Carbs and sugar have been attacked by many and have a bad reputation these days.
Many fad diet communities such as keto and carnivore have displayed carbs as an absolute enemy to health. Well, we believe that this is simply not the case and carbs are absolutely essential for a proper functioning metabolism and over health.
Let’s begin by understanding what carbohydrates are.
In simple terms, carbohydrates are organic compounds which breakdown to provide energy to our body in the most easy to use manner.
1g of carbohydrate has 4 calories in it. Breakdown of carbohydrate releases energy and carbon dioxide as a by product. Carbon dioxide helps release oxygen into the blood from hemoglobin thereby, resulting in oxygenation of tissues. Another benefit of carbon dioxide is that it helps relieves stress.
So, in situations such as hyperventilation, anxiety, high blood pressure, stress CO2 levels in the blood drop and consuming simple carbs in the form of glucose is beneficial.
Our body’s preferred fuel source are carbohydrates. The brain, liver, thyroid gland, muscles, nervous system and retina, all of them run primarily on glucose.
Different types of carbohydrates
Simple carbohydrates are those which are readily absorbed in the body without much hustle. Foods like honey, maple syrup, milk and milk products, fruit juice, fruits, cane sugar, refined white sugar all contain simple carbohydrates.
The body absorbs and utilizes simple carbs easily. For this reason they are pro metabolic. They help in Co2 production, help in lowering stress levels, generally have a low to moderate glycemic index, good for cellular function and improves thyroid and liver function as well.
Complex carbohydrates on the other hand are those which either take longer for the body to digest or do not digest at all as in the case of fiber. Foods like whole grains such as whole wheat, rice, legumes, pulses, cereals, potatoes, sweet potatoes, breads, pasta, fibrous vegetables are all complex carbohydrates.
You might have heard that complex carbs are better than simple carbs because their glycemic index is lower and they do not spike blood sugar.
That’s not the case. Not all simple carbs have high glycemic index and not all complex carbs have low glycemic index!
Let me tell you that most simple carbs such as honey, maple syrup, lactose from dairy, cane sugar and even refined white sugar have moderate to low glycemic index because they do not contain pure glucose. Pure glucose has a glycemic index of 100. So, the more glucose a food contains the higher the glycemic index of that food.
Most complex carbohydrates(potatoes, sweet potatoes, starches, cereals, grains, breads, pasta, rice) contain high amounts of glucose and have a high glycemic index.
Fiber: fiber on the other hand does not get absorbed in the gut but decreases the absorption of carbohydrate from other foods. For example: Eating fibrous vegetables with starches can lower the overall glycemic index of the meal.
Benefits of carbohydrates
Improves thyroid and metabolism: Carbohydrates are essential for proper thyroid function and thyroid gland regulates whole metabolism. Hence, carbs directly support metabolism by enhancing thyroid function.
Co2 production: Carbohydrates increase the production of carbon dioxide in the body. It helps in keeping the stress low and it also has anti ageing effect on the body.
Liver function: The liver utilizes predominantly glucose for proper function and detox.
Lowers stress: Together with CO2 production carbohydrates have ability to lower stress by lowering the stress hormone cortisol. Thereby, promoting a healthy metabolism.
Enhances muscular performance: The muscles use glucose for contraction during a physical activity. Especially during high intensity work such as heavy weight lifting or HIIT training.
Processed carbs vs Whole food carbs
Up to this point I hope you got an insight about why carbohydrates are important and their different types.
Now, let’s discuss how the carbs we eat in modern times are far different from the type of carbs that we’ve been eating since thousands of years.
Processed carbs: The form of carbohydrate we eat today is highly processed and refined. Modern carbs do not have anything to offer nutritionally.
Rather they overburden our system with empty calories which trashes the metabolism and brings disease.
Sodas, commercial fruit juices and beverages, candies, chips, chocolates, refined white bread, refined grains, cereals, crackers, pasta, pizza, sauces, jams, biscuits and many other packaged refined products. All contain massive amounts of refined sugars which have typically zero nutrition but are filled with empty calories which depletes the body of it’s own nutrient stores! Some even contain brain damaging sugars such as high fructose corn syrup or maltodextrin which damages the gut!(1,2,3,4,5)
Whole food carbs: Carbs from whole foods are beneficial for the body. Unlike processed carbs, they do not contain just empty calories but critical vitamins and minerals which are required for metabolizing them.
Raw honey, raw maple syrup, sourdough bread, rice, potatoes, sweet potatoes, fruit juices, fruit, dairy, cane sugar are all whole food carbs.
For example digestion of carbs weather simple or complex requires B vitamins and some minerals. So, carbs from foods like potatoes, rice, honey, maple syrup, cane sugar, whole grains, some cereals such as oatmeal, rye come with those critical nutrients which helps them metabolize without depleting body’s own nutrient stores.
Processed carbs however are stripped off of their nutrients during processing that’s why they are no more than empty calories which puts heavy burden on the body.
Since, thousands of years in almost every culture humans have been consuming whole food carbs in some form with no issues whatsoever. It is the modern processing which makes them metabolically unsuitable and cause diseases.
Are carbs or sugar bad? which carbs to avoid
it’s not carbohydrate-rich foods per se that lead to weight gain or disease. Rather, carbohydrates stripped of their natural micronutrients and fiber, which places a large metabolic burden on the body -Dr.James DiNicolantonio
Excerpt from the book “The obesity fix”.
It is not the carbohydrates or sugar in itself which is bad for our health. But modern ultra processed carbs which have no nutritional value and deplete our body of its own nutrient stores.
Nowadays, sugar has been isolated and refined to such a degree that it is added into almost all packaged foods in unnaturally high amounts with all of its micronutrients and fiber stripped.
In conclusion, carbs from whole foods need not be feared as they already come with critical vitamins and minerals. Hence, they don’t overtax our system. Carbs also have their own benefit as we have discussed above.
What you must fear and avoid at all cost are the processed carbs and ultra processed carbs. Foods like chocolates, candies, sodas, chips, refined breads, refined grains, crackers, biscuits, cakes, pastries and practically all the other packaged foods.
Include whole food carbs in your diet and see your overall health climb up.