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These "grain-free" crackers are a healthy and flavorful alternative to store-bought.

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Perhaps no other macronutrient has been more vilified than carbohydrates. Carbs break down to sugar, starch and fiber comprising the building blocks of grains, fruits, veggies and even milk products. So often, carbs are seen as the nefarious saboteur to our health and weight loss. The featured culprit in fad diets like Atkins, Zone, South Beach Diet and now Keto, we’ve been programmed to steer clear of things we deem as bad “carbs.” We track, we count and we omit them where we can, often purchasing low-carb versions of the foods we love.

Are carbohydrates really something we should omit and are they all created equal? For decades, we have labeled foods as “good” and “bad,” but carbs can’t be completely lumped into one of these categories. Carbohydrates comprise a wide spectrum of foods from Twinkies to apples, so it’s important to identify which carbs work for us and which do not.

We tend to lump all sugars into the “bad” category, but in reality, our bodies can’t survive without adequate glucose levels, the main type of sugar that makes up our blood sugar. We don’t need to eat sugar to make glucose, because our bodies break food down into glucose and transport it to our cells to be used for essential energy. Not all sugars are created equal (in my opinion), and neither are carbs.

Carb caveats

The more I learn about carbs, the more complex they become and I’m not just talking about simple carbs like cake versus more complex carbs (think oats). A “no-carb diet” omits healthy foods like those vegetables that are higher in sugar (carrots and beets) and most fruits. They focus on omitting grains, both simple and complex, but how can it be healthy to omit all those foods and how long can we maintain it? I’m sure I’m not the only one who has successfully shed some weight on a low-carb diet only to gain it all back, plus some, by just looking in a carb’s direction.

Perhaps carbs get their bad rep from the category simple carbohydrates. Simple carbs break down very quickly and spike our blood sugar, leaving us with elevated blood sugars and rumbly tummies. These foods are either high in sugar or starch or both and are low in fiber and don’t get us where we want to go. Examples of simple carbohydrates are white bread (anything with white flour in it), muffins, pasta, cakes, cookies and juices. Milk and milk products are simple carbs because of their lactose content (milk sugar), but they also contain protein and fat.

Complex carbs, on the other hand, are rich in fiber and typically low in sugar. Because of their fiber content, they elevate our blood sugar more gradually and take longer to break down, keeping us full and satisfied longer. Complex carbohydrates include high fiber fruits and veggies, whole grains, beans and other legumes.

After embracing anti-carb movements like the Zone and South Beach Diets, we did it yet again with the Paleo Diet. The Paleolithic, or caveman diet, declared that we should embrace the ways of our hunter and gatherer predecessors. Grains were personified as nefarious and those that remained were used sparingly.

In Dr. David Perlmutter’s book aptly named “Grain Brain,” he addresses the brain fog thought to be sponsored in part by the quick breakdown of simple carbs. He argues that grains contribute to inflammation (something Dr. Steven Gundry maintains in his war against purported inflammatory lectins) and suggests that we should steer clear of them.

It gets murky when we declare war against all grains. While refined grains surely contribute to inflammation, whole grains do not seem to adversely affect inflammation and in some cases, may even lower it.

Grain brain benefits?

In certain circumstances, eliminating grains might have benefits. Those who have gone gluten-free or are gluten-sensitive and those who have wheat allergies surely will feel positive effects from omitting grains. Sticking to naturally gluten-free grains or products is imperative to ensure we skirt the added sugars or chemicals put into processed foods when the gluten is stripped from naturally gluten-containing grains.

The thought process behind kicking grains to the curb is prefaced by getting back to the ways of hunters and gatherers. We often think of early societies as plebian at best, but hunters and gatherers’ teeth and bones were found to be stronger than their farming counterparts and were less diseased. They were also taller — to the tune of an average male height of 5’11”. (That height fell to 5’4” and over time rebounded to today’s average of 5’9”).

So should we give up grains in hopes of growing taller? No, but our eating patterns should be based on how we’re feeling. If we’re sluggish, can’t stop gaining weight, have tummy troubles or consistent indigestion or we’re stiff all the time, giving up on grains could be an important step in simply identifying underlying issues and the root cause of our symptoms.

As carbs go, giving up on fruits and veggies is never a good idea. Nutritionally, we could probably take or leave milk, though yogurt offers us a great source of good bacteria. Healthy grains, when eaten in moderation, provide us with fiber and nutrients like B vitamins, phosphorous, magnesium and iron.

Should you go grain-free for now or for the remainder of time, keep in mind that “grain-free” concoctions, like the crackers below, still contain calories. There aren’t any “free” foods unless you’re munching on lettuce or celery sticks. Although corn is a veggie when fresh, it counts as a grain when dried and made into flour. Gluten-free isn’t a weight loss tool, and omitting entire groups of foods without reasons has little longevity. Just ask 22 year-old-me, who lost nine pounds on the trusty South Beach Diet and promptly gained 11 back in no time.

Casting healthy grains aside without having a true cause to do so may sponsor feelings of restriction, and it certainly can’t last forever.

‘These crackers are Everything’ grain-free crackers

Ingredients

For the crackers:

¾ cup almond flour

½ cup ground flax seed

1 teaspoon onion powder (decrease if you don’t want the crackers too oniony)

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¼ teaspoon sea salt

½ cup water

“Everything seasoning” for topping (as desired)

For the seasoning:

Combine the following:

4 teaspoons white sesame seeds

2 teaspoons black sesame seeds

2 teaspoons poppy seeds

2 teaspoons dried minced onion

2 teaspoons dried minced garlic

¼ teaspoon flaky sea salt

Method

Preheat oven to 325°F.

Combine almond flour, flax, onion powder and salt in a medium bowl.

Stir ingredients and add water. Mix again.

Let sit for 10 minutes.

Layer a baking sheet with parchment paper, place dough onto sheet.

Cover with a second piece of parchment paper and roll out with rolling pin until the dough it as thick as a cracker. Peel off top layer of parchment and bake for 15 minutes.

Remove from oven. Place parchment back on top of cracker layer and flip.

Remove top layer of paper again and return to oven for 10 minutes.

Remove from oven. Reduce heat to 250°F.

Bake for another 25 to 30 minutes or until crispy.

Store, snack or serve with appetizers!

Katharine A. Jameson, a certified nutrition counselor who grew up in Williamsville and Townshend, writes about food and health for Vermont News & Media. For more tricks, tips and hacks, find her on Instagram:

@foodforthoughtwithkat


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