understanding carbohydrates

Carbohydrates, not fats are the cause of the current obesity epidemic, but this is not what you are being told. It is important to understand why carbohydrates are the key to gaining and losing weight, and are the causative factor in insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and diabetes.

Bad Science

Carbohydrates are the cause of the current obesity epidemic, not fats. and this obesity is the major cause of diabetes and heart disease. The problem is that the science is currently being ignored by medical and government establishments, which are firmly locked in to the idea that fats are bad and that carbohydrates can be called heart healthy. The farming and food industry have huge financial interests in promoting carbohydrates for us to eat, and the drug manufacturers have huge financial interests in promoting statins and keeping us believing that fats are bad for our heart. Like a giant tanker, it will take a long time for the current health promotion messages to change course and put carbohydrates at the centre of our concern about health.

The ‘Guidelines For Healthy Eating‘ and the ‘Food Pyramid‘ base a healthy diet on carbohydrates, and encourage us to eat even more. This recommendation is fueling the obesity epidemic, and is not supported by the science.

Restricting carbohydrates, not fats is the way to lose weight. The current idea that we need to exercise more and eat less, especially less fat to lose weight is also wrong, and is guiding us along a path leading to frustration when we find it doesn’t work. All calories are not created equal, yet calorie counting is still promoted by many weight loss programs. Understanding how your body handles carbohydrates is the key to weight loss.

The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Carbohydrates consist of simple sugar units combined together. The most important simple sugars are glucose and fructose. Combine these together and you have sucrose or table sugar. Add more units and you have starch, and even more give complex carbohydrates. The reverse happens during digestion, where carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars, so that they can be absorbed through the wall of the gut into the bloodstream.

Complex carbohydrates are the good ones. These are found in vegetables and digest slowly, releasing glucose into the bloodstream in a slow, steady way, which is easiest for the body to deal with. Fruits also contain complex carbohydrates which are slowly digested, but their sweet taste also demonstrates that they also contain simple sugars as well, so it is best not to eat too much fruit. Fruit juices contain all of the sugars but few of the complex carbohydrates, and so release glucose into the blood quickly, which puts them in the bad category. Consume diluted or in moderation.

Starches are the bad ones. These are found in potatoes, rice and pasta. Also in and grains, such as wheat, and even more concentrated as flour, which is used to make bread, cakes and pastries, and is found in almost all processed foods. Breakfast cereals are also based on grains and are quite starchy. These starches can digest quite quickly and release glucose into the blood over a fairly short space of time. Unprocessed forms digest more slowly, and so are better, such as wholegrain rice, bread and grains. Highly processed ones, such as white flour are the worst, and is a cheap thickener and bulking agent found in almost every processed food. Highly processed starches break down quickly to form glucose, which causes spikes in blood glucose concentration leading to insulin resistance.

Fructose sugars are the ugly ones. Which is found in sucrose or table sugar, and in high fructose corn syrup. These are the sweetners used in sweets, jams and most processed foods. The ugliest of all are the fizzy drinks, which provide simple sugars, flavouring and no nutrition. These are empty calories which just go to make you fat. However, fruit juices are also a problem, as they concentrate natural fructose and remove the fibre, giving an unnaturally high fructose content.

Artificial sweeteners are not necessarily healthier than sugars, and often carry their own risks. Their sweet taste also causes insulin to be released, as the body is expecting glucose to be there. This extra insulin release is not healthy and contributes to insulin resistance.

Glycemic Index is the measurement of how quickly a food releases glucose into the blood, and foods with a low glycemic index are healthier than foods with a high index. Glycemic Load takes this one stage further, and looks at the amount of this food you would eat as one portion, and is a much more useful guide.

Can You Handle Carbohydrates?

Carbohydrates are not essential for health. There is no such thing as an essential carbohydrate, unlike proteins and fats. The body naturally makes any carbohydrates it needs from fat or protein. Carbohydrates are a useful source of calories if you eat the right sort of foods containing them, and your body can handle them. However, many people have built up a sensitivity to carbohydrates, and this altered metabolism causes the carbohydrates you eat to be stored as extra fat, rather being used for energy. This leads to weight gain, and the fat is also stored as unhealthy fat around the internal organs, giving the bulging belly shape.

Insulin is the key to carbohydrate metabolism, and most people have unhealthy insulin levels. Carbohydrates are broken down to glucose by digestion, which is absorbed into the bloodstream. Insulin is released in response to circulating glucose, and it is the job of insulin to remove glucose from the blood into the cells to use for energy, or into the carbohydrate stores in the liver and muscle cells as glycogen.

A diet high in carbohydrates keeps insulin production at a high level, especially the quick release carbohydrates, which put a lot of glucose into the blood all in one go, rather than the slow releasing ones, which spread this out over a longer period. Constant high levels of insulin lead to insulin resistance in the cells, where the insulin signal to remove glucose from the blood doesn’t work as well. This leads to higher levels of insulin being produced in response to the glucose not being removed from the blood. This leads to more insulin resistance, and the whole cycle goes around again.

Metabolic syndrome is a stage where the body can no longer handle carbohydrates properly, and this brings a whole range of health problems, including weight gain, high blood pressure and heart disease. A quarter of the UK population are thought to suffer with metabolic syndrome, and the number is increasing. It is also the halfway house for Type 2 Diabetes and heart disease.

Carbohydrate which can not be used by the cells is stored as fat. Normally this is just  a short term energy store, which is used up before your next meal. However, insulin resistance makes these fat reserves less available to the body, and so they accumulate. So you get fat.

Type 2 Diabetes is the final stage of insulin resistance, where insulin resistance causes the glucose level in your blood to be so high that it exceeds the threshold at which the kidneys can reabsorb it and it is overflows into urine, where it can be detected. Diabetes is a serious medical condition with a wide range of health problems, which affects 1 person in 25 in the UK, which amounts to 2.3 million people with diagnosed diabetes. However, just as worrying is ‘The Missing Million’, a term that has been used to describe the people in the UK who have diabetes but don’t know about it, as it hasn’t yet been diagnosed. This is 1 in every 60 people in the UK, which puts this figure into perspective.

Carbohydrates Control Your Cholesterol Levels

Your cholesterol levels are greatly influenced by the carbohydrates in your diet. High carbohydrate diets lower HDL (Good cholesterol) and raise triglycerides (risk factor for heart disease), and make LDL (Bad cholesterol) small and dense, which is the worst form of LDL for heart disease risk. These are, however, not direct risk factors for heart disease, but markers of your body’s metabolism.

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