You could read this and question the title!
- Who says carbohydrates are bad?
- Don’t the adverts and the government tell us to eat lots of whole grains? Aren’t they carbs?
- What is this all about?
Let’s start with a science bit…
In our diet we have a vast variety of nutrient requirements, from both macronutrients and micronutrients.
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients, the other two being protein and fat. We need to consume these in relatively large amounts for energy and to thrive. Micronutrients which are nutrients we need in trace amounts, for example vitamins and minerals.
Carbohydrates are basically chains of sugar molecules. They maybe short, they maybe long and complex but they are still break down in the body into sugar chains. Examples include sugars (glucose, fructose and lactose) and starches.
Biologically when we consume carbohydrates the following processes occur
- Carbohydrates convert to/are broken down into glucose
- Blood sugar increases
- Leads to the hormone, insulin to be released from the pancreas
- Insulin regulates the transport of glucose into the cells for energy
When the blood sugar rises, insulin is released to lower blood sugar and maintain a stable blood sugar. Conversely when the blood sugar drops, glucagon is released to raise the blood sugar to prevent it dropping too low. Glucagon is also a fat burning hormone.
It is worth noting that protein has the same effect of insulin release BUT it also triggers glucagon release, unlike the carbohydrates.
When we consume EXCESS carbs the following occurs
- Excess carbohydrates (ingestion beyond the requirement for energy) are converted, by a process involving the insulin, to glycogen and stored
- The initial storage sites of liver (can store 100g of glycogen) and muscles (can store 500g of glycogen)
- When these are full the remaining glucose is converted to fat
- This fat is stored by the body, particularly around the middle, visceral (around the organs) and under the skin (sub-cutaneous)
Add to this the following
- Excess carbohydrates lead to ‘blood sugar roller coaster’
- Which produces stress on body
- This stress leads to raised cortisol
- Which in turn raises blood sugar
- Causing increased levels of insulin
- Craving for more foods
- Adrenalin is also raised during stress which negatively impacts digestion.
Quick recap so far
- Excess carbohydrates are stored as fat
- Glucagon (fat burning hormone) turned off in high carb environment so fat burning is reduced
- Cortisol and adrenalin are raised due to physiological ( and psychological) stress leading to increased fat accumulation, and decreased digestion effectiveness.
There is a multi-factoral process!
It has been implicated in increased mortality and morbidity in a huge array of disorders and diseases, including
- cardiovascular disease
- dementia and Alzheimers
- autoimmune disorders
- mental health issues. including depression
As excess fat is stored the individual becomes over-weight, and if unchecked, obese. Fat stored around the middle and organs (visceral fat) is incredibly damaging and hazardous to long-term health.
But let’s see why…
Inflammation Is something we are aware of from being small children! Fall over, twist your ankle, and you get redness, pain, swelling. The symptoms of inflammation are part of the healing process as the body seeks to restore health to the area injured.
However when this process is being constantly triggered it becomes a problem and this is called chronic inflammation.
Viscerol fat has been found to act as an endocrine (hormonal) organ. It pumps out toxic, inflammatory adipocytokines, promoting low-grade chronic inflammation. See here for a thorough discussion on this.
Chronic inflammation promotes a whole host of dysfunction in the body, including autoimmune disorders where the body’s immune system turns on, and attacks the body’s own tissues and organs, (whether or not symptoms are present).
Chronic inflammation leads to the secretion of cytokinins, which are inflammatory chemicals the body produces. In Grain Brain, Dr Perlmutter discusses these inflammatory cytokines and explains the devastating effect they can have on the brain, leaving it vulnerable to damage and disease.
So, visceral fat is a continual source and cause of chronic inflammation to an individual.
Balance And Proportion
As with so many things, if not most things, it is about balance. Just because something is good for you doesn’t mean that you should have more of it!
Carbohydrates are necessary in the correct amount and proportion, it is the excess which causes such a problem in the Western world.
The body uses carbohydrates for energy. But it is the excess of carbohydrate that make is part of the problem.
Moderate Carb, Low Carb and Very-Low Carb Diets
Let’s define these terms for ease of discussion. Various sources quote different ranges and ways of measuring carb content in a diet, it is not completely clear cut. Here are two ways of measuring carbohydrate intake.
The guidelines for this 2008 study were
- moderate carb intake – 130 to 225g/day
- low carb intake – under 130g/day
- very low carb intake – under 30g/day
And this list from Yale School of Medicine shows carbohydrate content for various foods, for ease of calculation.
The other side of this coin is the type of carbohydrates being consumed.
It is extremely helpful to distinguish between unprocessed and processed carbohydrates.
The unprocessed include vegetables, fruit, whole grains and legumes. A list of processed carbohydrates includes breads, pastas, baked goods, potato chips, sodas, fruit drinks, beer.
Processed carbs feature highly in the Standard American (Western) Diet (SAD). And these have been shown to contribute massively to the disease epidemics we currently face in the West. Other cultures who adopt our practises and add in these elements of the Western diet, begin to succumb to similar disease patterns as the West has demonstrated over the last few decades.
Carbohydrates that are most fattening are those that trigger the following process
- They trigger the biggest surge in blood sugar
- So leading to sudden surges of insulin
- To quickly deal with the rise in blood sugar
- Storing away the excess.
Perlmutter identifies these as predominantly the
- Refined flour products (e.g. pastas, bread, baked goods)
- Starches e.g. rice, potatoes and corn
- Drinks like fruit juice, sodas and beer
It is interesting to look at the impact of some of the natural, unprocessed foods, such as like potatoes and rice.
The use of the Glycemic Load scoring system demonstrates the high impact on your blood sugar of potatoes (20-33 depending on preparation), and rice (16-26 depending on type) as well as another 98 foods!
Cholesterol is something we are probably all aware of, such has been the discussion about it in the past decade or so.
But dig deeper…
Glycation is a normal, natural process and it is involved in aging. Sugar molecules bond with proteins, fats and amino acids, changing them. However when it becomes excessive, it causes many problems. Slowing the process down is the goal for health and longevity.
Glycation is the process whereby LDL cholesterol (a protein) becomes damaging or ‘bad’ as it has been called. In and of itself, it carries out important functions in the brain.
However in the presence of a high carbohydrate diet (excess sugar), the LDL cholesterol bonds more easily and readily to the ever present sugar molecules raising the level of damaging end products.
Wheat and Gluten
Dr William Davis (a cardiologist and ‘health crusader’) in his best-seller ‘Wheat Belly’ goes into great depth about the connection of high wheat diets (the most predominant carbohydrate in our culture) and obesity, and the many health problems connected with it.
He has studied at length the transformation and hybridisation of wheat as man has manipulated the genes of the crop multitudes of times. Wheat is now a completely different plant from the natural plants our ancestors would have eaten. It also has many variations, not all ‘wheat’ is the same!
Indeed it is possible to find the ancient plant still, and genetically they are vastly different. Yet the effect on humans eating the products of these experiments and changes was not tested along the way and it seems we now reap the effects of such neglect.
Gluten is a protein in wheat and it is the part which gives us the ‘sticky’ quality so valued in bread making. It can have a devastating effect on the human micro-biome and intestinal lining for many people. This is evident from so much research but remains highly controversial. Bizarrely so, and possibly due to political and economic reasons.
(It should be noted that gluten is not the only offending part in wheat)
Many of these topics (including inflammation, gluten, gluten-free diets) are ones I will be going into in more detail in following posts, there is so much more to cover.
So… Carbohydrates! Why People Say They Are So Bad!
I hope from this post you can see some of the issues around WHY carbohydrates are getting such a bad name.
Are all carbs ‘bad’? No, not in my opinion, when the amounts are appropriate and they are healthily prepared.
Are SOME PARTICULAR carbohydrates bad? I personally conclude along with many others that…
ABSOLUTELY, some types are BAD!
I think most people would agree the EXCESS IS harmful, and even devastating, and we really need to be addressing these facts as a culture, society, and world.
We as individuals and governments across the world have a responsibility to ourselves, our families and the generations to come; both in terms of human cost and financial cost.
Disclaimer – this article is for information and educational purposes only; it is designed to provide helpful information regarding diet, lifestyle, and health. The information is not meant to be used, nor should it be used, to diagnose or treat any medical condition. For diagnosis and treatment of any medical condition please consult your medical professional. Always consult your healthcare professional for your individual needs, and it is also recommended to do so before starting any new dietary program.