Much like fats, carbohydrates are another one of those macronutrients that have a bad reputation. These bad boys are, in fact: life giving, energy producing foods, our body’s primary and ideal choice of nutrient for fuel and energy. Again, like fats, there are more desirable, and far less desirable versions of carbohydrates – which is probably why we often hear, and spend so much time trying to eliminate them from our diets. With a little bit of education, we can adjust out diets, not to eliminate all carbs, but to eliminate the bad ones, increase the good ones, and give our body’s a break from trying to use secondary energy sources (proteins and fats).
Carbohydrates are macronutrients – macro meaning we need them in large quantities (eat your heart out Dr. Atkin), along with fats, proteins and water. Carbs are single or mid/long chains of molecules made of Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen, they are broken apart during cellular respiration to essentially sugar in our blood, and with the use of hormones our cells mobilize and utilize these molecules to give us energy and keep our body well fueled.
Simple Carbohydrates are single sugar molecules, also known as monosaccharides. When we eat these carbs, our body uses them immediately and without the need to break them down. The good thing is that there is immediate energy available (useful for athletes or diabetic situations), the bad thing is that they are grossly over consumed leading to a host of many other problems. When we eat simple carbs, our pancreas senses the large and immediate increase in our blood sugar levels and reacts by secreting the hormone insulin. Insulin mobilizes the sugars from our blood to enter our cells where they are utilized to produce energy. The issue that arises here is that large amounts of simple carb ingestion means large blood sugar level spikes, large doses of insulin doing their job, and then one big fat sugar low…. generally leading to “sugar coma” or the ingestion of more simple carbs for more energy. With years of abuse, insulin may become resistant or less effective, and things like Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease are the result of that.
Complex Carbohydrates, on the other hand, provide us with longer and sustained energy as these are long chains of sugar molecules bonded together, also known as polysaccharides. When eaten, our body wil break the chains apart, piece by piece, over a period of time, regulating our blood sugar increases and decreases, and providing us with the energy that we need to survive from meal to meal.
This may or may not be new information for you, but the key to increasing our complex carb intake and decreasing, or eliminating, our simple carb intake comes from proper knowledge of our food choices. Simple carbs are generally refined, looking at grains for example, the bran (outer hull) and the germ (new seed) are removed to produce a lighter product which preserves for longer. The refining process results in a loss of fibre, most vitamins and minerals, including vitamin E, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, B6, iron, zinc, copper, chromium, folic acid, magnesium and manganese. As you can see, not only do these simple carbs mess with our body’s sugar regulating system, they also leave us with a nutrient deficit… all for the convenience of longer shelf life and ‘lighter’ food. Whole grains on the other hand, complex carbs, non-refined, are low in fat, have no cholesterol and are high in fiber. These foods will lower blood cholesterol and control blood glucose (sugar) levels, as well as increase elimination and decrease the risk of colon cancer. For a little less cooking convenience, this seems worth it to me.
I am often asked about two things. One thing being “enriched” grains. This means that a few vitamins and minerals are added back into refined products including: iron, thiamin, riboflavin and niacin. They could be considered “partially restored”. This doesn’t really do anything about the blood glucose levels issue, nor does it restore all of the vitamins and minerals that were lost, you will still end up with a deficit in some form. The second thing many people are curious about is fruit. Fructose, or fruit sugar, is a monosaccharide, and therefore absorbed and used for immediate energy. Fruit, however, is full of fibre, which aids in blood sugar regulation, and helps to control our glucose levels from rising too quickly. Fruit would be the ideal food to be used for immediate energy, if needed, without the negative effects of a refined, simple carbohydrate type food. This would be ideal for that afternoon lull that we often feel, or for athletes needing an additional energy boost during their training (as in – training for the Boston Marathon as one small example…)
If this leaves you hanging with nothing left to eat, let me encourage you to explore the wonderful variety of foods that are out there. If you just don’t think you can survive without your breakfast bagel and Uncle Ben’s instant rice, I can assure there are many many substitutes, well worth the few extra minutes of preparation. Consider experimenting with these grains in their whole form: Amaranth, buckwheat, corn, couscous, kamut, millet, oats, quinoa, brown rice, rye, spelt, and whole wheat. The less refined food you eat, the healthier you will be!
fig&fennel – IronSister mentioned to me yesterday that she has been asked to do a health segment on Breakfast TV in November. I’ll keep you posted as to when, so you can tune in!