Sugar: How to tell “good” carbs from “carbage”

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“The three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary.”  – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

In my last post I discussed the importance of calories from foods and why they are important to maintain a steady metabolism and how low-calorie diets can be detrimental to health as well as promote weight gain, rather than weight loss.  I also pointed out that calories differ depending on where you obtain them from.  A calorie from fat is different than a calorie from carbohydrates, etc.  They are different because each macronutrient- fat, carbohydrates, and protein- all have different metabolic pathways and all have numerous factors that affect how well they are metabolized.  Today I’m going to focus on carbohydrates; which happens to be the macronutrient with the most variables involved in how it gets broken down and used for energy.  Just like a calorie is not just a calorie, the same holds true for carbohydrates.  A carb is not just a carb.  Allow me to elaborate:

As most of you probably already know, carbohydrates can come from numerous sources, for instance carbohydrates from a summer squash differ from carbohydrates found in table sugar.  Why?  Because of how they are utilized in the body-more specifically-the cells.  Unlike the other macronutrients fat and protein, carbohydrates require the use of insulin (secreted by the pancreas) to deliver carbohydrate (by this point in the form of glucose) to the cells to be used as energy.  This is done more efficiently with carbs that are introduced into the blood at a slower rate so that insulin can keep up.  These so called ‘slow-carbs’ are referred to as low-glycemic index carbohydrates because they don’t spike your blood sugar on account of being introduced to the bloodstream at a slower rate.  Slow-carb foods include vegetables like broccoli, cucumbers, cauliflower, squash, parsnips, taro, etc.  Because of the fiber content of these foods, the sugars (carbs) get introduced to the blood-stream at a slower rate, which signals our pancreas to secrete insulin to regulate this increase in blood-sugar.  When sugar slowly enters the bloodstream, insulin is secreted slowly as well which places less stress on our pancreas, as well as gets these sugars delivered to the cells more efficiently-and from there they get converted to energy in the cell to be used by the body (in the form of ATP).   (1)

OK, you with me so far?  This is where things can get screwy…so what happens to excess sugar in the blood that doesn’t get used by the cells?  Any excess sugars that don’t get used by the cells immediately get stored as glycogen in the liver but most prominently fat.  This is not a flaw in our biology, but rather another survival mechanism that’s stayed with us throughout our evolution.  We are actually meant to store fat.  As previously mentioned, we also store sugar-in the form of glycogen- in the liver as well as muscle tissue.  These glycogen and fat stores are used when carbohydrate intake is low, and we can actually burn enough energy for almost an entire day on our glycogen stores alone (typically anywhere from 100-120 grams), assuming of course, we aren’t over exercising or overstressed.  (2)   The fact that we store fat on the other hand is the reason some can go over thirty days with no food.  (3)  When famine strikes, our body slows down metabolism (which is why consistent low-calorie diets are a bad idea) and it begins burning our glycogen stores from the liver and muscles as fuel.  Once it has used up these stores, it then begins to slowly burn our fat stores for fuel.  So this fat storage is most definitely a key to surviving food shortages, however food shortages have yet to become an issue in our industrialized society.  So then what causes these excess sugars in the blood which thus ultimately leads to fat storage?  High-glycemic carbohydrates such as breads, pastas, cereal grains, fruit juices and table sugar OR- one of the worst-case scenarios- this can be a sign of diabetes mellitus-types I and II.

When consuming high-glycemic index carbohydrates, the carbs get broken down into glucose and introduced to the blood stream very quickly which causes our pancreas to splurge a large secretion of insulin in hopes to quickly deliver the glucose into the cells where it can be used to generate energy.  Depending on the individual and/or how often you consume these high-glycemic carbs, eventually insulin has trouble keeping up, and any excess sugars get stored as fat, because even though we live in a society where food may be readily available just down the road at the local grocery store, our bodies unfortunately are unaware if there will be another meal or not.  Over time, consumption of these foods can lead our pancreas and insulin hormones to points of exhaustion, eventually down-regulating insulin receptors on cells, which then becomes the first sign of insulin resistance or type II diabetes.  This occurs when cells fail to respond properly to insulin, and thus, insulin fails to deliver glucose to the cells, which then also can lead to the pancreas secreting more insulin to compensate, and so the viscous cycle begins.  Hippocrates said, “prevention is the best medicine”, and this empowering statement still holds true today.  I’ll let this segue into protocols you can take to avoid insulin resistance, unwanted weight gain and to live a healthier and happier lifestyle full of wellness and longevity.

Take aways:  Know your carbs.  A carbohydrate is not a carbohydrate.  The best way to avoid to excess fat storage is to avoid high glycemic index carbohydrates such as breads, pastas, grains, fruit juices and table sugar.  As I will discuss in the next post, avoiding dietary fats will not prevent fat storage, and in fact may even become problematic over time. (4)  People store fat because of overeating anything, but mostly because of overconsumption of high glycemic carbs, as mentioned with the insulin response mechanisms above.

The many faces of carbohydrates:

MONOSACCARIDES:

Glucose– this is the form that all carbs get broken down to, and the form which is exposed in our blood stream (aka blood sugar).  Glucose found straight from the source such as what is found in fresh vegetables, is the best form of glucose to metabolize efficiently with the least amount of workload for insulin.  Glucose is the preferred fuel by the brain and cells in the body.  If blood glucose is too low, the liver can synthesize glucose from amino acids and some fatty acids via a process known as gluconeogenesis.  The liver can also use its glycogen stores as mentioned earlier, and convert it into glucose via the hormones glucagon and cortisol.  Since our liver can create glucose even when we are not consuming any from foods, carbohydrates are technically non-essential and don’t need to be consumed.  Although I do caution against not consuming any carbohydrates for long periods of time for other various reasons; for now we’ll just say it’s important to incorporate a balanced diet full of leafy greens, starchy vegetables, and clean meats and fish to obtain optimal nutrient ratios.

Fructose– sugar found primarily in fruits, gets metabolized fairly quickly in the liver and typically doesn’t require an insulin response. Instead, the liver either a) converts it into glucose for the cells to use, or b) stores it as fat.  High fructose intake has been linked to high uric acid in the blood (5) which can lead to diseases associated with chronic pain-such as gout, kidney stones/renal disease, and metabolic syndrome.  (6) Fructose consumption should in turn be moderated; typically around 25 grams a day from whole fruits only, for healthy individuals.   Fruit juices are stripped of their fiber and thus act as table sugar in our body, which as mentioned earlier can lead to a whole host of problems from obesity to type II diabetes.  (7)

Galactose– breakdown of lactose, found primarily in dairy products.  Metabolizes fairly quickly, and should be consumed sparingly, for it can initiate a spike in insulin secretion similar to that of table sugar. (8)

DISACCARIDES:

Sucrose– This is formed from a glucose molecule + a fructose molecule.  Also referred to as ‘table sugar’.

Maltose– This is formed from a glucose molecule + another glucose molecule.  Typically found in breads and beers due to the fermentation process.

Lactose– This is formed from a glucose molecule + a galactose molecule.  Found primarily in dairy sources such as milk and cheeses.

 POLYSACCARIDES:

Also known as ‘complex carbohydrates’ these are multiple glucose molecules combined that typically get slowly broken down into one glucose molecule (again, slowly because of the fiber content).  If there is a lack of fiber-such as what we see in pastas-these sugars will get introduced at a much faster rate (ultimately ‘spiking’ blood sugar and increasing the chances of fat storage).  High-fiber  polysaccharides are found in starchy tubers such as squash, taro, potatoes, and yams.

Now that you know a little more on the differences in dietary carbohydrates, I do recommend overall to cut out the bread, pastas, grains, fruit juices and sugar as much as possible from the diet, HOWEVER if you do still consume these sugars in moderation I would recommend doing so earlier in the day because insulin is most sensitive earlier in the day and thus should work more efficiently (9)  This does not mean starting your day with carbohydrates for breakfast, however.  If you really want to balance your blood sugar and satisfy your appetite and sugar cravings more efficiently, I highly recommend starting your day with protein and fat (more on this in future posts). (10)  Also, if you find yourself with a plate full of pasta, or a bagel sandwich or chocolate dessert, drink a glass of water with 1-2 tbs. of apple cider vinegar with it to slow down the rate of absorption of these carbs, and sensitize your insulin response.  Cinnamon appears to also have this effect.  (11) Saturated fats such as grass-fed butter, coconut oil, or ghee can also slow down these carbs and offer more of a lower glycemic response. (12, 13)

So there you have it, some tips and tricks to regulate your insulin and prevent fat storage and unwanted weight gain.  Join me next time for the importance of fat in the diet, and why the low-fat paradigm could be contributing to the obesity epidemic.

To your health and wellness,

Derek

References:

(1)     http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/76/1/266S.full?sid=9056a855-32bf-4975-95c4-8797744ce0cd

(2)    Campbell, Neil A.; Brad Williamson; Robin J. Heyden (2006). Biology: Exploring Life. Boston, Massachusetts: Pearson Prentice Hall. ISBN 0-13-250882-6.

(3)     Frommel D, Gautier M, Questiaux E, Schwarzenberg L. Voluntary total

fasting: a challenge for the medical community. Lancet 1984;i:1451­2.

(4)    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC436563/

(5)    http://ccjm.org/content/73/12/1059.short

(6)    http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/86/4/899.long

(7)    http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/76/1/266S.short

(8)    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF01221949

(9)    http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0140673672924725

(10)  http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/97/4/677.abstract?sid=9f5f6068-307d-4649-8b13-2d4bf77459b4

(11)  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0271531709001778

(12)  http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/63/2/249.short

(13)  http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/93/3/494.abstract?sid=31619f8d-fb37-46c5-b683-f2e387689705

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