This post is part of an ongoing series for AVFM about how men can support their mental health and alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety by changing the food that they eat. I am passionate about supporting men (and women) of the Men’s Rights Movement. It’s easy for us to neglect our own health in the pursuit of a larger cause larger than ourselves like the MRM. But it’s essential that we take care of ourselves because, first and foremost, we deserve to live long, happy and healthy lives, and also because we need to be healthy to continue our fight for men’s rights.
In my last two posts I wrote about the roles protein and healthy fats play in men’s mental health, which along with carbohydrates make up the three macronutrients that we must all consume through the food we eat. All three are important for a stable mood, and in this post I’ll focus on the role carbohydrates play in mental health. Maintaining a proper ratio of fat, protein and carbohydrate in the diet is important for mental health. This post will complete the discussion of the macronutrients and from here I’ll move on to discuss other aspects of nutrition for mental health in future posts. So keep reading to learn which carbohydrates you should eat, and how much of them!
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are sugars and starches that, along with healthy fats, fuel the body’s many metabolic and biochemical processes. Dietary fibers are also classified as a carbohydrates, although they don’t typically provide much in the way of fuel and instead aide in human digestion by promoting healthy bowel movements. In nutrition science and biochemistry, carbohydrates are referred to as saccharides, which comes from the Greek word for sugar.
The smallest and simplest sugars are called monosaccharides like glucose and fructose, which are paired together to form disaccharides such as sucrose (table sugar) and lactose (milk sugar). These simple sugars are quickly and easily metabolized in the body and result in a rapid rise in blood sugar. Larger and more complex carbohydrates are referred to as polysaccharides, which includes starches and dietary fibers. Many plants store their energy in the form of polysaccharides, and use fibers like cellulose to create structure for their leaves, limbs and stalks.
If all this discussion about different sugars and starches seems unnecessarily complicated, just remember that carbohydrates are generally categorized in terms of their size, from small simple sugars up to large starches in which many sugars and bound together in a long chain. This is important because larger starches are metabolized more slowly than simple sugars, which is advantageous because it helps to keep blood sugar stable. As I’ve explained in my previous posts, maintaining stable blood sugar is critical for men who struggle with depression and anxiety. Before I get into what carbohydrates you should eat and which you should avoid, I’ll next review why dietary carbohydrates are important.
The functions of dietary carbohydrates
When we eat starches like potatoes and grains, we metabolize the energy stored in them to fuel our bodies. These carbohydrates give us energy to run, lift weights, and think about things – the brain consumes significant energy, especially when thinking hard and problem solving. Many students observe this when attending class and studying, as learning new information burns a lot of energy. I know when I was in school I ate a lot before and after class. Even though I had just been sitting at a desk, my brain consumed a lot of energy and I was ready to eat a whole meal again after class!
In fact, common symptoms of hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, include confusion and difficulty thinking. Unlike other tissues in the body like skeletal muscle which can store backup energy in the form of glycogen, the brain cannot, so when blood sugar plummets, cognitive functions are often the first to suffer (1). When this happens, we tend to crave simple carbohydrates like sugars because they are the quickest and easiest sources of sugar for the body to bring blood sugar back up.
The importance of adequate blood sugar
The body can rapidly metabolize (absorb and utilize) sugar and starch directly from the mouth before even swallowing the bread or candy bar we’re eating before it even reaches the small intestine, which is where most absorption of all nutrients, including carbohydrates, takes place. As soon as we begin chewing on a carbohydrate-rich food, enzymes in saliva begin breaking down starches so they can be absorbed directly across the lining of the mouth.
This accounts for at least part of the reason why a “hangry” person seems to instantly feel better upon getting food in his mouth, before even swallowing a bite. The existence of this mechanism to quickly raise blood sugar indicates how important adequate blood sugar is to the body. Next, I’ll talk about other roles carbohydrates play in the body before moving on to what carbohydrates you should eat.
Other functions of carbohydrates
Like the other macronutrients fat and protein, carbohydrates play many roles in the body. I’ve already alluded to the importance of dietary fiber, which provides physical structure to the stool and helps promote healthy bowel movements. Eating a fiber-deficient diet is a surefire way to become constipated, which in addition to being uncomfortable and even painful contributes to poor health through a phenomenon called autointoxication. A primary function of bowel movements is to remove waste and toxins from the body through feces.
But in the case of constipation, impacted feces remain in the colon for an extended period of time, which results in toxic contents of the stool being absorbed across the lining of the colon and back into the bloodstream. Consequently, these toxins must be reprocessed and this lead to an increased toxic burden, which over time can overwhelm the body’s detoxification mechanisms. An elevated toxic burden is implicated in many health conditions, including mental health problems like depression and anxiety. Given this reality, it should be clear why dietary fiber is important, given its role in promoting regular bowel movements that remove toxins from the body regularly and prevent autointoxication.
The importance of stable blood sugar
I talked quite a bit in my previous posts about the importance of stable blood sugar when it comes to mood, as unstable blood sugar leads to an unstable mood. Two primary culprits when it comes to unstable blood sugar are refined carbohydrates and sugars. Bread, pasta, tortillas, pancakes and muffins are all examples of refined carbohydrates, and refined sugars include candy, cookies, cake, ice cream and soda. Because these foods provide high levels of sugars and carbohydrates that are not bound by fiber, they produce a rapid increase in blood sugar.
The body works hard to maintain blood sugar levels within a fairly narrow window, and levels that are either too low or too high lead to health problems. The pancreas normally secretes insulin in response to rising blood sugar levels after a meal, which causes blood sugar to be shuttled into cells where it can be burned for energy. As a result, blood sugar levels decrease. Over the course of several hours after eating a meal, blood sugar levels gradually decline back down to baseline, at which point you would simply eat another meal.
However, when we overconsume refined carbohydrates and sugar, blood sugar rises so rapidly that the pancreas may “overreact” and secrete so much insulin in its attempt to control dangerously high blood sugar levels that blood sugar levels end up dropping too low, resulting in a form of hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) called reactive hypoglycemia. In this chart, you can see blood sugar levels on the vertical axis and time on the horizontal axis. Where we get into trouble is the dip in the red line where blood sugar levels drop too low.
Reactive hypoglycemia is a form of dysregulated blood sugar that is strongly correlated with depression and anxiety, as well as aggressive behavior and an explosive temper, also known as being “hangry.” The low spot on the red line is when these symptoms tend to be the most pronounced. With an understanding of the importance of stable blood sugar in mind, let’s move on to the next section in which I’ll explain what foods provide healthy carbohydrates that do not lead to reactive hypoglycemia.
Good sources of carbohydrates
Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Now that we have an understanding of why dietary carbohydrates and stable blood sugar are important, let’s move on to foods that are good sources of healthy carbohydrates. As opposed to refined carbohydrates which spike blood sugar, lead to reactive hypoglycemia and provide no nutritional value, complex carbohydrates are a much healthier option. In fact, refined carbohydrates actually deplete nutrients like B vitamins, which are required to metabolize them (2).
In contrast, complex carbohydrates are broken down more gradually, leading to longer lasting energy and a more gradual increase in blood sugar. In addition, they usually provide the nutrients that are required to metabolize the carbohydrates they contain because they have not been refined, a process which removes these critical nutrients. For these reasons, it’s preferable to get your carbohydrates from whole food, unrefined sources.
So without further ado, here are the best sources of carbohydrates:
- Sweet potato
- Taro root
- White potatoes
- Especially if they are cooked and cooled before eating
- This forms resistant starch, which is good for your intestines
- You can reheat them before eating
- Yucca root
- For all of the above root vegetables, slather them in plenty of grass-fed, organic butter like Kerrygold!
- Fruits that are low in sugar and high in nutrients like:
- Organic cherries
- Organic berries (blueberry, strawberry, blackberry, cranberry)
- Green plantains
Concentrate on getting your carbohydrates from the above list, and avoid these refined carbohydrates and sugars:
- Refined carbohydrates:
- Pancakes & waffles
- Refined sugars:
- Cake (also high in refined carbohydrates)
- Cookies (also high in refined carbohydrates)
- Ice cream
- Artificial sweetners
- Stevia is ok, but avoid aspartame (NutraSweet) and saccharin
Before wrapping up this post, let me add one more point about portion control. In addition to focusing on healthy, unrefined carbohydrates and avoiding refined carbohydrates and sugar, it’s important to limit carbohydrates to reasonable portion sizes. Like so many things in life, our diet is all about balance. In general, you want to limit carbohydrate to about 20% of your plate. Concentrate on including adequate protein, some healthy fat, and lots of nonstarchy vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, Bok choy, Brussels sprouts, dark leafy greens like kale, mustard greens, collard greens and Swiss chard, asparagus, garlic, and onion.
As a guideline to help you eat a good ratio of carbohydrate, fat and protein, use my Ideal Dinner Plate chart as a template for building well-balanced meals. If your current diet is significantly different than what is shown here (and many people’s diets are) work on making gradual changes, rather than making sudden and drastic changes. Give yourself time to integrate changes into your life. Imagine this pie chart as your dinner plate and include proportions roughly as shown here:
The food we eat has a significant impact on our mental health as well as our physical health, and simply by adjusting the ratio of the macronutrients fat, protein and carbohydrate to each other we can do a lot to keep mood more stable, primarily by stabilizing blood sugar. This post, combined with the previous two on fat and protein together should provide you a good groundwork to support a healthy mood through your food.
In future posts I will write about other aspects of nutrition for mental health, as well as nutrition for men’s health generally. What are you interested in learning more about? Leave me a comment below with your ideas for future posts!
- Murray MT, Pizzorno J. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine third edition. New York, NY: Atria Paperback; 2012: