The final chapter in our nutritional, macronutrient ‘trilogy’ tour, Dear Reader, will be dealing with carbohydrates, or in lay terms, sugar!
Now this sweet little macronutrient has been the subject of a lot of scrutiny in the last while, due in part to new (and revived) interest in high protein dietary trends: Atkins, Paleo, and Keto (sounds like a wacky law firm, non?).
However, as with our fat and protein sections, I would like to make the case for healthy carbohydrates that are good for your health, the planet, and your pocketbook. We will be diving into some biochemistry so hold on to your cookies!! And please please stay with this one–the eco friendly message is threads through to the end! I thank you in advance, Dear Reader, for your patience with this one.
How sweet it is!
What is a carbohydrate? Basically, it is a group of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen molecules grouped together in various forms: carbo (for carbon) and hydrate (for water). Some of these form saccharides, or sugars, which can be either simple or complex. These sugars are used by our bodies for energy. The most important simple sugar is glucose–the preferred energy source for heart and brain cells. Glucose is one of the building blocks of sucrose, or what we call “sugar”. The other building block for sugar is fructose, or “fruit sugar” as it is found in high amounts in, you guessed it, fruit. So, glucose + fructose = sucrose. This is a tad simplified, but more that sufficient to illustrate that simple carbohydrates can be brought together chemically with other carbohydrates to make more complex ones. The simple sugars are used for ready energy, and the more complex ones, like glycogen, and starch, are used for energy storage. Although carbohydrates are not as full of energy as fat, they are roughly equivalent to protein with around 4 kcal/gram.
Think of energy metabolism like a map. What we eat gets broken down to form energy to feel our cells, and the by-product of this breakdown is water. Again, let’s go back to chemistry–when we burn something (with oxygen) some of the byproducts will be water and C02. Our bodies are designed to ‘burn’ carbohydrates quickly, release glucose, and give us fast and easy energy to feed our brains and our hearts, again because they preferentially love glucose. In order to make sure that the energy pathways are always running, even in the absence of carbohydrates, our bodies can utilize other energy sources like fats and proteins. Just like all roads lead to Paris, all biochemical metabolism can lead to glucose: although the route may be tortuous and not ideal. The brain and heart have to be protected with a ready energy source and that is why we have evolved the capacity to get energy from all three macro-nutrients. Amazing, non?
Slave to the sweets
Table sugar, or sucrose, has long been a desirable crop. Since around 1500, after Columbus brought sugar cane to the Americas, the demand for sugar has exponentially increased with very profound effects on our health and society. The engine surrounding sugar production–which was beautifully grown in the Caribbean, fueled not only desserts, but the slave trade. Other sources of simple sugars include honey, molasses, beet sugar, brown sugar, and maple syrup.
During rationing periods during wars, people have been quite inventive about replacing what we call white refined sugar with other sweeteners, however I really want to impress upon you, Dear Reader, that sugar is sugar is sugar: meaning, all carbohydrates break down to “sugar”.
Chocolate bars, bread, oats, peas, beans, barley, broccoli, rice, potatoes, wheat, apples…all carbohydrates….all ‘sugars.’ If it comes from a plant source, it is a carbohydrate.
How quickly the carbohydrate breaks down into glucose is tabulated in the glycemic index. Here is one list –there are a ton of them–which tells us how quickly foods break down into glucose, or simple sugars. The goal will be to eat foods with LOW NUMBERS. THE HIGHER THE AMOUNT OF FIBRE, the LOWER THE NUMBER!!!
|FOOD||Glycemic index (glucose = 100)|
|White wheat bread*||75 ± 2|
|Whole wheat/whole meal bread||74 ± 2|
|Specialty grain bread||53 ± 2|
|Unleavened wheat bread||70 ± 5|
|Wheat roti||62 ± 3|
|Chapatti||52 ± 4|
|Corn tortilla||46 ± 4|
|White rice, boiled*||73 ± 4|
|Brown rice, boiled||68 ± 4|
|Barley||28 ± 2|
|Sweet corn||52 ± 5|
|Spaghetti, white||49 ± 2|
|Spaghetti, whole meal||48 ± 5|
|Rice noodles†||53 ± 7|
|Udon noodles||55 ± 7|
|Couscous†||65 ± 4|
|Cornflakes||81 ± 6|
|Wheat flake biscuits||69 ± 2|
|Porridge, rolled oats||55 ± 2|
|Instant oat porridge||79 ± 3|
|Rice porridge/congee||78 ± 9|
|Millet porridge||67 ± 5|
|Muesli||57 ± 2|
|FRUIT AND FRUIT PRODUCTS|
|Apple, raw†||36 ± 2|
|Orange, raw†||43 ± 3|
|Banana, raw†||51 ± 3|
|Pineapple, raw||59 ± 8|
|Mango, raw†||51 ± 5|
|Watermelon, raw||76 ± 4|
|Dates, raw||42 ± 4|
|Peaches, canned†||43 ± 5|
|Strawberry jam/jelly||49 ± 3|
|Apple juice||41 ± 2|
|Orange juice||50 ± 2|
|Potato, boiled||78 ± 4|
|Potato, instant mash||87 ± 3|
|Potato, french fries||63 ± 5|
|Carrots, boiled||39 ± 4|
|Sweet potato, boiled||63 ± 6|
|Pumpkin, boiled||64 ± 7|
|Plantain/green banana||55 ± 6|
|Taro, boiled||53 ± 2|
|Vegetable soup||48 ± 5|
|DAIRY PRODUCTS AND ALTERNATIVES|
|Milk, full fat||39 ± 3|
|Milk, skim||37 ± 4|
|Ice cream||51 ± 3|
|Yogurt, fruit||41 ± 2|
|Soy milk||34 ± 4|
|Rice milk||86 ± 7|
|Chickpeas||28 ± 9|
|Kidney beans||24 ± 4|
|Lentils||32 ± 5|
|Soya beans||16 ± 1|
|Chocolate||40 ± 3|
|Popcorn||65 ± 5|
|Potato crisps||56 ± 3|
|Soft drink/soda||59 ± 3|
|Rice crackers/crisps||87 ± 2|
|Fructose||15 ± 4|
|Sucrose||65 ± 4|
|Glucose||103 ± 3|
|Honey||61 ± 3|
|Data are means ± SEM.* Low-GI varieties were also identified.† Average of all available data.|
The complete list of the glycemic index and glycemic load for more than 1,000 foods can be found in the article “International tables of glycemic index and glycemic load values: 2008” by Fiona S. Atkinson, Kaye Foster-Powell, and Jennie C. Brand-Miller in the December 2008 issue of Diabetes Care, Vol. 31, number 12, pages 2281-2283.
*American Diabetes Association, 2008. Copyright and all rights reserved. This chart has been used with the permission of American Diabetes Association.
Fibre – the least loved of all nutrients
It would suck to be fibre. Flavourless, and unappreciated, fibre is the one thing that everyone in North America needs, and needs a lot of! Why? and what the hell is it? Simply stated, it is a type of carbohydrate that your body cannot digest–or digest fully–but is essential to good health.
There are two different types of fibre – soluble and insoluble.
Soluble – means technically “dissolvable” – Oats, okra, beans, fruits and vegetables…search for the lists and you will see that this fibre is so good for you because it hoovers up bad cholesterol, and feeds your healthy bacteria in your bowel (which can have massive impacts on your health in general).
Insoluable fibre is what my Grandmother called “ruffage” which basically helps to move your bowels and helps you to feel full: bran, celery, raspberries…the list is long….
The Big Message (We’re getting there slowly)
When you body breaks down carbohydrates, in order to get the glucose into the cells, you need insulin. Discovered in Canada by Banting and Best, this amazing protein made in your pancreas acts like a “key” to open the door of the cells and allow glucose to get in there to be used for energy. Once insulin is released, and the cells are “fed” there is a complicated feedback loop with a multitude of hormones that instruct the brain that the human is full: stop eating and we are done here. This is how is works with healthy metabolism eating normal, natural foods. However, it has been found that this “satiety” trigger does not work when humans consume carbohydrates with fructose or fructose based sweeteners. When your diet is full of fructose based sweeteners, you get fat–mainly because you never feel full! These sweeteners are used because they are cheap and they are “sweeter” than table sugar (cane sugar). There is also a fascinating Economist article (which I can’t find – around 2004) about how the rise of these cheap corn-based sweeteners corresponded with the removal of tobacco subsides from the Southern U.S -farmers had to grow something, so corn it is! What the hell do you do with all that corn? You make cheap sweeteners with it, and you feed cows and pigs with it. The results were the same: the people and the animals got plenty fattened up!
This is the same as artificial sweeteners! BAD FOR YOUR BODY! Your body actually metabolizes artificial sweeteners the same way as sugar, and have been found to actually cause obesity!! It is theorized that when you eat artificial sweeteners, the “good” bacteria in your gut gets starved, and the “obesity-causing” bacteria get fed instead. They hold no purpose but to give a sweet taste with absolutely no nutritional value.
Diabetes is a disease of epidemic proportions that is affecting up to 40% of the developed world and costing our health care system billions. There are two types: simply labelled type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is where the body attacks the pancreas and essentially toasts it, so it doesn’t make insulin. Patients are often children, or young adults and they are slim. Type 1 diabetes have to have insulin all the time to survive. The numbers of Type 1 diabetics have stayed pretty constant.
Type 2 is completely different; there is nothing wrong with the pancreas, and it releases insulin, but there is SO MUCH SUGAR floating around, there is not enough insulin to use all the extra energy. What happens? The extra sugar is stored as FAT (usually in the abdomen). Patients are older and often a little thick “around the middle.” The numbers of Type 2 diabetics have soared in the last 50 years –including children!! This is killing us and our healthcare system….
There are many theories about why obesity and diabetes are now epidemic in the first world, and in second world countries as well–this while third world countries are still dealing with starvation.
I believe this is multifactorial. There is not just one reason why. However….
- Overabundance of food and availability of food 24/7
- Decreased price of poor quality food
- Increased dependence on processed “Industrial Food” with low fibre content
- Lack of activity and increased screen time
- Plastic manufacture and recycling
- Rise of High-Fructose sweeteners
- Overuse of antibiotics
Well, that’s quite a list, ChezMD! What to do, what to do….
Let’s bring it back to the environment (ok ok finally).
The real take home message
Healthy carbohydrates are good for your body. They give us energy and they are chock full of vitamins, minerals and fibre. When we eat food that is overprocessed (no fibre) and full of antibiotics/pesticides and artificial sugars, we pay for it in poor health. Period.
There are a lot of fad diets out there that have vilified certain parts of our diet. Don’t eat fat. Don’t eat carbs. Eat pure protein. Fast for 12 hours. Graze all day long and for goodness sake don’t eat gluten!
It is unbelievably confusing and frustrating because everyone has an opinion, and no-one agrees, and there is a multi-billion dollar industry that exists to capitalize off our confusion, our angst and our food-crazy-obsessions. It’s all about how you look, and not about how you feel. It sucks: your time, your energy, your money and your health.
Eating is the first and last pleasure of life. Food is love. Eating should be a pleasure. Carbohydrates are wonderful and delicious, and paired with healthy fats and choice, leaner proteins, make up the perfect diet for humans. What does that look like?
Vegetables, vegetables and more vegetables. Grains? YES! Fruits? of course. Say no to processed foods.
- Whole grains (again, what the hell is that?) Not processed. Oats that are not instant, and not “quick”. Barley. Wheat. Rye. Look for things with small numbers of ingredients, ingredients you can pronounce, and a high high fibre content. These are cheap folks!
- Buy in bulk. Use your glass jars and your cloth bags to source out non-plastic packaged dried grains that you can soak overnight or use in a slow cooker/instant pot.
- Pulses: Peas, lentils, beans. These are winners! They add big fibre, and big flavour to soups, salads, casseroles and they do it on the cheap! Buy in bulk and learn to use from a dry form. Spice them up with East Indian spice palates and bring on the dal….again, cheap!
- Bread: support your local bakery and buy fresh, or try to find brands with ++ fibre. Silver Hills is a good brand for store bought and packs about 5g fibre per slice (we need at least 30g fibre per day).
- Pasta: buy dry in bulk and look for some novel pastas made of lentils or other veggies. Remember in terms of portions, cooked pasta the size of your fist only! Its a side dish, not a main!
- Fruits/Veggies: buy organic when you can and buy without plastic mesh bags. Go for the berries when in season, and grow your own when possible. Farmers markets are some of the best bets for this…Also buy dried, frozen or canned.
- Eat all of the above to feed the good beasties in your gut – and improve your mood and reduce your inflammation.
AVOID PROCESSED FOODS
Remember, shop on the periphery. Don’t go down the aisles. When you buy processed food it is overpackaged, over plastic’d, and over processed (so it has very low fibre and thus a higher glycemic index). It is expensive. It is often SOTE*
When we shop more mindfully, with a purpose to buy better for the environment it will almost always be, automatically, better for our health. When you eat good whole foods that are not processed, you will feel full on less, and your bowels will work (if I had a dime for every patient that suffered from constipation…). Also, Dear Reader, don’t get sucked in by bogus “greenwashing” claims about the frozen pizza being organic etc. Make your own pizza. Or suck it up and go out and buy one from a restaurant.
At the end of the day, it is the processed foods that are the villains. Not the Carbs. Not the Fats. If you avoid them your health, your pocketbook, and the earth will reap the rewards. Don’t eat that extra sugar, Dear Reader; you are sweet enough!
*Whew* that was tedious. I apologize but wanted to tie up loose ends with this food business. Come back again as next time we will talk about CBT helping us to meal plan…
*SOTE: shit of the earth