There is a lot of confusion these days about carbohydrates. What exactly is a carbohydrate? Are they good for us? For most of us, it’s almost impossible to read between the lines and work out which choices are best for us. So let’s try and make some sense of it all!
What is a carbohydrate?
Carbs are the sugars, starches and fibres found in grains, vegetables and milk products. They form one of the three main macro nutrients (the others are protein and fat) which provide us with the fuel and nutrients that we need to live.
The closer carbs are to their natural state when we eat them, the better they are for us. So a beetroot , that comes straight from the ground, contains lots of minerals, vitamins and fibre that are all good for our health. If you process that beetroot for long enough, remove all the vitamins, minerals and fibre you end up with white sugar – which is less good for us.
Natural carbohydrates are whole foods that come with a whole package of fibre, vitamins, minerals, phenols and phytonutrients that work in harmony with each other to provide important nutrition (think fresh fruit and veg and wholegrains like brown rice or quinoa). However, the more those natural foods are processed, (I like to say ‘broken’) the more goodness is removed and the more starchy and sugary they become – flour, sugar, corn syrup. And the more likely to become problematic for our health.
Avoid the carbs that are white or liquid – sugar, syrups, flour, fruit juice and fizzy drinks – as these are the ones that will trigger damaging spikes in blood sugar most easily.
This is where it gets interesting
Whenever we eat protein or carbohydrates, our body takes that food through a complicated process that separates out the nutrients and fibre from the starch and then converts the starch into glucose (the only food that isn’t converted into glucose by the body is fat). The more starch there is relative to fibre, fat and protein, the quicker this process takes. Once converted, the glucose is then transported into our blood stream so that it can move throughout the body and provide fuel for our cells. If we have too much glucose in our blood for our energy requirements, the excess sugar is stored as glycogen in our liver and muscles. If there is still excess sugar left over, it will be converted into triglycerides and ultimately into body fat.
The key thing in this process is the speed at which the body breaks down the food we eat into glucose – and it is fibre, protein and fat that slow that process down. Foods that convert quickly into glucose (ie those low in fibre, protein and fat and high in starch) cause a spike in blood sugars and a corresponding spike in insulin as the body tries to mop up the glucose. The foods that are most readily converted into glucose by the body are the ones that have already been broken down by processing in a factory – sugar, any kind of syrup, juice or fizzy drink, any kind of flour or processed grain. Unfortunately this includes most of the products that line our super-market shelves and form part of our daily life – white bread, breakfast cereal, biscuits, confectionary, pastries etc.
If we eat foods these foods that cause a huge dump of glucose into our blood stream, our pancreas produces a lot of insulin to take it out of the blood as quickly as possible. Insulin is very efficient at what it does and when this happens there is a corresponding drop in blood sugar, to below normal levels, about 2 hours later. This makes us feel jittery, edgy, anxious and craving something to eat quickly. Normally a biscuit or some chocolate, which makes our blood sugar spike again, and then crash again later. And this spiking and crashing of blood sugar creates a cycle of cravings that is very difficult to manage.
It is also worth noting that high levels of insulin, caused by eating a lot of processed carbohydrates encourage the body to store fat – it is almost impossible to burn body fat for fuel (ie lose weight) if you have insulin in your blood stream. The level to which this applies varies from individual to individual as our efficiency at processing carbs also varies. So the trick with carbs is to find the unique point at which your body can process them efficiently – it is literally your sweet spot!
So what can we do?
If you imagine carbs on a spectrum with the really healthy and life-giving ones at one end, and exactly the opposite at the other end, it makes it easier to make the best choices to support your health goals. The further you move away from natural products the unhealthier a food becomes – think of fresh apples, a home-made apple pie and a pop tart. As you move along this spectrum you are losing more and more of the fibre and nutrients, and adding in a whole lot more sugar, starches and chemicals, none of which your body needs.
Choose your carbs from the colourful end of the spectrum – all those greens, reds, yellows and purples signify fibre and micro-nutrients that your body needs -and cut back on the carbs that are brown or beige such as whole grains. But the big tip is to completely avoid the carbs that are white or liquid – sugar, syrups, flour, fruit juice and fizzy drinks – as these are the ones that will trigger those damaging spikes in blood sugar most easily.