*What’s all the fuss about carbs? Low carb foods, no carb diets. Just what is carbohydrate? Should you avoid it because it makes you fat?
There is little doubt that the human body uses carbohydrates most efficiently for energy production (as opposed to fats and proteins). So there isn’t really any reason to avoid carbs, even if you’re trying to lose weight. But there is a BIG difference between the natural, wholesome, ‘good’ carbs we are designed to eat and the unnatural, highly-processed, ‘refined’ carbs so many of us consume on a daily basis!
These ‘bad’ carbs are contributing to a health crisis in America and other parts of the world in the forms of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. Millions of people are simply unaware of what they are doing to their bodies every time they eat processed carbs. What’s worse, many parents don’t realize that they are setting their kids up for a lifetime of health problems by allowing them to develop the ‘junk food habit’ at a young age.
Bad carbs are refined, processed carbohydrate foods that have had all or most of their natural nutrients and fiber removed in order to make them easier to transport and more ‘consumer friendly.’ Most baked goods, white breads, pastas, snack foods, candies, and non-diet soft drinks fit into this category. Bleached, enriched wheat flour and white sugar – along with an array of artificial flavorings, colorings, and preservatives – are the most common ingredients used to make ‘bad carb’ foods.
Bad carbs are harmful mainly because the human body is not able to process them very well. Our hormonal and digestive systems developed over the course of millions of years. Yet only in the past 100 years or so have humans had access to these highly-processed carbohydrates in abundance. Our bodies simply didn’t have time to adapt and evolve to handle the rapid changes in food processing.
Because of this, most of the processed carbs we eat wreak havoc on our natural hormone levels. Insulin production, especially, is ‘thrown out of wack’ as the body attempts to process the huge amounts of starches and simple sugars contained in a typical ‘bad carb’-based meal. This leads to dramatic fluctuations in blood glucose levels – a big reason why you often feel lethargic after eating these unhealthy meals.
Also, it’s important to realize that most processed carb foods provide only ’empty’ calories – calories with little or no nutritional-value. Eat enough of these empty calories and your body will quickly turn them into extra body fat, as anyone with a weight problem already knows all to well!
The regular consumption of large amounts of high-sugar, low-fiber, nutritionally-poor ‘bad carbs’ eventually leads to a much higher risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer, heart disease, and more. It’s pretty clear that the abundance of processed carbs and unhealthy trans-fats found in so many foods is a major cause – if not the biggest cause – of many of our modern chronic health problems.
Carbohydrates provide energy for the body. Once consumed, they travel to the liver, which breaks them down into glucose, or blood sugar. Carbohydrates are especially used to provide energy to the brain and to the central nervous system.
Carbohydrates are labeled as complex or simple. This reflects how fast the sugar is absorbed into the bloodstream.
Eating too many foods high in carbohydrates can cause your calorie intake to go up, making you gain unwanted weight. Alternately, a lack of carbohydrates can cause malnutrition and weaknesses. Carbohydrates provide most of the energy the body needs to function. About 55% of your energy foods should come from different varieties of carbohydrates. Much more than that, however, can be detrimental to health. Someone who derives 75% or more of total energy from carbohydrates can be lacking in protein and fats.
Health problem can develop when someone eats too many complex carbohydrates that contain refined sugars. These sugars lack vitamins and fiber but offer a lot of calories. Eating too much refined sugar will lead to weight gain. Examples of these foods include white flour, polished rice, table sugar, and white pasta. A good rule to remember when eating carbohydrates is to eat them in as natural a form as possible
Here are 5 basic guidelines for carbohydrate consumption that are based on current scientific knowledge:
Get most of your carbs from fruits and vegetables. Carbohydrate is the primary macronutrient in fruits and vegetables. In other words, these foods contain a lot more carbohydrate than protein or fat
- *Eat whole grains instead of processed grains whenever possible. There’s nothing wrong with including a moderate amount of grains (wheat, rice, etc.) in your diet, but these grains should be whole grains such as brown rice rather than refined grains such as white flour. Refined grains have been stripped of their fiber, a type of indigestible carbohydrate that slows the absorption of other carbohydrates, and most of their other nutrients.
- *Vary your carb intake with your activity level. Unlike protein and fat, carbs are used only to provide immediate energy for mental and physical activity. Any carbs consumed in excess of the amount needed to meet immediate physical and mental energy needs are converted to body fat. So the amount of carbohydrate you consume needs to be determined by your activity level. If you don’t exercise and have an office job, you should not consume more than three or four grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight daily. If you perform physical work or exercise moderately, aim for five or six grams per pound. If you are highly active, seven or eight grams of carbohydrate per pound of body weight will be needed to keep your body functioning optimally.
- *Strictly limit your sugar intake. The sugars that are added to foods such as cookies and candy bars and to beverages such as lattes and energy drinks should be avoided as much as possible. They add a lot of calories to these products and thereby promote weight gain. Consuming large amounts of sugar over many years may also increase the risk of type 2 diabetes independently of weight gain. If there truly is any “bad carb,” sugar is it.
- *Pay attention to how carbs affect you physically and mentally. Different people react to carbohydrates differently. Some people absorb carbs in foods much faster than others do and are thus more susceptible to “blood sugar crashes” an hour or two after eating a high-carbohydrate meal. Pay attention to how you feel and function after consuming large amounts of carbs and adjust your diet accordingly. If you feel lethargic and perform poorly after eating carbs, you should reduce the amount of carbohydrate in your diet.
- *Eat protein with your carbs. When protein is consumed with carbohydrate, the carbs are absorbed more slowly and the meal is more filling. It’s a good idea to consume some form of lean protein whenever you consume carbohydrate-rich foods.
You can’t talk about carbs without mentioning the glycemic index (GI). The GI is a way of comparing different carbs by ranking their effect on blood sugar levels.
The glycemic index of food is a ranking of foods based on their immediate effect on blood glucose (blood sugar) levels. Carbohydrate foods that breakdown quickly during digestion have the highest glycemic indexes. Their blood sugar response is fast and high. Carbohydrates that breakdown slowly, releasing glucose gradually into the blood stream, have low glycemic indexes.
What is the significance of Glycemic Index?
- *Low GI means a smaller rise in blood sugar and can help control established diabetes
- *Low GI diets can help people lose weight and lower blood lipids
- *Low GI diets can improve the body’s sensitivity to insulin
- *High GI foods can help re-fuel carbohydrate stores after exercise
How to switch to a low GI diet
- *Breakfast cereals based on wheat bran, barley and oats
- *”Grainy” breads made with whole seeds
- *Pasta and rice in place of potatoes
- *Vinegar and lemon juice dressings
In short, the goal should be to build a good plan including the low Glycemic Index foods. This way, hunger is minimized, and there is less of a tendency to “cheat” or overeat. Consequently, you can continue to lose body fat or maintain your weight – once the excess pounds have been lost. Even for those whose main objective is not fat loss, foods that are low on the glycemic index will help alleviate mood swings and regulate energy levels.
Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!
The information included in this column is for educational purposes only. It is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. The reader should always consult his or her healthcare provider to determine the appropriateness of the information for their own situation or if they have any questions regarding a medical condition or treatment plan.
Glenn Ellis, is a Health Advocacy Communications Specialist. He is the author of Which Doctor?, and Information is the Best Medicine. A health columnist and radio commentator who lectures, nationally and internationally on health related topics, Ellis is an active media contributor on Health Equity and Medical Ethics.
For more good health information, visit: www.glennellis.com
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