If carbohydrates are in such high demand in our body, then why have they been tagged the notorious 'carbs'? There are two reasons: it comes down to the form of the carbohydrates and the amount that we consume them in. Too much of anything can cause problems, regardless of how good that thing is; water and rain are both essential in this world, but too much can cause a flood. If we flood our plates and cupboards with the wrong type of carbohydrates, then we can drown out our body. The balance lies in the middle. We need to consume carbohydrates in both the right amount, and in the most beneficial form.
Carbohydrates can be grouped into two main forms: simple and complex. Which group they belong to depends on their structure, and this structure depends on the source of the food and how much processing it undergoes. Simple versus complex, also determines the effect the carbohydrate has inside our body.
All carbohydrates are composed of sugar molecules, but this composition varies from one to another. These slight differences in structure can equate to very different outcomes inside our body. To better understand this, we first need to understand the structure of carbohydrates.
Simple carbohydrates are made of no more than one or two sugar molecules. This simple structure translates to its simple digestion. With only one or two sugar molecules to break down, this allows our body to quickly digest and metabolize these sugars, and this provides us with a quick source of energy. The more simple the sugar, the easier our body can break it down, and the faster the energy is released. To understand the significance of this process, let’s take a look at the different types of simple sugars.
What are the Simple Sugars ?
The simplest of sugars are glucose, fructose and galactose. They are composed of only one sugar molecule and can also be classified as monosaccharides. Mono, meaning one, and saccharide, meaning sugar.
Glucose is the simplest sugar that every cell in our body can metabolize and use as energy. It powers every one of our movements, it's needed for many metabolic processes, and it's the energy that fuels our brain.
The need for glucose in every part of our body, means that we need efficient transport to distribute it. One of the best modes of transport in our body is our blood. It circulates throughout our body in order to remove and deliver many of our needs, and glucose is one of them. When we talk about measuring our blood sugars, we are referring to the amount of glucose in our blood.
These blood glucose levels need to be maintained at the right levels. Our body does this through hormone control and the efficient functioning of our organs. Glucose triggers the release of the hormone, insulin from our pancreas. The insulin is secreted and has the task of removing glucose from our blood to keep it below a certain level. When blood glucose levels are too low, our pancreas releases another hormone called glucagon. Glucagon triggers the release of glucose that is stored in our body. This store is called glycogen and it can be found in our liver and muscles. The proper release of the hormones insulin and glucagon, both help to keep our blood glucose levels within a healthy range.
We can also help this control by engaging in regular physical activity and establishing healthy eating habits. Physical activity helps to pull glucose from our blood as our muscles need it, and by eating regular meals containing complex carbohydrates and natural simple sugars, we can feed our body with the steady release of glucose that it needs.
Complex carbohydrates like starch, are made of long chains of many glucose units that our body needs to break down. Because our body needs to spend some time breaking it down, this results in the slower release of glucose into our blood stream. This helps to keep our blood sugar levels steady and in a healthy range, and puts less stress on our pancreas to release insulin. Glucose can also be found in its simplest form in foods like jelly beans and candy, and other processed foods. The glucose in these foods is often released much quicker into our blood stream and this can result in more fluctuating blood sugar levels and put more demand on our pancreas for insulin release. These foods may also lack other nutrients that we need. Therefore, it’s best to get our glucose from unrefined sources and let our body do its job and break it down.
As explained below, glucose is also a component of other simple sugars. This makes glucose widely distributed in our food supply. We can consume it in a number of different sources, at regular intervals and in the amounts needed by our body. On the contrary, this common occurrence means that we can overindulge in this simple sugar, and this has its own set of implications. Read more about this in High Carbohydrate Intake.
Galactose is a simple sugar that combines with glucose, to form lactose: the natural sugar found in dairy products. This makes dairy products our main source of dietary galactose. Once we consume galactose, our liver metabolizes it into glucose, and the glucose goes on to fuel our body.
Although our body metabolizes galactose to glucose, galactose does not normally contribute a large source of glucose to our diets. One reason being, is that large amounts of this simple sugar are isolated to lactose, and this is found only in dairy products. Providing we consume a moderate amount of dairy products, galactose does not pose the same problems that the other simple sugars can. Much smaller amounts of galactose can also be found in English green peas, green and yellow split peas, black-eyed peas, legumes, and a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
Fructose is a simple sugar found naturally in fruit and some vegetables. When eaten fresh or largely unprocessed, and in the recommended amounts, fruit and vegetables are a moderate source of fructose that also contribute a wealth of other nutrients. Ideally, this is where we derive our fructose from.
Unlike glucose, the metabolism of fructose does not cause a direct effect on our blood sugar levels. Instead, fructose is metabolized by our liver. Our liver metabolizes part of this fructose into glycogen. Glycogen is a short term storage of carbohydrates found in our liver and muscles. It's converted to glucose as our body needs it, like during times of extended physical activity, during periods of fasting, or in our overnight fast. Glycogen is an important source of energy and fructose can help to provide it. The other part of fructose is converted to triglycerides and these are stored in our blood in the form of lipoproteins, or cholesterol. These can be measured in two forms: high-density lipoproteins (HDL’s) and low-density lipoproteins (LDL’s). HDL’s are the favorable ones and LDL’s are the unfavorable ones, and they both need to be present in the right amounts. LDL's carry a high amount of cholesterol and can make up about 70% of our total blood cholesterol. They move slowly through our blood stream, and in increased amounts can clog it up and cause fatty deposits, and this can contribute to cardiovascular disease. HDL’s carry less cholesterol and move faster through our blood stream. They also have the ability to transport LDL's from the blood to the liver, where they can be excreted in the bile. This is how HDL’s can protect against atherosclerosis. So larger and unregulated amounts of LDL's can have a negative effect on our blood cholesterol levels and our cardiovascular health. How does this relate back to fructose? This simple sugar is formed into LDL’s. So in moderate amounts, fructose can give us a source of slow release energy, but in larger and unregulated amounts, it can have a negative impact in our blood cholesterol and cardiovascular health.
A large amount of fructose can also add stress to our liver. It’s the only organ in our body that can metabolize it, and so we when consume fructose, our liver will prioritize its metabolism. If our liver is constantly having to metabolize large amounts of fructose, then this can interfere with its many other functions. This may also cause fatty liver. Fatty liver is an abnormal accumulation of triglycerides in the liver. This can effect the function of the liver but it can also be reversed with diet and lifestyle changes. So if fruit and vegetables don’t contribute large amounts of fructose to our diet, then where does it all come from?
Disaccharides. Disaccharides are simple sugars made of two sugar molecules. These include sucrose, lactose, and maltose. The one of interest is sucrose. When broken down, sucrose, yields one glucose and one fructose molecule. Therefore, sucrose has the potential to provide large amounts of fructose to our diet. Read more on sucrose below to find out how.
Sucrose, more commonly known as table sugar, is a simple sugar made of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. This simple sugar is used to sweeten everything from our tea and coffee, to products like cookies, cakes and ice-cream, as well as its extensive use in the food industry to sweeten less obvious products like soups, sauces, yogurts, and breakfast cereals.
This extensive use of sucrose, especially in the food industry, can result in excessive consumption, and this comes with consequences. Sucrose is composed of both glucose and fructose, so this means sucrose provides us with a significant source of dietary fructose. The problem is not the fructose in fruit and vegetables, but the fructose from a diet with increasing amounts of sucrose. This hidden source of fructose is what causes the problems associated with a large fructose intake. Read more about this above.
Another problem associated with a large sucrose intake is its source. When we are consuming sucrose in large amounts, we are often consuming it in the form of processed and sweetened foods like cakes, cookies, ice-cream or soda drinks. These are also known as empty calories. These empty calories give us plenty of energy but lack the nutrients to match. So we are filling up on energy and possibly gaining weight, while depriving our body of the other half of the equation; much needed vitamins and minerals.
Sucrose, or table sugar, is a type of sugar we’re all familiar with, but it can have multiple identities. Sucrose can go by many names and we need to be aware of them.
Lactose is a simple sugar found in milk and milk products. It’s composed of one galactose and one glucose sugar molecule. When our body breaks down lactose, the glucose goes on to influence our blood sugar levels, and the galactose is directed to our liver. The galactose is then further metabolized into glucose, before being released into our blood stream. This intermediate breakdown of lactose into glucose and galactose, slows the absorption of this simple sugar into our bloodstream. Another factor that slows the absorption of lactose is its source. When we consume lactose, we are consuming dairy products and all the nutrients that accompany it, and one of those nutrients is protein. This protein slows the breakdown of sugars in the milk, and hence slows the release of glucose into our bloodstream.
When it comes to our sugar intake, lactose does not pose a large problem. We tend to consume it in moderate amounts, and its source provides us with many additional nutrients, like calcium, phosphorus, potassium, B vitamins and protein. When we consume lactose, we are consuming all the nutrients that accompany it.
Maltose is a disaccharide made of two glucose molecules. It’s formed during the digestion of starches, or in the fermentation of grains. One of these grains is barley. When barley germinates, the starches are broken down into sugars, or maltose, and this is referred to as ‘malting grains’. Why are grains malted? Malted grains are used in the brewing industry. The maltose is then fermented into alcohol and this is an essential process in beer making.
Barley produces the most maltose during germination and is therefore, the most malted grain. However, this process can also be applied to wheat and rye. These malted grains are also used to make malt whisky, malt vinegar, malted drinks, and malted confections and cookies.
Other Simple Sugars
High Fructose Corn Syrup
A further processed form of corn syrup is high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Regular corn syrup has been modified, fructose has been added, and this produces a product that has a high fructose to glucose ratio. So all of a sudden we have a highly significant source of fructose. This process is also extremely cheap, produces a liquid sweetener that combines easily with other ingredients, and also gives the product a longer shelf life. Economics, ease of use, and a lengthened shelf life, are three factors that work in favor of HFCS, and these have been its entry ticket into the food industry. As a result, and especially in North America, HFCS can be found in anything from tomato sauce and soups, to breakfast cereal and yogurt. This extensive use can mean that we’re potentially consuming large amounts of fructose over the course of our day and enduring the side effects that result.
Instead, we need to opt for simple sugars that also contribute nutrients, like the fructose in fruit and vegetables, the lactose in milk and milk products, and controlled amounts of natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup and agave syrup. These simple sugars from fruit and vegetables, dairy products, and controlled amounts of sucrose, are all normal in a healthy diet. On the flip side, large amounts of these simple refined sugars is not a natural practice and can reek havoc on our system. Read more about this below in High Carbohydrate Intake.
It's in our best interest to limit and control our simple sugar intake, and opt for more natural, unrefined sources of carbohydrates. These include complex carbohydrates.
Simple sugars are made of only one or two sugar molecules, but complex carbohydrates are formed of long chains of more than ten sugars. They're also called polysaccharides, poly meaning many, and saccharide meaning sugar. These complex carbohydrates may be larger and more complex in nature, but this only shapes in their advantage.
For sugars to be released into our blood stream, our body must first break them down. The larger and more 'complex' these sugars are, then the longer it can take our body to do this. Time is the advantage. The slow breakdown of complex carbohydrates promotes a slow release of sugars. This gives us prolonged energy, reduced sugar cravings, and most importantly, promotes stable blood sugar and insulin levels. All these factors can help us to maintain a healthy weight and also help in the prevention or treatment of Type 2 Diabetes. This is how complex carbohydrates can promote our health.
Complex carbohydrates give us more than just energy. These foods are often loaded with vitamins and minerals, making them a nutrient rich source of energy. They're exactly the type of food that satisfies our body, and we need to eat more of them.
What are the Complex Carbohydrates?
Our main source of complex carbohydrates is starch. Starches are long chains of glucose sugars that are formed in a wide variety of plant based foods, as listed below.
These foods are best eaten in their most wholesome and unrefined form. This includes wholegrain and wholemeal flours and products, fresh fruit and vegetables, and a regular intake of legumes and the alternative listed grains. By eating these unrefined complex carbohydrates, we are doing two things; we are giving our body unadulterated food with plenty of nutrients, and we're letting our body do most of the work to break them down.
Our body is made to metabolize the food we eat. It can breakdown complex carbohydrates into simple sugars, like glucose, and this glucose can then be transported to our blood where we can use it immediately or store it for later. If we're using it immediately, then we're powering our muscles, fueling our brain, or just maintaining the inner workings of our body. If we're saving it for later, then our body will store it as glycogen. Glycogen is a short term storage of glucose found mainly in our liver, as well as a small amount in our muscles. This glycogen can be metabolized into glucose as our body needs it, like during prolonged exercise, when we're sleeping, or when we fast or skip a meal. Complex carbohydrates are the best foods to feed our glycogen stores with.
Grains & Processing
Some of these complex carbohydrates, can be milled, stripped and ground into one of many products. To better understand this, let's take a look at a grain of wheat.
A whole grain of wheat has three main components; the outer layer of bran that contains vitamins, minerals and fibre; the inner germ that contains vitamin E and a small amount of healthy oils; and the endosperm. The endosperm makes up nearly 85% of the grain and contains only starch. So once the bran and germ are stripped away, then so are many of the nutrients, leaving this refined white endosperm. This is better known as white flour. To get more out of wheat and other grains, opt for wholegrain or wholemeal products. The bran and germ are still intact and this provides added vitamins, minerals and fibre, as well as slowing the metabolism of starches and the release of glucose into our blood.
There are also the complex carbohydrates that we can not digest, and these provide us with dietary fibre. Read more about fibre here.
Complex carbohydrates are the preferred source of carbohydrates in our diet, and there's a wide range to chose from. If we include a variety of these complex carbohydrates in our diets everyday, then we can give our body what it needs and enjoy these starchy foods for what they are. Wholesome and unrefined food with plenty of real taste and texture.
So if simple carbohydrates have one or two sugar molecules, and complex carbohydrates have more than ten, what about those sugars in between? Any sugar molecule made with three to ten sugar molecules is called an oligosaccharide. These oligosaccharides can not be completely broken down our body, but this also has its advantages.
These undigested sugars feed the growth of healthy bacteria in our large intestine. This promotes the good bacteria, while reducing the not-so-beneficial bacteria, and this makes oligosaccharides prebiotics. Prebiotics are any food that positively influences the growth of bacteria in our digestive system. These good bacteria then continue to encourage the health of our digestive system and also support the function of our immune system.
Oligosaccharides can be found in Jerusalem artichokes/sunchokes, onions, leeks garlic, chicory, burdock, asparagus, bananas, soy beans and cabbage. These are some of the main sources.
Implications of a Diet High in Carbohydrates
Too Many Carbs & Too Many Calories
Although carbohydrates are our body's preferred source of energy, we can only use so many of them. This ideal amount differs between all of us, but we all store the excess in the same way; we convert it into body fat.
Once we have consumed enough glucose to maintain our blood sugar levels, and our glycogen stores are full, our body still needs to metabolize any excess sugars we eat. The only option left is to turn them into fat. Our liver takes the excess sugars, converts them into fatty acids, and these fatty acids are then transported into fat storage. It’s still stored as energy, but this energy is harder to breakdown and can quickly become a burden on our body. This is why a diet that skimps on fat, but relies on sugar, can still result in weight gain.
One interesting thing about fat storage is the sky's the limit. Despite the fact that many processes in our body are tightly controlled, fat storage is not. We can keep storing fat for as long as we continue to overfeed ourselves. Our body can try to control fat storage through balancing our appetite and what we eat, but if we ignore these basic messages of what and when to eat, then we are ignoring our body's efforts to control this heavy burden on our body. Excess weight is like lugging excess baggage; it forces many parts of our body to pull more than they're meant to, and it comes with a hefty cost.
Excess Weight Carries A Burden
Body fat is essential, but an accumulation of weight can overwork and overstrain our body. It can weight our body down and increase our chances of many associated conditions.
These conditions may not be there next week or next month, but that's only because they're conditions of progression. If we're constantly neglecting our body, then we may be slowly progressing towards ill health. But if we recognize this progression and act on the first signs of development, like weight gain, then we may be able to avoid or delay the long term effects.
Once we reach these results, it's much harder to reverse them. In fact, many of them are irreversible. These results can then hinder us for the remainder of our lives, force us to focus on treatments instead of cures, and they can be quite abrupt and even cut our life short.
These fat stores can be seen and felt on the outside of our body, and they can also accumulate on the inside. Unhealthy amounts of fat can build up in our blood and around our major organs, and this can increase our chance of developing one of many conditions.
A diet high in simple sugars like sucrose, HFCS and other refined sugars, can often mean a diet high in processed and refined foods. While these foods may have plenty of calories they often lack the nutrients to match. They're called empty calories and this is where the discrepancies begin.
It's a nutrient discrepancy. It can effect our vitamin and mineral intake, and these nutrients are what fine tune our body. They can help the function of every organ; the health of our cardiovascular system; the fight of our immune system; the flow of our digestion; and the state of our mind. Too many empty calories and not enough nutrients, can deprive our body of what it really needs and this can effect our health.
We need nourishment as well as energy, and there are plenty of opportunities to do this. We can replace that chocolate bar with a piece of fruit; or that serve of ice-cream with a tub of natural yogurt; or that slice of cake with wholegrain crackers. This is only part of the equation. We also need to ensure our breakfast, lunch and dinner, contains nutrient dense foods that are unprocessed and unrefined, and preferably made at home. It can be as simple as combining wholegrains and vegetables, with legumes, lean meat or fish, or a serve of dairy as required, and letting herbs and spices do the extra work. There's no need for large amounts of simple or refined sugars, just nutrient dense foods that provide the satisfaction of flavor and the need for nourishment.
Blood Sugar, Insulin & Type 2 Diabetes
Carbohydrates are broken down and released into our blood stream as glucose. The amount of glucose is determined by what and how much we eat, and the rate of entry into our blood stream is determined by how fast our body breaks them down. Refined simple sugars are often a lot quicker for our body to breakdown, and therefore, they release a larger amount of glucose into our blood stream and this can occur at a faster rate. The faster this happens the quicker our body needs to respond.
Our body controls our blood glucose levels with hormones, and one of these hormones is insulin. When blood glucose levels start to rise, this triggers the release of insulin from our pancreas. So the more our blood glucose levels rise, the more insulin our body will release in order to help control it. Insulin takes action by attaching to insulin receptors on cell walls. This ignites a series of reactions that allows the glucose to leave our blood and enter our cells where it can be used immediately for energy or stored as glycogen for later. Problems arise when our blood glucose levels soar too high, too quickly. This is called hyperglycemia. Our body responds to this by releasing large amounts of insulin, but this can clear the glucose too quickly and cause blood glucose levels to drop too much. This is called hypoglycemia. So too many refined sugars can cause rapid rising (hyperglycemia) followed by quick-to-plummet (hypoglycemia) blood glucose levels. If these extreme fluctuations in our blood sugar levels become a regular pattern, then this can progress to insulin resistance (IR) and impaired glucose tolerance (IGT).
Insulin resistance is exactly what is sounds like; when our body starts to resist the action of insulin. The receptors that normally respond to insulin are now less respondent and this makes insulin less effective in our body. Our blood glucose levels will remain high for a longer period of time and this is called impaired glucose tolerance. This viscous cycle of insulin resistance and impaired glucose tolerance, continue to feed on one another. If the function of insulin is less effective, then our blood glucose levels remain high. When our blood glucose levels remain high, our body continues to produce insulin.
Insulin resistance and impaired glucose tolerance can also cause weight gain (especially around the abdomen), increased blood pressure, increased blood triglyceride levels, and fatty liver. They can also progress to Type 2 Diabetes.
High Fructose & High Cholesterol
When we consume and metabolize large amounts of fructose, we are forcing our body to do something that it is simply not designed to do. The only organ in our body that can metabolize fructose is our liver, and it can only handle this task in small amounts. Our liver has a busy schedule inside our body, so having to metabolize large amounts of fructose can quickly impede on its other functions.
When our liver metabolizes large amounts of fructose, part of it is converted to very low-density lipoproteins (VLDL). These are a type of triglyceride that can negatively influence our blood cholesterol levels. The higher our fructose consumption, the higher our cholesterol and unhealthy blood triglyceride levels may rise, and this may contribute to cardiovascular disease. Our body’s inability to metabolize large amounts of this simple sugar, is a good indication that we were never meant to consume a diet high in fructose.
Another sign that we were never meant to consume fructose in large amounts is its occurrence in nature. If we look for the natural and unrefined sources of this sugar, they are limited to fruits and some vegetables, and are only present in small amounts. Fructose is also found in natural sweeteners like honey, agave syrup and maple syrup, but ideally we limit our consumption of these sweeteners.
Instead, a high fructose diet comes from products containing processed and refined sweeteners. Sucrose, or table sugar, is a culprit. It’s made of half fructose and half glucose, so it provides a source of dietary fructose. High fructose corn syrup is another source of fructose. It’s refined corn syrup with added fructose and it’s used extensively in processed food in North America.
Simple Sugar & the Dentist
Our teeth don't like these sugars any more than the rest of our body does. A diet high in simple refined sugars can cause increased dental decay and cavities, and this can leave a bitter taste in our mouth. Many of us know the discomforts of having dental work done and the hefty costs that are involved. Refined simple sugars may have a cheap price tag to begin with, but if we bite into too many of them, they can cost us much more in dental fees.