The Complete Guide to Carbohydrates

Guide to Carbohydrates- are they healthy

The most common objection I get when recommending a no-grain diet is: “What about the healthy whole grains? Don’t I need the fiber?” I covered this in depth in my grains post, but it seemed that a more thorough explanation of the role of carbohydrates in the body would be a good idea.

What are Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates exist in varying levels in a lot of foods including grains, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, etc. Typically, foods containing grains have a higher carbohydrate content than, say, an equal amount of spinach. In general, the more processed the food, the higher the carbohydrate content. Any food that you eat: protein, fat, or carbohydrate, is broken down by the body. What you don’t immediately use is stored for later use.

Any form of carbohydrate is eventually broken down by the body into glucose, a simple form of sugar. While the body can use glucose for fuel, levels that exceed what  is needed are toxic to the body. In the long run, that whole wheat muffin, cup of millet, or bowl of oatmeal turns into the exact same thing as a cup of soda, a donut, or a handful of candy. The fructose in fruit and the carbohydrates in vegetables are recognized the same way.

The Problem of Carbs…

The problem is, glucose is actually toxic if it is just floating around in your bloodstream, so the body has a defense mechanism. Any glucose that is not immediately used is stored as glycogen in the liver and the muscles. This would be all well and good except that your body has a limited number of glycogen receptors. When these are full, as they almost always are in inactive people, the body only has one option left: to store all the excess glucose as saturated fat within the body.

To make matters worse for the inactive, carb addict, when the body senses glucose in the bloodstream, the pancreas releases a hormone called insulin (perhaps you’ve heard of it?) to signal the body to store the glucose as glycogen. If the glycogen receptors are full and it can’t do this, the body thinks that the cells didn’t get the message and releases even more insulin.

When this happens for a period of time, the cells start to become resistant to the presence of insulin, causing a vicious cycle. The body then releases even more insulin, trying desperately to get the cells to uptake the toxic glucose. The presence of excess insulin in the bloodstream is also toxic and further damages the receptors on these cells. Eventually, the insulin allows the glucose access to your fat cells to get it out of the bloodstream. In other words- Fat isn’t stored as fat in the body- Sugar (from carbohydrates) is stored as fat!

Now that we understand that, it is easy to see why the Insulin/Diabetes/Fat equation can be so confusing. It is the glucose from Carbohydrates that causes the rise in insulin, the insulin resistance and the excess fat, but since this commonly manifests itself as excess weight (fat) in the body, researchers once assumed that fat caused diabetes.

Interestingly, high fat diets are also blamed for heart disease, but fat got this reputation falsely as well. Excess glucose in the bloodstream is toxic, and a gross, sticky sludge. Combine this with the sticky glucose molecules that leech through the small intestines of people who consume grains, and you have a chemical structure similar to wall-paper glue. Which do you think has a higher possibility of clogging arteries: slippery lipids or sticky wall paper glue?

Excess glucose can also cause a rise in triglycerides (it has to be stored somewhere!) and cause joint inflammation. The body keeps storing excess glucose as fat, and the extra insulin that is excreted blocks the action of fat burning enzymes, reducing the body’s ability to burn stored fat. Soon, even the fat cells become resistant, so all the glucose and resulting insulin are free to circulate the bloodstream wreaking havoc and increasing cancer risk.

As if that weren’t enough, the resistance of your cells eventually keeps them from absorbing amino acids (proteins) either, making it difficult or impossible to build or maintain muscle. Since the cells are resistant and the body can’t access them for stored energy, it has no choice but to start cannibalizing muscle tissue and converting it into sugar for energy. Since the excess insulin is blocking  fat burning enzymes from functioning, the body can’t burn fat and is forced to burn muscle. (This, by the way, is the real cause of muscle wasting, not skipping meals, as some would suggest)

The ending to this sad story? Eventually, the liver is damaged by excess insulin and stops converting thyroid hormone T4 to T3, causing low thyroid function and excess weight gain. Nerve damage and loss of eyesight can follow. Finally, an exhausted pancreas throws in the towel and refuses to make insulin anymore. This lovely condition is called Diabetes, and comes with the added bonus of getting to inject high levels of insulin… until you die! Sound exciting? I didn’t think so!

What to do about it…

The good news is that the body has an amazing ability to heal and regenerate itself and that the reverse of the above horror story is also true. When we eliminate grains and other nutrient inferior sources of carbohydrates and get the carbs we do need from vegetables and fruits, our bodies start to become more sensitive to insulin again. Exercise helps too, as muscles that are being used need to access the stored energy (glycogen) inside them. This is the reason that type 2 diabetics often see improvement of symptoms when they adopt a consistent exercise routine.

Removal of bad carbohydrates and commitment to a regular exercise routine allow the body to become sensitive to insulin again. At this point, the body can burn body fat during the day because it is not busy trying to neutralize the toxic glucose in the bloodstream. Since the cells are not damaged, they can absorb amino acids from proteins again. At this point, the body is able to burn fat and build or maintain muscle with fairly little effort.

Unfortunately, this muscle building and fat burning won’t happen with the average American diet! It is estimated that the average American consumes between 350-500+ grams of carbohydrates a day from mostly processed grain and sugar sources. The body does need carbohydrates in some amount, so if grains and sugars aren’t the answer, where should we get them?

Vegetables (and some fruits) are the most nutrient dense sources of healthy carbohydrates. They also contain much higher nutrient levels than grains/sugars and have a cleansing effect on the body. The average person should consume around 100-140 grams of carbohydrates a day from mainly vegetable (and some fruit) sources for optimal health (and less if he/she is trying to lose weight). Consuming adequate levels of vegetables is also the answer to the “what about the fiber” question. Vegetables contain high levels of healthy fiber and are very helpful to the digestive system. Don’t believe me? Eat a bagel and drink a veggie smoothie and let me know which one cleans you out more!

While it is easy to buy into the argument that obesity and diabetes just come back to our genes, it just isn’t true. (I personally think the whole nature/nurture debate on genetic predisposition to health problems is less separated than we think. Families and those in the same culture tend to eat the same foods-causing the same problems!) We have much more ability to affect our gene expression than the mainstream media and the medical community would have us believe. For Moms, this means that the raising rates of childhood diabetes comes back to us…. kids don’t buy their own food!

Agree? Totally disagree? Share below in the comments!

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