The Ignorance of our Carbohydrate Culture

22 05 2013

I’m often asked why I hate carbs. Let’s get one thing straight: I love carbs. I live for the post-workout window that allows me to devour sugar without any negative consequences. Chocolate is probably my favourite food in the world. Belgian beer is a close second. With that being said, when I’m not lifting weights or getting exercise, I don’t touch carbs. Why? Because they serve next-to-no purpose. As I’ve mentioned before, carbs have one purpose in the human body: energy.

Let’s recap what happens when we eat carbs:

Blood sugar levels rise and insulin is released; the type of carb and amount consumed will dictate the magnitude of this response (note: consistently elevated levels of insulin will cause cells to acclimatize to this environment and become insulin resistant; untreated insulin resistance leads to type-2 diabetes, which leads to an early death; ipso facto, excessive crappy carbs lead to diabetes). Insulin drives nutrients into the cells of the body. Some nutrients will be shuttled to cells for energy and repair, and to the CNS for metabolic function. However, in the absence of exercise, the majority of these calories will be shuttled to fat cells and stored for later use. Our bodies are designed for survival and will only use what is necessary, while storing the rest for an emergency. This was important for our ancestors, but incredibly inconvenient in today’s carb-saturated society.bad-things-to-carbs

Simply put, carbohydrate consumption should mimic activity level.  If you are sedentary, there is no need to consume more than 100 g of carbs per day. If you are active, increase your carbohydrate intake accordingly. If you are sedentary and eat a lot of carbs, you will be unhealthy, either because you’ll gain a lot of weight from the excessive calories, or because you’ll be malnourished from a lack of important proteins and fats.

The action of carbs in the body is extremely easy to understand, yet the majority of the population consumes a high-carb, low-protein diet. Why?

  1. Carbs are cheap
  2. Due to this, most snacks and convenient food options are carb-based
  3. Carbs are generally delicious and many have literally been engineered to be addictive
  4. Companies that push carb-based “foods” are rich and have great advertising
  5. Due to this advertising, the general population believes that it is acceptable (and even healthy) to consume a mainly carbohydrate-based diet

All of these factors have combined to create our current Carbohydrate Culture. It’s convenient, so I should eat it. It’s delicious, so I’ve got to have it. Ignorance is bliss, right? Well frankly, we’ve known for years that excessive sugar intake causes obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. As is common in our culture however, these facts are hidden by the aforementioned rich, carb-pushing companies and their flashy advertising campaigns.

Yep, this happened.

Yep, this happened.

But that’s just sugar, and not all carbs are created equal right? This is correct. Natural carb sources like true whole grains, quinoa, and potatoes aren’t going to hurt you nearly as bad and should make-up the majority (or entirety) of your carbohydrate intake. However, let’s not forget that carbs remain largely unnecessary unless you are an active person. And even these “good” carbs will raise blood glucose levels and elicit an insulin response.

The Insulin Index on Wikipedia provides us with telling information. The foods that cause the most undesirable blood sugar and insulin responses? Processed/sugar-based carbs. The foods that produce the lowest levels of satiety? Processed/sugar-based carbs. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the foods that fill you up and don’t destroy your blood sugar? Protein-, fat- and fiber-rich foods. Not only will these kinds of food prevent you from developing chronic disease, but they provide the human body with the valuable precursors needed for the creation of hormones, antibodies, neurotransmitters, muscles, tissues, nervous system, etc., in addition to providing energy; silly carbs, a one-trick pony with an unspecialized skill.

In conclusion, sugar isn’t food, processed wheat isn’t food, and carbs should make up the smallest part of your diet. Eat your protein and fats, include veggies at every meal, and complement this diet with natural carb sources as your activity level dictates. If you want to be truly healthy, it’s time to open your eyes, eat what’s necessary instead of what’s desired, and leave the ignorance at the door.

For specific questions on how to lead a healthy lifestyle, don’t hesitate to send me a message!



Macronutrient 411: Carbohydrates

18 01 2013

Our diets are composed of 3 macronutrients: carbohydrate, protein and fat. I’m going to write a separate article on each explaining why certain macronutrients are preferable to others, which types of macronutrients should be ingested at which times, and other useful tidbits along the way.

Carbohydrate fast facts

1 g of carbohydrate provides 4 kcals of energy.

Glucose is essential to life- the brain and Central Nervous System (CNS) prefer glucose to other fuel and function best with a constant supply.

In times of low dietary carbohydrate intake however, the human body is capable of fuelling basic metabolic functions through keytone production and also by providing the minimum amount of glucose needed daily (~50 g) through the natural process of gluconeogenesis (ie, you do not need dietary carbohydrate in order to survive).

The main purpose of carbohydrates is to provide energy; either for immediate use or for storage in muscles and fat for later use.

Types of carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are made up of saccharides (sugars). There are simple sugars (monosaccharides; glucose, fructose, galactose), short chain sugars (ogliosaccharides; sucrose, maltose, lactose) and long chain sugars (polysaccharides; starch and glycogen, which are digestible, cellulose and pectin, which are indigestible). As you may already know, some carbs provide a source of energy faster than others, depending on how quickly your body can handle them and turn them into energy. Carbs that break down slowly are said to have a low Glycemic Index (GI) and carbs that break down rapidly for energy are called high GI carbs.

If the story ended there, carbs would be very easy to understand. Unfortunately, there are other factors in play. When carbs are eaten with other food (fats, proteins), the GI of that individual carb becomes fairly meaningless, as these other macronutrients will slow digestion and absorption. The serving size of the carb source is also critical. Due to this, the Glycemic Load (GL) index was created to account for these variables (GL = GI x serving size). Despite these two great indexes, other factors like the age of the food, fiber content, timing of the meal, exercise prior to meal, etc. can all effect how the body will react as well, so the science of carb ingestion is far from exact.

Here is a small snapshot of GI and GL:

The numbers in the parentheses signify: (GL, GI)

The numbers in the parentheses signify: (GL, GI)

You’ll notice, for example, that carrots and macaroni have the same GI, but that the GL of macaroni is 8x greater. This means that you would have to eat 8 servings of carrots to equal the same blood sugar reaction as 1 serving of macaroni- I doubt anyone is going to eat that many carrots.

For a detailed look at GI and GL for pretty much every carb on the planet, check out this list. You’ll see the GI in the first two columns (2 values, one based on glucose and one based on white bread) and the GL is the last column of the expanded table.

What does this all mean?

Low GI carbs are digested and absorbed more slowly, and should comprise the majority of your carb intake. These carbs help to control blood sugar, insulin concentrations, energy levels, satiety and body composition. Think: vegetables, high fiber grains, legumes, nuts, etc. (usually carbs that are unprocessed/natural).

High GI carbs are digested and absorbed quickly, and should make up a smaller part of your diet. These carbs raise blood sugar quickly, causing spikes in insulin production, and negatively affect (in the absence of exercise) energy levels and body composition. Think: sugar, candy, breakfast cereal, bagels, potatoes (usually carbs that have been processed/refined).

Please note: Gluten intolerance is a raging fad right now. I am not an expert on this subject, and I have never had an adverse reaction to ingesting gluten, but due to my aversion for processed foods (gluten is found in foods processed from wheat and related grain species), I consume little-to-no gluten in my diet. Stick to natural, unprocessed carbohydrate sources and you don’t have to worry about gluten. What about the ever mighty whole grain? Yes, whole grains are full of valuable micronutrients, but if you are eating a healthy and complete diet, you will get enough of these micronutrients elsewhere. If you insist on eating whole grains, try to stick to unprocessed types: long-grain rice, quinoa, rolled oats, amaranth, sorghum, etc.

The two most important things to remember are 1) Digestion/absorption rate (What are you eating your carbs with?) and 2) Total amount (How much of the carb are you eating?). For example, although potatoes are a high GI food, they are not evil. There are exceptions to every rule. This article will explain to you why potatoes are awesome. Just remember, high GI foods are really only bad if you consume excessive amounts and/or if you eat them without any other foods; this is why candy and soda are so bad (usually eaten without other foods), but why potatoes aren’t so terrible (usually eaten as part of a meal, with protein, fat and fiber).

When to eat what

By now, you all know how I feel about breakfast, but if you had to eat carbs early in the day, they should be low GI carbs, or carbs that digest more slowly and will give you a longer-lasting, steady stream of energy. Eg) Rolled oats (NOT pre-packaged processed, sugar-added oatmeal packages) with eggs and veggies. The worst carbs to eat in the morning are large servings of sugary foods, especially in the absence of other macronutrients. Morning foods to avoid include: anything with a high sugar content, which (oddly enough) includes many “breakfast” foods: pancakes, white toast, bagels, breakfast cereals, etc.  Slow-digesting carbs are also the preferred fuel for endurance activities, and should be consumed prior to a competition.

Hormonally, we are more apt to store carbs as fat in the morning and less likely to do so in the evenings (insulin sensitivity decreases throughout the day).  This leads us to 2 important observations:

1) It is best to ingest the majority of dietary carbohydrate later in the day (unless you are an extremely active person and will completely deplete your carbohydrate stores in the morning).

2) Late afternoon/early evening is the ideal time for a workout. Resistance training induces glucose transport proteins to shuttle glucose to muscle cells. This is why a high carb post-workout meal (especially one containing high GI carbs) is less likely to contribute to fat storage, and more likely to result in muscle gain. Please note, the basic guideline for a workout is at least 60 minutes of exercise that makes you tired and sweaty.  If you do not meet this guideline, do not feast on sugar post-workout- you will store fat.

Long story short:

– Everyone should favour unprocessed, slower digesting carbohydrate sources.

– The majority of carbs should be consumed later in the day.

– High GI, sugary, processed foods should mostly be avoided; post-workout is the ideal time to consume these types of carbs.

– You can limit the damage of high GI carbs if you reduce your portion size or include other sources of fat, protein and fiber in the same meal.

Finally, read the ingredients list on the food you plan to buy at the grocery store and do your best to avoid eating foods that contain these ingredients:

High-fructose corn syrup: The number one source of calories in the US diet, and is linked to obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Nearly all HFCS is made from genetically-modified corn and often contains traces of mercury as well. Avoid at all costs.

Enriched flours: Otherwise known as Wheat flour or Enriched White flour (if it doesn’t say WHOLE wheat, it’s not whole wheat). The fiber and nutritious germ (along with vitamins and minerals) have been removed in the refining process, then re-added to try and restore nutritional value. Pass.

Artifical food colouring: Developed from petroleum. Many are known carcinogens. If you see any of these names on a food label- Caramel color, FD&C Blue #1, Brilliant Blue FCF, Bright blue, Blue # 2, Ingtotine, Royal Blue, Red Number 3, Erythrosine, FD&C Red No.40, Allura Red AC, Yellow 5 and 6, FD&C Green Number 3, Fast Green, Sea Green- you might want to consider leaving it on the shelf.

There are many other ingredients that our bodies simply don’t need as well, so be vigilant and read your food labels! For extra credit, head over to Born Fitness and read this article on why carbs don’t necessarily make you fat.

If you have any additional questions on carbohydrates, please don’t hesitate to send me a message or to post a comment below. Stay tuned for articles on the other two macronutrients: Protein and Fat.

Happy Friday!