Hierarchy of Carbohydrates


For those of us trying to maximize our health, longevity, weight and tasting experience, deciding which foods to choose from can be a stressful shopping experience.  You want to make the best decision, but your head is filled with conflicting information, marketing hype, and plain old bullshit that all becomes white noise.  Add that to the fact that you want to stretch your grocery dollar as far as it can go and it is enough to make you throw your hands up in frustration and head for the TV dinners. I found myself snapping out of total zone-outs in the middle of the grocery store holding up two items like some kind of confused Lady Justice one too many times.

How many times can you put something in the basket and then take it back out before you have to buy it?  How long can you stand in an aisle staring at a food label without blinking before you are asked to leave Trader Joe’s?

By nature I am an organizer and list maker.  I like to rank things.  It started with ranking my favorite basketball players in elementary school which turned into lists of the girls I most wanted to make-out with in middle school which evolved into ranking colleges I most wanted to attend with heavy weighting for the quality of girls I could potentially date at those schools.  Thankfully, by age 30, those lists have matured into hierarchies of health and fitness related information that can actually be beneficial.

Hierarchy of Carbohydrates

Of all the challenging food decisions, carbs rank near the top of the list.  Low-carb, no-carb, high-carb and the glycemic index can seem like a barrage of information to defend yourself against.  Let me arm you with my hierarchy of carbohydrates so you can go to battle with a straight-forward plan of action.

Carbs are…

I am in favor of a relatively low-carb diet for health, longevity, and weight management (three core elements to optimizing SLAPP).  However, I do recognize that carbs are…

  1. In many foods containing nutrients that are crucial for optimum SLAPP (Strength, Longevity, Athleticism, Mental & Physical Performance and Power-to-weight ratio.).
  2. An important energy source that supports certain types of training.
  3. A part of solid recovery strategies for certain specific training goals.
  4. Useful for macronutrient cycling.
  5. In delicious food.

Unfortunately, foods that contain carbs are not created equally and can have a negative effect on your health and waistline.  When I created this hierarchy I tried to account for all the pros and cons related to common categories of foods that are made up primarily of carbs.

  1. Leaves (e.g. spinach, brussels sprouts, cabbage, and bok choy) and Flowers(e.g. broccoli, cauliflower, and squash flowers) are the most nutrient dense, loaded with micronutrients, phytonutrients, enzymes, antioxidants, and fiber. They all have high ORAC values and sensitivities/allergies to these foods are relatively rare.  You should be getting 6-11 servings of vegetables a day. Leaves and flower vegetables should be the foundation of that plan.  You can’t overeat these.  If I were to make a sub-rankings within each level of this hierarchy fermented foods (e.g. sauerkraut) would rank at the top of each level.
  2. Bulbs (e.g. fennel, garlic and onion) and stems (e.g. asparagus, celery, and kohirabi) are just behind Leaves and Flowers in nutrient density.  I also factored that sensitivities and allergies to some bulbs, particularly garlic, are common.  I have an upcoming article that will explain how you can find out if you have food sensitivities by doing a 14-day Elimination Diet.  Sign up for my newsletter at the end of this article to get updates on the Elimination Diet and other upcoming articles on nutrition, training, lifestyle and motivation.
  3. Fungi (e.g. mushrooms all types) are some of the most potent natural medicine on the planet, according to Dr. Joseph Mercola (great article from Dr. Mercola on mushrooms).  Mushrooms have been are known for high levels of selenium, iron, protein, fiber and vitamin C as well as antioxidants.  Ancient Chinese medicine has been using mushrooms, particularly Cordyceps, for thousands of years.  Cordyceps are particularly popular with athletes because they have been shown to increase ATP production, strength and endurance, and to have anti-aging benefits.
  4. Berries (e.g. blueberries, raspberries, and blackberries) have sky-high ORAC values, are packed with anti-oxidants, and are relatively low glycemic, not to mention they are freakingdelicious!
  5. Fruit Vegetables (e.g. cucumbers, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, and pumpkin, Roots (e.g. carrots, beetroot, and turnips) and Tubers (e.g. potatoes, yams, and Jerusalem artichokes) have a lot to offer in terms of nutrients, but they are also more calorically dense and known to be high glycemic causing higher insulin spikes than other vegetables.  Although these rank #4 on the list as a unit there are some super stars in the group, like cucumbers and sweet potatoes.  If weight loss is your primary goal be careful with roots and tuber.  I would eat these sparingly and do my best to eat them after a hard workout or as a part of a carb cycling program.  Yams and sweet potatoes aregreat choice for fueling hard training and recovery because they provide carbs you need, but are lower on the glycemic scale making it easier to manage weight and optimize power-to-weight ratio.  It is also important to note that food sensitivities and allergies to a class of fruit vegetables called “night shades,” that include peppers and tomatoes are some of the most common.
  6. Fruit other than berries (e.g. citrus, melon, and bananas) rank lower than berries because they don’t have the same nutrient density, tend to be much higher on the glycemic scale and have fructose.  There are a lot of sub-rankings for fruit so I will be ranking them in tomorrow’s blog, “Hierarchy of Fruit.”  Register for my newsletter if you are interested in that upcoming article.
  7. Legumes and Seeds (e.g. beans and peas) round out the vegetables.  They are calorically dense and don’t provide a lot of nutrition that is readily absorbed by our bodies unless they are sprouted.  Personally, it isn’t worth it to me to take the time and energy to sprout when I can get even better nutrition from something higher up on the list.  Un-sprouted legumes and some seeds are known irritants to our GI tract causing immune response and inflammation.
  8. Sprouted grains (e.g. Ezekial bread) rank higher than the rest because the sprouting process unlocks nutrients that we wouldn’t normally be able to absorb and it minimizes some of the nasties in grains, like gluten.  Still, I am not a fan of sprouted grains and wouldn’t recommend them for anyone focusing on weight loss.
  9. Whole grains are really only good for maintaining certain social conventions and getting some cheap sugar energy, but other than that there is really no reason whatsoever to eat them.  They have some nutritional value, but you can look to items at the top of the hierarchy for far more nutritional punch that is more easily assimilated without all the calories.Don’t forgetfactor in gluten and other anti-nutrients like phytates that make minerals like zinc and magnesium bio-unavailable and lectins that bind to insulin receptors and cause leptin resistance.
  10. Read everything I said above minus “some nutritional value” and you have described the bottom of my hierarchy, Processed Sugars and Grains (e.g. pastries, candy, cereal and junk food).  I’m not going to waste time explaining how terrible these are for you.  That has been done in other articles on this site.  Included in this list category are all the processed energy goos and bars that supplement companies try to pitch to endurance athletes.  The only value they have is to give you a huge shot of sugar energy quickly if you are in serious need.  If you find yourself needing that kind of energy and you aren’t a lean, pro-level endurance athlete putting in pro-level mileage then you either, A) didn’t prepare well nutritionally for your training because there are far better options, or B) are lying to yourself about the real energy demands of your training.

This hierarchy is the beginning of building your knowledge base, but it will be useless without a plan of action.

First, take a piece of paper and write the numbers 1-10 to represent each level in the hierarchy along the left margin.  Go through your fridge and pantry making a tally mark in next to the numbers you wrote for each primarily carb-based food you have in your kitchen according to where it would fall in the hierarchy.   This will serve as a quick assessment of where your decision-making was before reading this article.

Check out this link for more extensive lists on the categories of vegetables for more to help you with your assessment and with building a grocery list in the next step.

The second step is to make a grocery list according to my 65-30-5 Rule for optimizing SLAPP (Strength, Longevity, Athleticism, Mental & Physical Performance, and Power-to-Weight ratio).  The rule states that 65% of your carbs should come from #1-3, 30% from #4-5, and 5% from the rest. If weight loss is your primary goal make that the 75-20-5 Rule until you reach your goal.  Eating according to this ratio has a natural calorie restriction mechanism, keeps blood sugar and insulin low, and ensures you are getting the proper nutrients you need for optimum cellular function.  Put simply, it means your metabolism will be burning as fast as possible.

Improving in any arena boils down to improving your decision-making.  Hopefully this will help put an end to your decision-making stress and grocery store zone-outs.  There are more hierarchy articles in the works that will solidify the rest of your strategy, but I would love to hear which decisions cause you the most headache.  Let me know what you want to know more about.