and dinner. We’ve been told for years to ‘eat more breads and cereals’. Remember the old food pyramid, where 'breads and cereals' held as much weight as vegetables and fruit? It's misleading to say the least because by 'breads and cereals' it actually means whole grain foods, not highly processed ones like white bread and many breakfast cereals. Back in the day when bread was made from chemical-free whole grain flour that wasn’t completely stripped of all its goodness, and was made using traditional methods (as still occurs in some European countries, and is a growing trend for bespoke bakeries here in Australia), it was much more nutritionally sound. Unfortunately a lot of the ‘modern’ bread available through supermarkets, especially the cheaper options that many people rely on, have very little nutritional goodness, and will rarely satisfy our hunger.
What happened when I stopped eating bread while trying to lose weight, apart from feeling the afore-mentioned health benefits, was that I had to find and use other food options. I developed different habits. Of course it’s an adjustment, but it’s amazing how quickly you adapt. For years when I cooked eggs for breakfast I’d have them with toast. Now I add in other goodies in when I cook eggs, such as mushrooms and spinach, and don’t even think about having toast. Another benefit of ditching bread, or cutting back on it, is that you’re also not eating all those things you may have been tempted to put on a slice of bread before, like thick lashings of butter and jam. As I reached my natural weight, I discovered I no longer had any interest in eating bread. That habit had essentially been broken. In fact, the smell that comes from a bakery can actually turn my stomach now. I also know the affect eating bread has on me, particularly if it’s of poor quality, so that turns me off.
As to wheat pasta – well, I don’t miss that either. And there are so many other alternatives available now. If I do get a hankering for pasta, my favourite is made from black beans, and I do eat rice noodles very occasionally. I do not eat gluten-free pasta, and here’s why. Many of the gluten-free products that are overtaking the supermarket aisles now are as highly processed as the original wheat products they aim to replace. In my mind you’re swapping a poor option for a poor option. They have little or no nutritional value. Gluten-free cakes are also usually much higher in sugar content. It’s great that there are more gluten-free substitutes around, but buyer beware. Make sure you read the labels on packages, or if eating out, ask about all the ingredients, not just the gluten. Truly, if you want to go gluten-free, forget the processed gluten-free products and just stick to eating whole foods and nutritionally dense foods (more on this in my next blog) – protein, fruit and vegetables, nuts and seeds, legumes.
It’s pretty ironic to me that I’ve ended up eliminating wheat from my diet as I spent memorable years of my youth living on a farm that grew wheat, and even helped (badly) with the grain planting process. I do eat oats and brown rice 2 – 3 times a week now, so am not strictly grain free anymore. These whole grains don’t seem to affect me in the same way that wheat does. I still avoid over-processed carbohydrates and if I’m baking prefer to use ingredients such as almond meal and buckwheat (misleading name as it’s not actually wheat). The health benefits for me far out-way any desire to go back to old habits, but in fact I don’t crave these foods anymore anyway, so don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything.
How does all of this translate for you? Well, if you’d like to lose weight, I’d suggest cutting out all processed carbohydrates during your weight loss phase. You can get the carbohydrates you need from vegetables anyway. You may find like I did that you don’t want to go back to processed carbs long term, but are OK with including some whole grains. If you do want to go back there, limit the amount and choose better alternatives such as organic and those made with whole grain flour.
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(Please note, the content of this blog is based on personal experience and is for informational purposes only. It’s not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your doctor or other qualified health care provider for any questions you have regarding a medical condition, and before undertaking any diet, dietary supplement, exercise, or other health program.)