First it was a fear of fat, now it seems to be carbs. Have you found yourself asking with the increase in popularity of low carb and high fat or ketogenic diets – “are carbs bad for you?”
While I wish the answer was cut and dry, it’s not and part of the reason why so many are confused about what to eat. Believe me, if you find the circle we seem to go in elevating one macronutrient at a time as if it’s the best things since sliced bread to then calling it the devil for making America fat… I’m right there with you.
Maybe we can blame diet books and marketing for that, Perhaps it’s the press that only looks for a snazzy one-sided take in order to keep readers attention. Or maybe it’s that the science of nutrition is still pretty infantile considering no one focused on it until 1785. Regardless, today’s interview will interest you immensely!
My guest is going to answer this frequently asked question, “are carbs bad for you?” The answer will probably surprise you!
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Are Carbs Bad For You? (The Answer Will Surprise You) with Dr. Alan Christianson
Jennifer Fugo: Welcome back to the Gluten Free School Podcast. I’m your host, Jennifer Fugo. I’ve got a really amazing guest for you today and we’re going to talk all about carbs. Carbs have been a huge topic in the health and wellness world whether you’re going to go low carb or eat a fat-based diet (ketogenic) or maybe you’re just eating gluten-free and you’re a little concerned about the amount of carbs that exist in your food and food products. Well, we’ve got the guest who’s going to answer many of our questions today.
His name is Dr. Alan Christianson. He is a Phoenix, Arizona-based naturopathic physician who helps people overcome adrenal and thyroid disorders and achieve lasting fat loss and vibrant energy. He is the author of the bestselling Complete Idiot’s Guide to Thyroid Disease, Healing Hashimoto’s: A Savvy Patient’s Guide, and the New York Times’ bestseller called The Adrenal Reset Diet.
Dr. Christianson is the founding physician behind integrative health care and the founding president of the Endocrine Association of Naturopathic Physicians. He trains physicians internationally on the treatment of obesity, thyroid disease and hormone replacement therapy.
Dr. Christianson, welcome to the podcast!
Dr. Alan Christianson: Hey, Jennifer. Thank you so much for having me!
Jennifer: I would love for you to start off by explaining to everyone exactly what carbs are. We talked a lot about carbs, but I think there is a nuanced conversation that’s not had a lot of times such that women don’t fully understand what it means to eat carbs – low carb, high carb, complex carbs. So what’s the very fundamental basics of what’s a carb?
Dr. Christianson: When you go way down to the chemistry, carbohydrate is a hydrocarbon. It’s a simple molecule that’s a chain of carbons with hydrogen atoms attached to it and it’s fuel. It’s a funny thing, it’s our body’s most important fuel. If we don’t have glucose, which is a carb in the bloodstream, we can go into a comma and die.
And there are alternate ways we can make it besides just eating carbs, but ultimate, it is the body’s most important fuel.
Jennifer: With carbs comes this whole idea that they’re going to make you fat. Do carbs cause weight gain, or even obesity?
Dr. Christianson: Well, carbs are a big category. I started writing on this in the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. That was a time when pretzels and jelly beans were health foods because they were fat-free. I remember there was this crazy idea that came out at one point where someone discussed about these Mediterranean oils like, “Hey, maybe olive oil is not all that bad if you have just a drop of it” and we tentatively tested the waters and realized, “Wow! Maybe fats are okay.”
There had been a lot of big studies on high carb versus low carb. If you go two years out on a diet, it honestly doesn’t matter as far as how effective it is for weight loss. So just going low carb long-term doesn’t make a big difference alone. Carbs have got a place. I think that the discussion you want to have is looking at the right carbs to eat in the right amounts, but also, at the right times.
Jennifer: And for women who have these ideas that if they go low carb (we see all these man who go low carb and they end up very ripped and in shape, granted they’re exercising and all sorts of things), I have heard that some women don’t exactly have the same benefits of going low carb. And sometimes, it can even be contraindicated for women to go too low carb. Is that a possibility?
Dr. Alan: Totally possible and here’s the reason. Women’s body have got a lot of things that are more complex. You’ve got the menstrual cycle going on wherein your body’s system of regulating your blood sugar has to do back bends and twists and what-not to manage your menstrual cycle.
Also when you come up on perimenopause and menopause, the same systems that regulate blood sugar, they’ve got to work harder.
And you can convert your muscle into glucose. You can very slowly turn fat into glucose, but to do so, you’ve got to use the stress hormone cortisol. Your menstrual cycle and the process of perimenopause make all that a lot harder.
Jennifer: That might be why women might not feel as well going low carb or just too low carb from where they perhaps should be… that optimal point where they feel good.
Dr. Christianson: For sure! And a big tie-in here is the stress response and also the sleep response. You need to make serotonin and melatonin to really unwind during the day and get a good night’s sleep. And if your body is making high amounts of stress hormones to make protein or fat into glucose, then that doesn’t happen. Your body is pushed away from that state of relaxation.
Jennifer: You mentioned the whole idea of perimenopause and menopause. This is a huge point when women tend not to feel well. They feel totally off, their body is changing, they have hot flashes, they feel like their mind isn’t quite as crisp as it was, they feel exhausted, wired at night. Can carbs contribute to this sense of imbalance that they feel?
Dr. Alan: They’re a double-edged sword. The women that blows through perimenopause and menopause easily is a woman who has resilient adrenal glands. What’s happening is that the ovaries run out of eggs around mid-thirties. That causes a big drop in progesterone. And then right around mid-40s, estrogen starts going up and down and up and down. If your adrenal glands are resilient, they can make back-up estrogens and they can also make estrogen blockers to make that process pretty smooth and seamless and happen behind-the-scenes.
But if your adrenals are working overtime to manage your blood sugar, they can’t pick up the slack for this radical change in your ovaries. And that’s why this is a more difficult time for some women than others.
Jennifer: With adrenal glands, do you feel that a swing or spikes in blood sugar can be difficult, like almost a stressor for their body to deal with?
Dr. Christianson: Totally, totally! I’ve had scores of women in perimenopause and they’ve had concerns. Maybe they’re pre-diabetic, maybe their weight wasn’t right, or they’ve had concerns about food cravings at certain times or waking up with their mind racing or hot flushes.
I’ve had them do what we call the “continuous glucose meter.” That’s a device that logs your blood sugar 24 hours a day for seven days a week. So every moment of the day, it scores where the blood sugar is at. I’ve had them make a note when it is that they feel those symptoms. When their mind races at three in the morning or when they get a hot flush or they get an afternoon craving for something sweet, just make a note on that. We go back and look and right at those times, that’s when the blood sugar plummeted.
And then I’ll have them also do a test for cortisol during those times. Their blood sugar plummets and their cortisol spikes during the time that all those symptoms are happening.
So those are all things that by changing the strategies of balancing your blood sugar and cortisol, you can make those things stop.
Jennifer: Cortisol plays a role in the circadian rhythm. So how do carbs play into that? Can it actually affect the circadian rhythm?
For anybody who doesn’t know what a circadian rhythm is, it’s the cycle by which we wake up in the morning when the sun comes up and then go to bed when the sun goes down. That nice, little flow through the day that we’re all accustomed to.
Dr. Christianson: Yeah, I call it the “internal coffee machine.” You make this burst of hormones to wake you up and you shut them off to go to sleep. Carbs could affect that. It’s a two-way street. When your blood sugar is low, you change your stress hormones, but your stress hormones can also change your blood sugar.
The new concept that I’ve brought up in the Adrenal Reset Diet is that in the morning, if you have a good high protein, lower carb breakfast, that’ll support the cortisol awakening response. And then at the night, if you have a healthy meal with veggies, quality protein, but adequate amounts of healthy, good carbs, that can support the night time shut down of cortisol that gives you deep, rejuvenative sleep free of hot flushes.
Jennifer: But what time should dinner be at?
Dr. Alan: Yeah, great question. You don’t want to eat right before bed because then, it’s going to come back out. You’re going to get reflux issues. So for most people in most time zones, assuming a bed time of like 9:30 to 10:30, 6:00 is a great time for dinner.
Jennifer: Okay. Now, here’s a question that I have been dying to ask you. I have a beef with certain gluten-free products like gluten-free bread, for example. I’m not the biggest fan. I would really love to know what your opinion is on how gluten-free products could potentially play a role in this whole energy imbalance, perhaps even contributing to weight gain and maybe even a dysregulation of your adrenal glands. Where do you stand on that?
Dr. Christianson: For sure, awesome question. The acronym I use is GFC, ‘gluten-free crap’. Somewhere along the way, gluten-free processed foods, they’re still processed food.
Jennifer: That is so true.
Dr. Christianson: If you imagine that you took a warm surface like a hot street or something where the asphalt is hot and you were to put a shovelful of snow on the hot asphalt. And next to that, you had a big block of ice, a foot on each dimension and you spread out the snow really thin. Well, that snow is going to melt by the time you spread it out. But that ice is going to be there for hours.
You want foods that are like the block of ice that take your body time to digest and break down. You don’t want foods that melt instantly like that snow. That’s what sugar does.
Flour products, in general, even gluten-free flour products, they can be tough on your blood sugar. And in many cases, those same things have a lot of the same random, synthetic chemicals that other processed foods have.
I’m a big fan of the gluten-free grains within the context of getting your good carbs, meaning intact whole grains over flour products.
Jennifer: Now, here’s another good question because people tend not to believe me when I say this. But I know it’s true. I’m actually in the process of doing my master’s degree in nutrition, so I’m studying all about these basic stuff and sharing it with my audience. When you eat carbs, they get broken down into very basic units, a.k.a. monosaccharides. I figured you’re the expert. So is it true that when you eat carbs, no matter whether they’re complex carbohydrates or not, it does get turned into sugar at the end of the day to get absorbed?
Dr. Christianson: For sure. And I always make a distinction between sugar to a chemist and sugar to a baker because they’re different concepts. Yes, carbohydrates in the blood stream do all become sugar. That’s called glucose. But that’s not the same as sugar to a baker. That’s not the same as consuming a processed sugar like sucrose.
The funny thing is that I’ve watched some people that do no carbs. When we monitor their glucose scores on that continuous meter, many of them have blood sugar that gets too high. So whether you eat carbs or not, your body is going to make glucose. And even if you’re burning ketones, your body is making that into glucose.
So there’s no way you can get away from sugar in that sense of sugar in your blood stream. You couldn’t. You’d go into a comma if you did. You would die if their availability was too slow. You’ll always end up with glucose in your bloodstream no matter what you eat. The trick is how much is there and how much insulin it takes to manage that.
Protein and fat also cause your body to make insulin, especially protein. So the trick is you don’t really correct your blood sugar by never consuming foods that become sugar, you correct it by consuming foods that allow you to have stable and steady blood sugar.
Jennifer: As far as someone going to the grocery store looking at nutrition labels, is it important that they at least have a sense of how many carbs are in – we’ll just say the ‘gluten-free muffins’ that they buy. I tend to tell everyone you want to have a sense of how many carbs are in there.
It’s not that you want to eat below a certain amount. I don’t know that everyone should eat low carb or any particular diet. I think everyone’s diet should be unique to themselves to best support their own unique system. But it’s about having some really simple way to kind of identify carbs on a nutritional label.
Do you ever have any tricks that you share with patients, something practical that they can use when they go to the grocery store to understand that?
Dr. Christianson: For sure. If somebody is really out to improve their health, don’t get the foods that have long ingredients list. And you are also really right in terms of amounts.
The calorie model and the counting food model, it’s gotten a bad rep in some ways that it deserves and in some ways that it doesn’t deserve. So the calorie model, if you have controlled environments, it tends to work. But it doesn’t explain why we’re hungry. The weight of obesity in animals and humans is totally skyrocketing. The calorie model has no reason for that whatsoever. Yes, you can say that when someone is gaining weight it’s because they’re taking in more calories. But you’ve to figure out why.
That’s the trick about the health of the adrenals and your blood sugar rhythm. When those things are stable, you’re burning fuel effectively and your body is not storing all of it. When you’re in storage mode, you want more food than you’re burning because you’re storing all of it. So yeah, it’s good to be aware of amounts still.
I encourage thinking about just simple food volumes. Roughly the size of a golf ball as far as any dense carbohydrates, that’s a max for your breakfast. And about a baseball for your dinner is a max for your dinner. Between the two for lunch. So you have less in the morning, more later in the day and some easy visual cues for that.
Jennifer: Okay! So let’s even get more specific here. What would be some of your favorite carbohydrate sources then that you would recommend to your patients?
Dr. Christianson: Easy thing! The best carbs have the most fiber and the most types of fiber. We’ve got soluble, insoluble and resistant. And the worst carbs have the most fructose.
With that perspective, beans and legumes are just incredible in terms of the fiber load and the delay of digestion. And also, there are really incredible things they do to your bacterial flora. Your body weight is all about your bacterial flora. The types of fibers unique to beans are just powerful for giving you the best flora.
Jennifer: This is so interesting because I’ve interviewed so many people in the last year that are Paleo. They don’t eat beans and yours is on the total opposite end of things. I love it!
Dr. Christianson: If you’re eating beans, there’s a thing called phytic acid. And phytic acid is also called the inositol hexaphosphate. Right now, there’s Phase I clinical trials going on about this stuff as a factor or agent against colorectal cancer.
We’ve got scores of studies showing that with the highest bean intake, you’ve got the lowest risk of colorectal, breast and lung cancer. And also the least diabetes and the least heart disease in Mediterranean diets and also the traditional Asian diets which have shown the greatest levels of health, the greatest amounts of longevity and also the best body weights for millennia.
Jennifer: Wow! That’s really fascinating that they’re doing that kind of work. Science is so amazing. It really is!
Dr. Christianson: For sure!
Jennifer: I want to ask you then how does these all play into your adrenals because I think a lot of women don’t fully understand why they are so tired. They wake up in the morning, they’re exhausted. They try to go to bed at night and they feel like their mind won’t shut up. It’s spinning in circles, thinking about everything that they did. How does this relate to your adrenal glands?
Dr. Christianson: Yeah, good question. When you’ve got a nice flow of cortisol, you wake up alert and energized, you go to sleep, your brain shuts off and you burn your body fat for fuel throughout the day.
When the adrenal rhythm is not working right, it’s all the opposite. Your energy is erratic. You always need sweets or caffeine to boost you up or alcohol to calm you down at night. You can’t sleep well and your body is just storing all of it. That’s all about the cortisol cycle because it’s a storage one.
Jennifer: And for the adrenals to get back on track once they’ve been depleted, what should someone do? Is this something that you recommend people just take into their own hands. Obviously, your book is a great resource for them. But my personal concern – I did end up with adrenal fatigue many years ago and my concern is that a lot of times, people will start tinkering with their own hormones, which I don’t necessarily think is a good idea. But you’re the expert. What do you think? What should people do if they believe that their adrenals are kind of pooped?
Dr. Christianson: Well, there’s disease and there’s dysfunction. Adrenal disease is rather rare. That’s things like Addison’s and Cushing’s. You’re right! Those are medical conditions that requires supervision. I manage those diseases. They’re complicated.
Adrenal dysfunction is very common. It affects many. We did a clinical trial showing that just with a simple diet, you can fix it even if it’s off by a lot. Just by timing carbs in a strategic fashion, you can fix it and get it back on track again.
Jennifer: And how would somebody know though that they were in adrenal dysfunction?
Dr. Christianson: Great question! Also, there are different levels of adrenal dysfunction. Simple thing! AdrenalQuiz.com, there’s a free quiz you can do and there’s nothing you’re tied to. It tells you whether or not your adrenals are healthy. And if they’re off, you’ll learn whether they’re stressed, you’re tired or tired or crashed and also, some simple strategies you can do using light and timing and rhythm and food to get them back on track again.
Jennifer: Do you think that supplements play a key role in improving the quality of the adrenal function?
Dr. Christianson: I like adaptogens. They’re not the big needle movers. We did a clinical trial and it showed that really the diet, just being on good foods, made the difference. And in the diet in the clinical trial I did, I took everybody off of gluten. There are so many concerns with it that are medical in so many ways which is just tied up with processed foods. So that was one big step.
But the other big part of it is being strategic about carbs, about not going crazy on bad carbs, but be very specific about good ones at the right times. We showed that in 30 days, we could move the adrenal rhythm back to balance, whichever way it’s off by more than 50%.
Jennifer: You have brought up a really great point that makes me think of several women who I’ve heard from the last few days. They’ve acknowledged that they have gluten sensitivity, but not Celiac Disease. And yet, as a result, they think it’s okay to cheat once a week and eat gluten and that it has no effect on their energy, on their overall health.
What is your feeling as far as from an adrenal point? If you’re consuming something that you’re sensitive to, can that affect your adrenals?
Dr. Christianson: It certainly can. And it’s all a matter of resiliency. If your health is exactly where you want it, you’ve got a little more latitude on things like that and you’ve got more resiliency in place. But if it’s not, if there are things you want to improve, then you need to really give yourself, your body circumstances even better than what might be needed for maintenance to let yourself really heal and repair.
Jennifer: Last question. I think this has been a great basic conversation about how carbs affect the body. What are maybe two or three points that you can share with the audience of where they can begin today as far as changing their relationship with carbs and eating carbs in such a way – you did already mention the breakfast and having a higher protein breakfast. What are a couple of other things they can do to help support their adrenals?
Now, beans and legumes, if someone has been off of them, your flora shifts in bad ways and your flora becomes less able to digest them. So if you do a ton, you could have gas. No surprise. So it doesn’t mean you can’t eat them. It means you want to reintroduce them gently.
I encourage a tablespoon a day for two weeks. That’s enough to get your good bacteroidetes flora strong and resilient again, so they can keep you lean and help to digest the beans effectively.
But the adzuki beans are the highest food source known in magnesium. They’re also one of the slowest burning types of carbohydrates and they’re considered adaptogens and tonics for the kidneys and the adrenals. And they taste good too. It’s so awesome when foods can do a lot of good things like that.
Jennifer: They do! And I’ve actually used them in place of black beans in Mexican food and all sorts of things. So they’re beans that you can flavor quite easily, which is great.
Dr. Alan: Yeah! Well, thank you so much for sharing all of these information with us. We’ll definitely keep our eyes out. I would highly encourage everyone to check out your book, which is, as I’ve said, a New York Times’ bestseller, The Adrenal Reset Diet.
Dr. Christianson: So here’s a quick option. There’s actually a free cookbook with a ton of recipes. It gives you some ideas of the book too. That’s at AdrenalResetDiet.com.
Jennifer: Oh, that’s great!
Dr. Christianson: You can just download that, it has 60 recipes, and get a tons of ideas about it.
Jennifer: Great! That’ll be wonderful to share.
I really appreciate your time in sharing all these information with us. I hope you’ll be able to come back some time and we can talk a little bit more about adrenal health.
Dr. Christianson: I would love to! Thanks for having me, Jennifer.
Jennifer: You’re very welcome. Everyone, please stay in touch with Dr. Christianson. You can find him on the web at DrChristianson.com, as well as his facility that he practices at called IntegrativeHealthCare.com. He’s on Facebook, Twitter and a bunch of other platforms.
I’ll put everything below including all the links that he shared with me as well as the link to his book, The Adrenal Reset Diet, so that you can go and get yourself a copy.
I really appreciate you checking out this podcast. I hope that all the information that we’ve shared today is very beneficial to you. I look forward to seeing you the next time. Bye bye!
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