Thursday, August 5, 2010

Carbohydrate: Friend or Foe?

When we hear of carbohydrates we think of bread, pasta, potatoes and other 'solid' foods. These are carbohydrates but vegetables and fruit are also carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are basically SUGAR and they can be measured in terms of how many equivalent teaspoons of sugar they provide your body with once digested. As an example, a small apple once digested gives you the equivalent of 3 teaspoons of sugar and an average serving of pasta gives you the equivalent of 18 teaspoons (yes, eighteen - not a typo) of sugar!

What are carbohydrates?

There are 3 groups of carbohydrates:
1. Monosaccharides are simple sugars (i.e. glucose and fructose).
2. Disaccharides are 2 simple sugars linked together (i.e. sucrose and lactose).
3. Complex carbohydrates are thousands of simple sugars linked together (i.e. starch and fibre).

As mentioned above, carbohydrates include fruit, non-starchy vegetables (lettuce, mushrooms, spinach), starchy vegetables (carrots, turnip, leeks) and grains / starch (wheat, oats, rice).

What do carbohydrates do?

1. Provide energy.
The body needs energy in order to function so carbohydrates are vital but starch and concentrated sugar (fruit is concentrated sugar) should be eaten in moderation.
Refined carbohydrates (white rice, most breakfast cereals, white bread etc) have almost no nutritional value and provide energy and nothing else. Ideally they should be avoided completely.
Fruit, vegetables and wholegrains provide vitamins, minerals and other nutrition that we need in addition to the energy from the carbohydrates they contain.

2. Aid in digestion.
Carbohydrates break down fat in the liver and they assist in the digestion of other foods.

3. Provide fibre.
Fibre cannot be broken down by the body so it passes through the digestive system intact. Fibre helps to slow down the rate at which the stomach empties (so slows down the release of glucose) and it encourages efficient bowel movements.

What happens to the carbohydrate when it's eaten?

The body can only use simple sugars for the energy it needs so all carbohydrates that are eaten need to be broken down into simple sugars. Once the sugars in the carbohydrate are broken down, they are absorbed into the blood through the small intestine and carried to the liver. In the liver the sugars are changed to glucose and this then re-enters the bloodstream as energy for all the body's cells to use.

A small amount of the glucose created in the liver is stored as glycogen as an emergency energy source. All extra sugar that the body can't immediately use is stored as BODY FAT. So if you eat too many carbohydrates then your body stores this excess as fat and you begin to put on weight.

Carbohydrates are also addictive (and pastries, breads, doughnuts etc are all so tasty!) so the more carbs you eat, the more you crave - so you can easily overeat carbohydrates. Explains the massive weight issues in a lot of the world.

Carbohydrates should always be eaten with protein and fat in a balanced meal / snack. This means that all the various digestive enzymes triggered by each of the different food groups will be released at the same time and this will slow down the release of the carbohydrate's sugar. If the sugar is released slowly then more of it will be used by the body and less will be stored as body fat. As my Protein post explains, if you're eating enough protein then your metabolism will increase and this will therefore burn up the sugar at a quicker rate so that there is less excess floating around to be made into body fat.

Carbohydrates and blood sugar.

As explained above, carbohydrates are broken down to make glucose. This is needed by the body but an excess of glucose (sugar) in the blood is dangerous for the brain. To protect the brain, the pancreas releases insulin if there is too much glucose in the blood and the insulin removes the excess glucose from the blood. How does it do this? It attaches to the glucose and basically locks it up inside your cells (puts it in jail, as it were) - this is then seen on your body as body fat.

So excess carbohydrates, due to the insulin, make you fat. It is not dietary fat that makes you fat, as I will explain in my next posting.

Many people as they get older develop blood sugar problems, insulin resistance and potentially Type II Diabetes. Following a high-carb diet means that excess sugar is stored in the body (as body fat) and in time the body's cells become saturated and can't hold any more sugar. This means the pancreas secretes even more insulin to try and overcome the problem and some sugar remains in the blood because there is nowhere to store it. Type II Diabetes is purely diet related because the affected person is eating too many carbohydrates and has too much sugar in their system.

If a person with blood sugar issues reduces the amount of carbohydrates they eat then there will be less sugar entering their system which means less insulin will be required. The body needs energy to function so if little new sugar is entering the system then the body is forced to remove sugar from its stores (your body fat). What does this mean?

1. Excess sugar is not being eaten so it is not entering the bloodstream.
2. Excess stored sugar is removed from the body tissues to give the body the energy it needs to function.
3. The resistance to insulin reduces because there is 'storage space' in the body again because the stored sugar has reduced.
4. The body's use of insulin becomes effective again so the pancreas can return to producing normal levels of insulin.
5. The blood clears of sugar because there is little excess entering the body and where there is excess sugar, the body's cells are empty enough to be able to hold the sugar.

Sugar problems don't happen overnight - they happen after years (decades) of poor eating habits. Sugar problems cannot therefore be solved overnight and Judy Cole advises that following the above low-carb diet would take at least 3 months to show a result in your blood.

How much carbohydrate should I eat?

Non-starchy vegetables can be eaten in unlimited amounts by everyone as they do not create too much sugar in your system and they are full of nutrients and fibre.

Fruit is not a health food as it digests very quickly and releases a high amount of sugar into the system - fruit diets are extremely bad for you as they flood the body with sugar and therefore insulin. Fruit should only ever be eaten with protein because protein helps to slow down the release of the sugar in the fruit. So eat fruit after a meal as a dessert (a good idea since fruit contains digestive enzymes which help with digestion) or eat it with a piece of cheese or meat as a snack.

Fruit juice has even more sugar than a piece of fruit - a glass of apple juice contains about 4 or 5 apples so that is 12-15 teaspoons of sugar! It is always best to water fruit juice down so there is 1/3 juice and 2/3 water. Limit yourself to a maximum of 2 portions of fruit / watered down fruit juice per day. If you are overweight then DO NOT EAT FRUIT because it is very fattening with all that sugar.

Starchy vegetables should be eaten in small portions (if you want to lose weight then try to have no more than 1 portion of starchy veg a day). They contain important nutrients so should not be cut out completely, just eat them in moderation. The following contain 15g of carbohydrate and are the equivalent of 3 teaspoons of sugar:

1 cup beetroot
2/3 cup butternut squash
1 cup carrots
2/3 cup corn
1/2 cup peas
1 cup leeks
1 cup okra
2/3 cup parsnips
1 cup pumpkin
1/2 cup turnip

Starch (grains) should not be eaten at all for the first 2 months of a weight-loss programme since they are complex carbohydrates and so they release the most sugar. They should then be added to the diet in very limited portions (i.e. 1 portion per day) until you have gained your ideal weight. If you are trying to follow a low-starch diet as I am (since it has been found that starch can trigger the immune system to attack the joints in Ankylosing Spondylitis) then this helps to identify what needs to be limited / avoided. The following contain 15g of carbohydrate and are the equivalent of 3 teaspoons of sugar:

1/3 cup cooked brown rice (1/3 cup uncooked rice will give you almost 1 full cup of cooked rice)
1/3 cup buckwheat
2/3 cup oats
1/3 cup quinoa (pronouned keen-wa)
1/4 cup rye
1.5 tbsp whole wheat
1 tbsp white rice
1/4 cup wild rice (wild rice is actually a seed not a grain)
1 large slice of spelt or rye bread
2 ryvitas
2 oat cakes
3 brown rice cakes

Although they are technically starchy vegetables, potatoes and sweet potatoes should be considered as starch and so avoided in the first 2 months of a weight-loss programme. Remember that all the nutrients in a potato are under the skin so if you remove the skin then you remove ALL the nutrients - even if you're having mashed potato, make it with the skin in there.

If you are on a weight-loss programme Cole recommends that you can still have up to 6 ryvita (or 4 ryvita and 1 slice of wholegrain spelt bread) with all other starches avoided completely.

On your plate you should therefore have about 1/3 covered by protein, 1/2 (or more) vegetables and a little starch (rice / potato / pasta).

For those of us in Dubai, the Organic Foods & Cafe sells wholegrain spelt bread (great for toast but not so great for a sandwich), brown rice pasta (tastes the same as wheat pasta) and on a Tuesday they sell a range of yeast-free, wheat-free products; I'm going to check it out next week.

What is the best source of fibre?

Non-starchy vegetables are the best source of fibre as not only do they provide the fibre your body needs, they also release minimal sugar into your system and are full of nutrients.

Wholegrain wheat products are often cited as an excellent source of fibre. However, modern day wheat has been so selectively bred and modified that it has become extremely difficult to digest and is one of the most common food intolerances. Spelt flour is closer to the original wheat grain that was eaten up until the 19th century and is much easier to digest. Wholegrain rye is also far less modified than modern day wheat and so is easier to digest. Judy Cole advises to eat no foods containing wheat and to only have 100% wholegrain rye (Ryvita) and 100% wholegrain spelt products.

The next food group is fat. As I said above, it is carbohydrates not dietary fat that make you gain body fat. So more about fat and why it is GOOD FOR YOU next time.


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