Is There a Good Carbohydrate?

The purveyors of popular fad diets are enraptured by the evils of sugar. Consequently, they try in every possible way to recognize sugar in all its forms (honey, dates, bananas, soda, etc.), which is a good thing–and eliminate it. However, they confuse the issue when they label simple sugar as a carbohydrate (which it is) and then try to eliminate all carbohydrates from the diet as if they were all as bad as sugar.

Carbohydrates come in many varieties. All are made up of sugar molecules attached to each other in different ways. Candy, cakes, rolled oats, potatoes, corn, pasta, donuts, bagels, whole wheat bread, squash, peas, beets, carrots, rice, soy, pineapple, and strawberries are all largely carbohydrates. Fiber in all its useful varieties is carbohydrate in an indigestible form.

The difference between the various carbs is how easily the human gut can separate sugar molecules from one another and absorb them. The more easily separated and more rapidly absorbed carbs are called high glycemic (another word for sugar) index carbs. These include candy, soft wheat pasta, potatoes, donuts, and pineapple. Carbs that require more digestion, whose sugar molecules come apart slowly, are called low glycemic index or complex carbohydrates. These include whole wheat bread, rolled oats, sweet potatoes, and brown rice. All of these foods fall along a continuum from high to low glycemic range.

High glycemic index carbs release sugar into the blood stream extremely rapidly, more rapidly than the body can burn them (if we are not doing any extreme physical activity at the moment).

  • Problem #1: Any carbs that the body cannot immediately use are converted into storage molecules, such as starch in the liver and in the muscles. Athletes call this “carbohydrate loading” when they eat large amounts of carbohydrates just before a contest. However, athletes know that the storage space for starch is limited. The rest of the excess sugar must be converted into triglyceride, cholesterol, and fat molecules for long-term storage. Check your favorite magazine for how good these molecules are for you!
  • Problem #2: High glycemic index carbs are absorbed rapidly. Insulin, which pushes sugar into cells for burning, shoots up rapidly, and actually overshoots. This causes sugar levels to drop rapidly within 1-2 hours, producing that let-down, dragged out feeling that requires another shot of sugar pick-me-up. Insulin in high doses is inflammatory (read: arthritis, heart disease, kidney disease, auto-immune, chronic fatigue).
  • Problem #3: High insulin and high fat levels cause body cells to ignore insulin. In this case, sugar cannot enter the cells, and raises the blood sugar level (read: diabetes, type 2). High fat storage levels increase body weight and raise blood pressure. This combination is called metabolic syndrome, and is disastrous on many levels.

Solution? A high fat diet? No! Hardly. Think heart disease and stroke. A high protein diet? No – the body needs high energy, not high protein. A high protein diet forces the body to strip off the nitrogen to convert the protein to carbohydrate for burning. This strains the liver and kidneys to get rid of the excess nitrogen, pushing the body to burn fat. This in turn causes ketosis, an acid condition that causes, nausea, headache, and irritability (like diabetes). Five meals a day? That’s only necessary if you continue to eat high glycemic index carbs with their 1-2 hour yo-yo blood sugar and insulin that results.

The solution? Choose complex carbohydrates for energy, those that digest slowly and enter the blood stream slowly. Blood sugar levels do not shoot up. Insulin levels do not shoot up. Fat does not build up. Hunger stays away for up to 6-8 hours because sugar is being released slowly. This diet also provides fiber. Energy is provided in controlled doses over a longer period of time, avoiding ketosis. Choose to eat 60-70% low glycemic index carbs, the good carbohydrates, in a diet balanced with 10-15% fats (and their vitamins) and 10-15% protein. See, that’s not hard.