Healthy dinner with salmon, salad, grapes and yogurt
Starch is Sugar, Crackers are Cookies

In 2013, I had obesity. I suffered from knee pain and varicose veins, and somehow the floor was getting a lot farther away. My blood tests still weren’t so bad, but I knew I was heading down a road of vulnerability to diabetes and other chronic illnesses. I was starting to feel old at 52 and wished I could be bouncier, less out of breath, more able to “move and not hurt” (as one of my clients puts it). So when I saw a book called Younger Next Year I immediately ordered it. The book has two main recommendations. Only two. 

On my 50th birthday trip to the Galapagos Islands

1. Don’t eat junk.

2. Exercise an hour a day (note: brisk walking is fine!)

Following these two recommendations enabled me to recover from obesity. But first I had to figure out: what is “junk”? I used to think I knew what that meant: super-sized servings of fast food, sodas, potato chips, candy, cake, ice cream and cookies. I was already cautious around those. I liked vegetables. I ate healthily! Didn’t I? Thanks to that book and other research, something I’d already known came into clearer focus, and it made all the difference: 

Starch is (long chains of) sugar.

This caused a major reorganization in my brain. So many foods that I had considered normal, unavoidable, and even healthy, were basically made of sugar, providing little more than empty calories:

Sandwich bread, toast, rolls, buns, garlic bread, cornbread, pumpkin “bread,” bagels, breadsticks, croutons, pita bread, pita chips, crackers, pretzels, breakfast cereals, grits, pretzels, waffles, pancakes, muffins, spaghetti, macaroni, noodles, couscous, white rice, mashed potato flakes, baked tortilla chips, flour tortillas (as in a “healthy wrap”), and many more..

I had grown up seeing little drawings of these foods making up the base of the “food pyramid“. See here for an example that even includes a croissant. This is now recognized as “grossly flawed” as Scientific American explains here.

I did know that “whole grains” are a better choice so I would buy stoned wheat crackers, multigrain waffles and seven-grain bread. Yet today when I read the labels on these products, I realize that they contain very little actual whole grain. Note: fiber content is the biggest clue: look for at least 4 grams of fiber per serving, or at least 1 gram of fiber for every 10 grams of total carbohydrates; 1 to 5 is even better. Whole-grain confusion is a great topic for another blog post; coming soon!

Of course I’d learned in science class that starch is made up of linked sugar molecules.  Yes, our bodies need to do a little more work to break these down in comparison with pure sugar. But they basically have the same ingredients.

And later in my health coach training, I learned other mind-bending facts:

  1. We need to eat certain essential amino acids (components of proteins) to survive, and we need protein daily to maintain and repair our bodies. Protein is rarely stored as fat.
  2. We also need to eat certain essential fats (including omega-3s) to survive.
  3. There are no essential carbohydrates.
Pancreas health alert

You may have heard that we “need” carbohydrates for energy. But our amazing bodies can burn fat for energy and actually make sugar out of protein if needed (this is what happens on a ketogenic diet). Starch and sugar provide quick energy (calories) — often too quick. Eating them tends to raise our blood sugar rapidly, leading to unfavorable highs and lows. Flour and sugar (and corn syrup and highly refined vegetable oils) entered the human diet for convenience, not nutrition. Compared to fresh natural foods, they are easy to transport and don’t spoil, and they can easily be made into processed foods with a long shelf life. In fact, they pretty much HAVE to be made into processed, industrial foods — who would want to eat white flour, sugar, corn syrup, highly processed vegetable oils, or hydrogenated fats on their own?

This discussion is not just about obesity! In this great TED talk, Sugar is Not a Treat, Jody Stanislaw says nothing about losing weight. She recommends reducing sugar and starchy foods in order to feel better, have more energy, and avoid diabetes and other chronic diseases.

The key distinction: refined carbs vs. whole-food carbohydrates

So are “carbs” in general a problem? Should we avoid all of them? No, we just need to make a key distinction: between refined, stripped-down flours and sugars, and carbohydrates in their natural whole-food forms.

Vegetables, fruits, and true whole grains which include the nutritious inner sprout (germ) and fiber-rich bran of the grain, not just the starch, are carbohydrate-rich foods, and they provide a whole range of key nutrients:

Eat the yummy rainbow!
  • Fiber (a type of carbohydrate we can’t digest, but our good gut bacteria love)
  • Vitamins and minerals
  • Phytonutrients, a variety of substances found in plants that help us stay healthy, prevent cancer, and more. We may not yet understand exactly why these are so good for us, but it is clear that they are! Most of them are colorful, like the lycopene that makes tomatoes red, and the carotenoids that make carrots orange, thus “eating the rainbow” is great advice.
Yay Aqua Zumba! The most exhilarating whole-body workout, from fabulous teacher Elvie (in flannel shirt)

Back to me in 2014. After my revelation that the highly refined carbohydrates in my life were basically just sugar, I realized that it would be a useful experiment to give those up (while increasing my exercise, which consisted of walking and water aerobics classes at the time). And these two actions were what allowed me to recover from obesity, at a rate of about one pound of fat per week. Thank you Younger Next Year authors!

But these refined-grain-based foods were the foundation of my very favorite dishes: spaghetti with pesto; nachos; pita chips with hummus; Asian sesame noodles. How could I do without them? Would life even be worth living?

Fortunately, I found two key factors that made this change possible for me…

  1. Substitution is easier (and more delicious) than I’d expected.
  2. The 80/20 guideline generally works.

Substitution: Fewer refined grains, MORE flavor

I quickly realized that most refined-carb foods are just carriers. The bun carries the Five Guys hamburger. The pita chips carry the hummus to my mouth. The tortilla chips scoop up the salsa. The spaghetti is something to put the pesto or marinara sauce on. The noodles are a base for the spicy Asian chicken and vegetables. Even cake and cookies are carriers for a tasty flavor, such as chocolate or peanut butter. 

Could I use a different carrier and still enjoy my food? I found that I could, and in fact I now enjoy it even more (the extra trouble is totally worth it!)  

Even Wendy’s put my hamburger on lettuce!

I quickly switched to hamburgers on lettuce, and Five Guys was happy to oblige. I ate hummus with cut vegetables: not just the usual carrots and celery but a rainbow of cucumber slices, jicama, grape tomatoes, Vidalia onions, and black olives. Or sometimes just with a fork: the ultimate no-calorie carrier!

My first time visiting an Italian restaurant with friends after changing my eating plan, I asked if the spicy sausage and peppers could be served on the steamed vegetable side dish (broccoli, carrots and cauliflower) instead of pasta. Yes indeed it could, and it was a revelation. Today I don’t even miss pasta, which now seems gummy and bland. I’d rather put a tasty sauce on sauted shredded cabbage, roasted spaghetti squash or spiralized zucchini (now sold in the frozen vegetable section of supermarkets, yay!). 


One of my favorite substitutions is what I call “not-chos” (others use that term to refer to vegan cheese, but for me it means nachos without the chips.) I cut peppers in half and roast them for a while (tiny peppers are fun, and poblanos are super-delicious), then add refried beans, a little cheese and a jalapeno slice and roast again until the cheese melts. These were a hit even in Mexico (with my friends when I lived in Nuevo Laredo).

So I’m basically substituting vegetables for the refined-starchy foods, and in a similar way, fruit stands in for the refined-sugary foods. Just today I enjoyed a bowl of berries with Greek yogurt, cinnamon and a sprinkling of sunflower seeds. 

Hey! I should make a “cheat sheet” or write a blog post listing all of my favorite substitutions for refined carbs. Let me know in the comments which refined-carb foods you’d most like to swap out!

Crackers are cookies?

By now, you see what I was getting at in the title. But you may still be surprised by these nutrition facts for club crackers versus peanut butter cookies. Which is which? There are only a few types of crackers that contain enough true whole grain to elevate them above the cookie level. As mentioned above, look for 4 grams of fiber per serving, or a ratio of at least 1 gram of fiber for every 10 grams of total carbohydrates (1 to 5 if possible!).

Just a tiny bit of sugar, in the Icelandic skyr
  • Serving size 28 grams
  • Calories 140
  • Total Fat 6 grams
  • Total Carbohydrates 18 grams
  • Dietary Fiber 0 grams
  • Protein 1 gram
  • Serving size: 28 grams
  • Calories 140
  • Total Fat 6 grams 
  • Total Carbohydrate 19 grams
  • Dietary Fiber 1 gram
  • Protein 2 grams

So Never cake (or crackers) again? Never bread?

One of these Belgian pastries is worth “spending” my 20% on, not a tasteless hamburger bun or the gummy crust of a store-bought pie

No! Fortunately, for many or most of us (including me), the 80/20 principle works quite well. So I don’t have to “never” eat bread, tortilla chips, European pastries, ice cream, or cookies again. I just can’t eat them all on the same day. It works for me to keep them to about 20% or fewer of my total calorie budget, with the other 80% being whole, natural foods (one way to define this is “foods you could get directly from a farm”). This can apply to each day, or it can be viewed over the whole week or even longer (as in my Brussels experience, when I had a bit of a “blowout” and then turned to mainly fish, lentils and greens).

So first, I serve up my proteins, vegetables and fruits, true whole grains, fermented foods (such as yogurt or sauerkraut), nuts and seeds, olive oil and all the herbs and spices my heart desires (yes!!!). And then, fully nourished and satisfied, I can “spend” a few hundred calories on fresh sourdough bread, Belgian chocolates, or anything from the awesome “Flourless” cookbook (well done Nicole Spiridakis!)

The 80/20 principle, and tracking and “budgeting” calories in general, are solid ideas, but they do have some pitfalls. Before 2014, I would have assumed my bagel-sandwich-pasta meals were already fine for the 80%, and I’d wonder why I wasn’t getting good results by keeping cake, candy and chips to 20%. On the other hand, tracking foods and calories too obsessively can lead to disordered eating. And for many of us, some “trigger” foods need to be avoided completely (at least for a while) and just don’t work as part of the 20%. What a great topic for yet another blog post! Watch this space!

So by swapping refined carbs for whole foods and having lots of fun in Aqua Zumba and other exercise classes, did I really become “Younger Next Year”? I’d say yes!

Enjoying moving my body. My big nose didn’t get any younger, but that’s OK.

My body composition (lean mass vs. fat mass) is good, says the BodPod. I can move with much greater ease and enjoyment now, at age 61, than I could ten years ago. And when I recently had cataract surgery (my eyes didn’t get younger), the nurses praised my “vitals” (blood pressure, resting heart rate and other readings). I said they must mainly see people older than me, because cataract surgery is more common around age 70. “No,” they responded, “we see people of all ages in this hospital, and your vitals are the best we’ve seen in a long time.”

For me, it’s SO worth the minor trouble of swapping out tasteless carrier foods for delicious natural foods, and making time for the great fun of group exercise every day. (Thank you so much Elvie, and thank you to my wonderful Zoom Energy and Fierce in the Forest participants!) Are you on this journey too, or would you like to be? Let me know in the comments, or schedule a free “Midlife Tuneup” with me here!

Thanks so much for reading this! If you received it as an email, it’s a no-reply service, so contact me instead, I really appreciate your feedback! Stay well and safe, and see you again soon!

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