Carbohydrates are one of the three main types of foods, known as macronutrients, along with proteins and fats. The Western diet is high in carbohydrates, both raw and refined. In fact, many health professionals and weight loss "experts" say we should eat more carbohydrates and less protein and fat.
Unfortunately, it's not quite that simple. Unlike people, carbohydrates are not all created equal. You may already be familiar with the concept of simple carbohydrates, like fruits and the equally accepted concept of "complex" carbohydrates such as rice, pasta and potatoes.
Although this is one way to differentiate, we believe there is a much more important method, which has massive implications for health, weight-management and disease prevention.
Fruit and vegetable sugars
Starchy foods (like potatoes)
Grain and grain products (pasta, bread)
But before we get to that (click here if you can't wait), let's start with the basics.
Carbohydrates are generally simple compounds and contain only carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. They are all eitehr a single sugar (or monosaccharide) or a chain of conected sugar molecules (or polysaccharides). Simple sugars include fructose, glucose and sucrose, whilst examples of polysaccharides include starch and gums. The difference between simple sugars is purely the position of the oxygen atom on the ring of carbons.
In the body, all carbohydrates are broken down (and/or chemically converted) to their simplest form - glucose, which is the "fuel" of preference in the body and is required day and night, awake or asleep for brain function. Sugar levels therefore have to be regulated so that, even when food is not present, the brain gets the glucose it needs. When the body loses control of blood sugar, major problems occur, which will quickly lead to death if not corrected. The inability of the body to control blood sugar in known as diabetes.
Diabetes is increasing in the UK and USA at an incredible rate and is already blamed for using over 10% of all health care resources. Recent estimates suggest that within the next 20 years or so, this will increase to 30% of ALL health care costs. Clearly something has to be done about this.
In fact, it's really quite simple, but requires a change in approach from the authorities and a recognition that fat intake isn't the only important thing in weight control (diabetes is closely associated with obesity).
Glycaemic index (glycemic index if you are in the USA)
Glycaemic index is the term used to determine how quickly carbohydrates release their sugar into the blood. Some carbs release their sugar very quickly and cause blood sugar to "spike" sharply, whilst others release their sugar more slowly, elevating sugar to a lesser degree but for a longer time.
This is important, because the body regulates the level of blood sugar through a complicated series of chemicals and hormones, the principle one of which is insulin. High blood sugar stimulates release of lots of insulin, which makes the liver convert sugar to fat. (and you thought it was fat intake that counted....read on)
Diabetes is caused by the repeated release of increasing amounts of unsulin as the tissues get used to it and begin to respond to it less and less, creating insulin resistance. This is the first step to diabetes, in which the pancreas (where insulin is made) "gives up" and stops insulin production altogether. The result is a total loss of control of blood sugar - diabetes. (click here for more information on diabetes, how to prevent it and natural treatments)
Glycaemic index (GI) is explained in more detail here, but it should be clear from even the bief explanation above that it can have a major impact on health. Not only can diabetes be caused by consumption of too much high GI foods, it is this and NOT over consumption of fats that is responsible for the increasing level of obesity seen in the Western world, especially obesity in children.
Conversely, it is quite possible to minimise both your weight and your chances of developing diabetes by keeping a close eye on the GI of what you eat. People who eat a low GI diet, especially a low-grain diet stand a significantly reduced risk of these, and other diseases.
Carbohydrates have come in for a bashing lately, mostly because of the Atkins diet. This radical diet proposes cutting out carbs together and replacing them with protein. Whilst this can be effective in radically reducing weight, it can also be very dangerous.
As a rule, diets are a bad idea anyway, as they are usually followed by a return to your previous regimen which quickly leads to weight gain. The only way to consistently lost and keep off weight is to change what you eat - permanently. Click here to find out more about weight control.
Low grain diet
Weight management foods
Other Nutrient groups:
Essential fatty acids