Do you EAT carbs? We sure do! Check out this insightful interview between Chris Johnson, Founder & CEO of On Target Living and Matt Johnson, President of On Target Living. Here, they take a deeper dive into the world of carbs.
The Carb Conundrum
MATT: Hi, this is Matt Johnson with our monthly podcast and a discussion with my father, Chris Johnson. One of the hottest topics we get on a regular basis on the conversation of nutrition, diet, and health is that carbs are the villain.
So why are we having this discussion on carbs? It’s because we feel there is too much confusion on one of the most amazing macro-nutrients we use as fuel: carbohydrates. Many of you have heard some of these words: grain-free, no carbs, no sugar, "I don't eat carbs", "I don't eat fruit past a certain time", bullet-proof coffee, MCT oils... These are all the newest fads and some of the trends that are guiding us in the wrong direction.
One of the hot words right now is "ketosis". Many believe that establishing ketosis is the key to optimal health for the mind and body. Today, we are going to debunk some of these things.
I want to welcome my father, Chris Johnson as we have a discussion on one of our favorite subjects: carbohydrates.
CHRIS: I'm going to make this crystal clear: if you take a macro-nutrient out of the body, meaning a diet that is high in one thing and low in another, you're asking for macro problems. These macronutrients are meant to be consumed in the human body.
MATT: Let's start with what is a carbohydrate?
CHRIS: A carbohydrate is pretty simple -- it's a sugar. That's all it is. It's a sugar linked together. The longer the sugar chain, the more whole the source is. The shorter the sugar chain, the more processed it becomes. It's basically a chain of sugar linked together.
MATT: Can you give us some examples of carbohydrates?
CHRIS: You've got fruits and vegetables, whole grains, starchy carbohydrates, and your legumes (your beans). There's basically 5 categories of carbohydrates that we need for optimal health.
MATT: What got us to this point of wanting to restrict our carbohydrates? This hasn't been a short-term thing. We've been doing this for a long time -- over 40 years. This is the #1 diet on the planet (low carbohydrate, high-protein). Why are people cutting out carbohydrates today?
CHRIS: I think the big one you and I both hear is: "I have to lower my carbs," "I have type-2 diabetes," "I'm trying to lose weight, I need to cut carbs out." What does that mean? What are you cutting out? What type of carbohydrate are you cutting out? I think the intention of people is that they don't quite understand. They link all of carbohydrates together and put them in the same trash can. The reality is that carbohydrates are essential for optimal health and performance, including your brain health. When you take these carbohydrates out of the body, you're going to have some major problems.
Do You Know What A Carb Is?
MATT: I told someone the other day that if you hear someone say they don't eat carbs, they probably aren’t saying the right thing. I think they are using the word "carbs" in the wrong fashion...
CHRIS: Yes, I had a guy the other day when I was speaking in Texas come up to me after one of the events and say, "I don't eat carbs, so what should I be eating?" I said, "Do you eat fruits?" and he said, "Well, yeah, sometimes. And vegetables." I said, "Those are all carbohydrates." When you think about what you're taking out, I agree that many times they (people) don't understand that. Are they taking out the pasta, the processed bread, the white sugar? You have to understand that when we break the carbohydrates down, that's when the problems begin. The carbohydrates in their whole source form is not the problem at all. It's when you break them down.
MATT: That's the point – I think many people are using the wrong word and don’t truly understand what a carb is. I think when someone says, "I don't eat carbs" or "carbs are bad", what they really mean is that processed sugar is bad. I think if you can change that thought process, you can change the dialogue. That's what we're talking about - processed sugar, processed white flour. These are all harmful items that we need to remove out of our diet. We're using it in the wrong fashion. The goal is to start using "carbs" in the right context. So what happens when you cut out this macro-nutrient carbohydrates? Can you talk about the science behind what happens to the human body.
CHRIS: How many people are out there struggling with their energy, and they are doing all sorts of stuff like energy drinks, coffee, to whatever it might be? Carbohydrates are your number #1 source for energy. When you take carbohydrates out of the body on a consistent basis, you will not have that optimal energy. Number #2, when you consume carbohydrates, that's the fuel. Glucose is the number one thing the brain wants. The first breakdown of carbohydrates is that of glucose, and then it's easily transported into the cells and then via the brain, which needs at least 400 calories of carbohydrates a day to function properly. If you are cutting out carbohydrates, you are going to have to break down your fat and your proteins for fuel. That's an inefficient way to fuel the brain. That's when ketosis happens.
The other thing is that when you eat carbohydrates, your body has the ability to store them. They can be stored as a reserved energy source which is stored in your liver and your muscles. The body has all of these wonderful mechanisms for energy and for performance. When you take them out, you make your body super sick. When you take these carbohydrates out that make the body more alkaline, you go right into ketosis, which is making the body speed up. People will say, "My energy is great and my focus is there" but then they will crash and burn over time. Over time, a higher-protein diet can't survive because you are going to flush valuable minerals out of the body leading to poor bone health, trouble sleeping, heart issues, and difficulty losing weight. Long term, these low-carbohydrate diets cannot work.
Last, but not least, we're not even talking about being happy! Certain carbohydrates make the transmitters in the brain more receptive, including serotonin. Serotonin is the happy neurotransmitter. I tell people all the time, "You might look good, but you have bad breath, you have problems with digestion, you're in a crummy mood, your skin's falling off and your hair is falling out also." There's a lot of problems that come from taking carbs out of the diet.
MATT: At On Target Living, one of the things we tend to focus on is that we want results for everyone listening today. We are going to give you the cutting-edge program to get you those results. Many times I think that topics catch fire because of results and that instant gratification. Let's think about the long-term health of cutting out carbohydrates instead of that short-term gain of looking good for a short period of time. Let's talk more about ketosis. What is ketosis, and why is it such a hot topic right now?
CHRIS: When you take carbohydrates out of the body, you deplete the stores of carbohydrates. The body has to look for other ways to fuel the brain and the body. It's going to go to fat, so now you are burning fat as a fuel because the carbohydrates and proteins have been leeched out. When you use fat and proteins, the body is going to lose weight, but the problem is that the body has to take these fuels for energy. The side effect is this thing called ketosis.
Short-term ketosis is what people are after. What happens is that people are starting to do this as a lifestyle and as a long-term fix. When you go into ketosis, your body heats up and increases your acidity levels. So now you have greater inflammation and many minerals become depleted. It's very difficult to stay in ketosis short-term.
Way back in the day, at my first body building contest in 1985, I was told to cut the carbs out my diet. I was told that I needed to do a lot of cardio and cut the carbs out. Man, I was miserable. I got up on stage and I was ripped, I was shredded. I thought to myself, "I'm never going to be in a body-building contest again." Then, over time, I learned that you don't have to cut the carbs out. In my last 5-6 body building contests (and I've won 4 out of the 5), I'm eating oatmeal, potatoes regularly, raisins, bananas, etc. I'm eating all of these things you are told you "shouldn't" be eating. I'm like the anti-body builder—but it works.
To learn more, check out our blog on I Eat Grains and I Look Good" here.
If a person is trying to lose some weight and get ripped, they don't have to take these carbs out of their diet because if they do, they are going to suffer from a health standpoint. That's our whole point of this conversation - helping people understand that you NEED these carbohydrates for optimal health. Even if you want to lower your body weight or decrease your waist size.
MATT: It's both short-term and long-term goals. Everybody wants to look good, but sometimes we are hard on the body for that quick result when it’s the long term journey that truly sticks.
CHRIS: I am here to tell you that you CAN look good from eating all of these carbs. You and I both know that I'm eating figs regularly, I'm eating raisins, and I’m eating really quality vegetables and fruits. I don't want to take these out because I want to preserve my minerals and I want to have that amazing energy and brain health. I want to be happy, I want to sleep good, I want to have my hair look good. I'm old and I still have pretty good looking hair. I don't know why we came up with this. Back in the day, it used to be "well, let's cut the fat out and increase the carbs", and now we're in a different circle.
MATT: Every time I'm on stage and someone says, "you’re 29-30 years old, what do you know about aging?" I know a lot about aging. Maybe I don't have the experience, but I do have an example right in front of me—my father. 58 years-old, looks great, feels great, can beat me in about anything other than golf...
CHRIS: That's the thing I've been striving for over the years. People have this mindset. We talk a lot about beliefs -- people have these belief systems that carbohydrates are some evil being. In reality, they're optimal for great performance and looking your best. We want to get that mindset to switch. You need these carbs—it just depends on the quality.
The other thing, too, is that it makes you satisfied. There is nothing better than having a starchy carbohydrate to make you satisfied and help you sleep better. It is what makes up a balance meal.
MATT: I have a few questions. I heard you explain to people that when you remove the carbs, you lose weight. Talk about the science behind what happens when you initially remove the carbs and that instant weight loss. Why does that happen?
CHRIS: Again, it's an easy thing to understand when people are talking about body-building. When people are body-building, they are always told that they need to "carb load". What you do is you eat lots of carbohydrates because they hold water. Each gram of carbohydrates holds "x" amount of water, so the body is absorbing it like a sponge. As body-builders, many try to time it right so they cut the carbs completely out, so they completely deplete the glycogen storage along with the water. So you flush the water out, and in 3-4 days they have flushed the water out, so then they throw some distilled water on top of that which makes the body super acidic. They're not holding any water up on stage so they look great. Many of the body builders don't time it correctly so they don't do well. So that's the first process. When you cut the carbs out, you go into immediate ketosis and now are using a different fuel source for the brain, the body heats up, acid levels get higher, and that flushes out minerals, water and everything else. That's what happens and that's how quickly people see that immediate 5 pound weight loss. It happens basically overnight.
MATT: With weight loss, you talked about dehydration. What about mental health? Why is it that when you flush out carbohydrates and go into ketosis, mental issues going through the roof? We're not asking the right questions and we're not talking the right language. Aren’t carbohydrates amazing for mental function.
CHRIS: Well think about it for a minute. What are some of the fastest growing group of medications? Type #2 diabetes, sleep aids, and depression. They are all related to carbohydrates. When you talk about depression, what does the depression medication do? That's an interesting question. It helps to uptake certain transmitters, and one of them is serotonin. If you don't have serotonin, you're not going to have that optimal energy and happiness. That's where some of these carbohydrates come in -- they boost serotonin levels. That's why I'm eating oatmeal on a regular basis. I pretty much have potatoes at least 3-4 nights/week because I want these serotonin-boosting foods that make me happy. If you take them out of your diet, long-term you are going to see some issues. That's what happens over time -- people have these issues long-term. That's the whole thing about On Target Living -- we're trying to create a lifestyle that you can sustain and still look good. I'm old and I still want to look good – and feel good!
MATT: We joke about paleo. I don't think anything is wrong with the paleo diet if you modify it a little bit. When you cut out the white potatoes and baked potatoes and carrots, and you can't have certain types of fruits... that’s where it gets difficult. Talk about grains, and how when you remove grains (ancient grains, whole grains, rolled oats, steel cut oats), you're losing some of the B Vitamins that go along with it.
CHRIS: Let's back up for a minute. I think paleo is a great program if you go back to the source. What happens is that people go to extreme levels and start cutting things out. If you are eating things in their whole source, it's just a way to stay focused. I have no issues with that. When you start cutting certain food groups out... I have people say, "I don't eat potatoes" or "I don't eat this..." Well, where are you getting some of your B Vitamins? You're missing some of this stuff. To me, I don't really want to cut out anything from the source.
When we talk about grains or ancient grains, you hear all these things about gluten intolerances and things like that. I'm not talking about the processed, crummy stuff. I'm talking about the real deal. Oats is the first cut, and then it gets into steel cut and rolled oats, etc... On a regular basis, I want these B Vitamins, I want these starchy carbohydrates. Pretty much every week, I'm eating oatmeal, I'm eating amaranth, I'm eating millet. These are the ancient grains that create these B Vitamins that are fiber, serotonin, and they are satisfying. Bottom line, when I eat my oatmeal in the morning with some nuts and berries and cashew milk, cinnamon, and cacao nibs, I'm very satisfied and my energy feels amazing. I want the health, I want the energy, and I want to look good.
MATT: Why are people cutting out grains? Why is the buzz to say, "I'm going grain-free?"
CHRIS: I think the thinking is all based on this whole thing with gluten. People have digestion issues or are gluten-free, but what does that mean? Gluten is a protein in the grain that is hard to break down. If you have weak digestion, then you are going to have problems breaking down gluten, hence gluten-intolerances. You never heard of gluten-intolerance 30 years ago. Now, it's the buzz out there. I'm not asking people to eat processed grains. I'm asking them to eat ancient, or whole grains on an occasional basis. Why would I want to take them out? They are high in fiber and high in all of these wonderful things that make the body healthy including the brain.
MATT: Would you say that if you can't break down gluten, it may be an indication that you need to improve your digestion first, and not remove gluten altogether?
CHRIS: Well of course. If you're eating too many dead foods (foods that come in a package or a box), you're going to have weak digestion. Isn’t interesting that kids now a day can't have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich at school anymore because their immune systems are so weak? Part of improving your immune system is improving your digestive health by eating whole foods which will in turn improve the strength and the way you breakdown food.
One of the things we do at On Target Living at the very beginning is improve digestive strength and digestive health. If you have strong digestion, you're like a shark and can eat anything and do pretty good long-term. The key is building that strong digestion - that's step #1. If you want to have a pizza or you want to have something occasionally, it's not going to be like, "oh I can't eat that because I'm gluten-free," I don't think anyone wants that. It’s like, "can I have a beer? Can I have a glass of wine?" We want to create this lifestyle that is not something you're doing on a regular basis, but it's more short-term.
The Food Target
MATT: If you're listening, you're probably familiar with our food target. If you are, our food target is all about improving the quality of everything you eat. This food target was based around some confusion about glycemic index. Why don't you share a story on the glycemic index about the lady in the supermarket? Also, the glycemic index is kind of the science that is fueling all of this no-grains, cutting out sugar, looking at meal planning. Why don't you talk about that?
CHRIS: Years ago, in 1994, I developed this thing called The Food Target because I started doing these seminars and people were always interested in calories but they really didn't understand food quality. The Target is based on food quality.
That was the beginning piece. As I started speaking more in my community, I became that nutrition/fitness guy and I was well-known in my community. One day, I'm shopping in the grocery store and this woman comes up to me and says, "hey, you're that nutrition/fitness guy." She looks down at my cart and notices that I have bananas in my cart. Then she says, "Do you eat bananas?" and I said, "Yeah, I eat bananas." She said, "Don't you know that they are high in the glycemic index?" I've written books and have traveled around the country speaking—of course I know this. The glycemic index rates how fast the food or beverage gets in the body. Bananas happen to be high in the glycemic index. Potatoes, carrots are all high in the glycemic index. So she scolded me about eating my bananas and then she walked away! I thought, "Wow! What just happened here?" So I chased her down a couple aisles over and said, "Excuse me, since when does a banana become an unhealthy food?" Her mindset was that bananas made you fat.
Bananas are one of nature’s perfect foods, wrapped perfectly, tastes amazing, high in potassium—but her belief was that they make you fat because they are high on the glycemic index. If I stimulate my glycemic index or if my glucose level goes up, I'm in "storage mode." You have to eat a truck load of carrots or a bushel of potatoes to stimulate this elevation. Again, the key is going back to the source. If you are eating foods that are high in the glycemic index in their most natural source like a banana, or carrot, or potato, you never have to go wrong. So I never pay attention to the glycemic index, even if a person has Type 2 diabetes. If that person is eating food from the source that has the fiber and everything else that goes along with it, they don't have to worry about the glycemic index.
MATT: I'll end with this. White sugar, processed sugar, and all of the food, supplements, beverages and fast food...the list goes on. You make the point that sugar is not evil. We shouldn't be worried about sugar in its natural state like sugarcane. Explain some your thought process behind sugarcane.
CHRIS: Just last week I was doing Q & A with this company at a large event, and one of the guys in the audience said, "I haven't heard you talk about sugar at all." I said, "I don't really have to. Carbohydrates are sugar" and we continued to talk about the source. He didn't quite get it. If I gave everybody some sugarcane and said, "here's some sugarcane, and here is a machete -- go at it. Eat as much as you want." After about 5 minutes of tussling with that sugarcane, you've had enough. We realized over the years that sugar has been around forever. It's been around forever and it's never been an issue until we figured out how to process it. Then we realized that if we process it, it helps to preserve anything it touches and it helps make people want to eat MORE of it.
That’s why it's in every product out there. Then we realized how to make it into a syrup, so now there's this thing called high fructose corn syrup. Sugar is not the evil being in moderation. I hear people say all the time, "that apple is high in sugar." Of course it is! That's what makes it sweet just like figs and dried fruit. We want to have these sugars, but if they are coming from the source you really don't have to worry about it. Sugar is not an evil being. Sugar is actually very healthy if you're eating it from the real source, and that's what we struggle with. We think of sugar as a carbohydrates and they are not all the same.
MATT: So the answer is - go to the source?
CHRIS: Get closer to the source.
MATT: If you remove gluten out of a processed food, is it more processed or less processed? It's more processed right? If you go into the grocery store, you will see aisles and aisles of gluten-free, processed food. If you look in the center of our Food Target, you will see there is very little gluten to begin with. If you go to the source, you improve digestion, you improve the absorption of these minerals and vitamins, and you don't store the sugars that we're scared of.
So let's change the dialogue on carbs. Carbohydrates are powerful and beneficial macro-nutrients. Macro-nutrients meaning large nutrients. We recommend getting 50% of your nutrients from carbohydrates every single day. When you improve the quality and flush out the crap, you will help the mind and body perform at its best. I don't want to see our country go through the low-fat, no-fat craze that we're currently going at from a carb standpoint. Remember, if you cut out a macro-nutrient, you will have macro problems.
Also, check out some of our favorite carbs here!