The Controversial Carbohydrate
Low Carb vs. High Carb
With the onslaught of low carb, high protein/fat diets promoted by the media, dieting industry, fitness industry, and many healthcare professionals, it's easy to believe that carbohydrates are responsible for poor health and weight gain. Ironically, most people living in Westernized societies do not consume enough carbohydrates on a daily basis to meet physiological requirements. On average, people living in America, Canada, Australia, Brazil, and Europe consume 30% or more of their daily calories from protein and 50% or more from fat, leaving a meager 20% or less calories coming from carbohydrates.
When carbohydrates are intentionally restricted from the diet, it's easy for protein and fat to become the main source of fuel and calories, but these marcronutrients hinder metabolic function and increase a person's risk for developing nutrient deficiencies, obesity, kidney/liver disease, hypothyroidism, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and candida. Other health disturbances associated with a low carbohydrate diets includes headaches, fatigue, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), irritability, weight gain, depression, dehydration, constipation, anxiety, mood swings, irrational behavior, insomnia, hormonal imbalance, and vision problems.
For thousands of years, cultures around the world thrived on carbohydrate based diets of potatoes, corn, rice, fruit, barley, and wheat. Obesity, heart disease, and other diseases of opulence occurred solely among the royal or wealthy who had access to and could afford animal-based foods. Disease was virtually non-existent in the societies consuming the majority of their calories from plant-based carbohydrates. Today, the leanest and disease free people of the world can be found in rural areas such as China and Africa, where the diet consists of 80% or more carbohydrates and little to no animal foods.
A carbohydrate is an organic compound consisting of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen. Hydrogen and oxygen are represented in the same ratio as water (H2O), with a carbon backbone holding everything together, hence the name carbon-hydrate or watered carbon. Carbon makes up roughly 18% of the human body, falling behind it's friends oxygen and hydrogen. The basis of organic (living) chemistry is carbon, as it is an essential component of life.
The primary function of carbohydrate is for it to be broken down to single glucose molecules, and then further broken down during the TCA (tricarboxclic acid) cycle for the chemical generation of cellular ATP for energy production, fueling all cells within the human body. The other function of carbohydrate within the human body is heat production and the manufacture of structural units including the sugar based molecule DNA. There are four primary forms of carbohydrate including sugar, glycogen (stored sugar), starch, and cellulose (fiber). Glucose (blood sugar) and fructose (fruit sugar) are the simplest dietary forms of carbohydrate (known as monosaccharides), containing only 3-7 carbon atoms. Because of their simple structure, glucose and fructose are easily broken down and utilized as the main source of fuel for all cellular processes within the human body. Larger carbohydrate molecules known as disaccharides (sucrose) and polysaccharides (glycogen, starch) contain two or more monosaccharides joined via dehydration synthesis. Starch (the stored form of carbohydrate in plants) molecules can contain tens to hundreds of monosaccharides, which are broken down in the body through hydrolysis (adding water) to their constituent glucose molecules to be utilized for energy production. Cellulose, or fiber, is the part of the cell wall in plants that cannot be digested by humans but aids the movement of food through the intestine (see Fiber blog).
Glucose can be metabolized in two ways, anaerobically or aerobically, depending on its location within the body and the cells. For example, mitochondria within muscle cells burn glucose in the presence of oxygen (oxidative phosphorylation-aerobic), while red blood cells convert glucose into energy without oxygen (glycolysis-anaerobic). Muscle cells require and burn the most glucose (85% of total blood sugar), using it to fuel all physical activity. While muscle cells prefer to burn glucose in combination with oxygen, they are capable of burning it without oxygen, which can result in lactic acid build up. The body also has a build-in carbohydrate storing mechanism, where un-used glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver and in muscle tissue. If this mechanism did not exist, we would have to constantly be consuming carbohydrate rich foods in order to maintain normal blood-sugar levels.
Blood glucose levels are regulated by an intricate homeostatic system that signals when too little or too much sugar is in the blood. Since glucose is required for all metabolic processes, it is imperative that blood sugar levels are balanced at all times. Major players involved in blood sugar regulation include the liver, which maintains normal blood glucose concentrations, and the pancreas, which secretes insulin when glucose levels are elevated to aid uptake into the cells. Under normal conditions (not starvation or ketosis), the body efficiently burns glucose for fuel, maintains normal blood sugar levels, and stores excess glucose as glycogen in muscle and liver cells, A decent amount of glucose is usually lost as body heat as well, which is why when someone switches from a low carb diet to a high carb diet they experience an increase in body temperature (and blood flow). This is a sign that the body is efficiently converting carbohydrate to usable fuel and releasing what it's not using as heat.
Glucose is the only fuel source used by neurons, or brain cells. Neurons are in constant communication with each other, making them the most metabolically active of all cells within the human body. They are responsible for directing the manufacture of enzymes and neurotransmitters, the repair and rebuild of worn out cell/tissue structures during sleep, and sending out bio-electric signals responsible for communication throughout the entire nervous system to maintain homeostatic feedback loops. These cells require twice the amount of energy than any other cell in the human body, with the brain consuming roughly 20% of the total daily caloric intake of carbohydrates. By limiting carbohydrates (or simply not eating enough of them), brain function also becomes limited; fatigue and brain fog are the first symptoms of carbohydrate inadequacy. Unlike liver and muscle cells, neurons lack the ability to store glucose, so a constant influx of glucose must be available at all times to ensure optimal brain functioning. More glucose is required for complex mental processes such as thinking, learning, memory, concentration, working, reading, analyzing, stress, and emotional stability. One of the most important neurotransmitters, serotonin which plays an important role in keeping depression at bay is supplied and balanced by sufficient carbohydrate intake.
For years, type 2 diabetes (insulin resistance diabetes) has been blamed on carbohydrates, which couldn't be any farther from the truth! Metabolic syndrome, the precursor to type 2 diabetes (as well as heart disease and stroke) is characterized by elevated blood pressure, elevated blood glucose levels, elevated LDL cholesterol and low HDL cholesterol, central or abdominal obesity, and elevated blood triglycerides. This condition is almost 100% the result of a poor diet and lack of exercise (some genetics involved but influenced strongly by diet). Diets high in saturated fat, animal protein, refined oils, highly refined processed foods, and low in carbohydrate and fiber (typical of the Standard American Diet-SAD), are the major contributors to this health epidemic. It is not the carbohydrates, to blame, but the choice of food itself. Most people associate donuts, french fries, cookies pasties, ice cream, pizza, and milk shakes as high carbohydrate foods when they are actually high in fat. It is also popular to turn a high carbohydrate food like potatoes or pasta into high fat foods by adding cream, meat, and butter. When foods high in both fat and high in carbohydrates are consumed, the result is blood sugar fluctuations because the sugar is unable to leave the blood stream due to the large fat molecules. This combination causes blood sugar levels to spike and stay spiked, resulting in prolonged insulin release. Overtime, the pancreas can stop producing insulin due to overuse.
Type 2 diabetes is a disease caused by fat toxicity in the organs: the muscles, pancreas, and liver. It is also a disease of malnourishment because the cells become unable to receive sufficient glucose. "Feast in the midst of famine", when too much sugar is in the blood stream, but not enough is converted into energy to meet up cellular demands. This would be a metabolic situation in which all foods consumed are converted to fat because the body thinks it's starving. Mistakenly, most patients are placed on a low carb diet following a diabetes diagnosis, which means high fat and high protein. This kind of diet masks the symptoms associated with diabetes, but maintains the patient in a malnourished and ketogenic state, further hindering an already compromised kidney function (hence the high blood pressure), and making it impossible for the pancreas to recover due to lack of glucose calories. The Solution? A low fat, low protein, HIGH CARBOHYDRATE diet! The goal is to repair pancreatic function, not shut it off, and the only way to do that is by consuming a diet sufficient in carbohydrates. The phytochemicals and nutrients in high carb, plant-based diet (low in sodium) aid in the repair process, while not over taxing the kidneys. As a result, the body responds to the sufficient calories, carbohydrates, and good nutrition and starts to work properly again.
Now that you are aware of the importance of carbohydrates in the diet, lets chat about the ones you should eat!
Good Carbs: Whole Food, Plant-based
Good carbohydrates are found in low fat, low protein, plant-based foods, including:
Whole grains: rice (brown, red, black, jasmine, basmati, etc.), whole wheat, barley, oats, quinoa, millet, amaranth, minimally processed breads (like Ezekiel) and pasta (whole grain, wheat, corn, rice)
Fruits: bananas, grapes, peaches, papaya, jackfruit, dates, mangoes, apples, pears, berries, cherries, melons, citrus
Starchy vegetables: potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, winter squash (butternut, acorn, etc), carrots, peas, beets, parsnips, rutabagas
Plant-based carbohydrates contain both dietary fiber and water, allowing their sugar content to be controlled and slowly released into the blood stream without shocking the system. These carbohydrate sources can range from low to moderate/high on the glycemic index chart, depending on the way they are consumed. Even a low fat, plant-based food high on the glycemic index, such as white rice or potatoes, will register differently when combined with high fiber vegetables and a consistently low fat diet. With any carbohydrate-based meal, it is important to keep plant-based fats to a minimum in order to avoid blood sugar imbalances and fat storage.
Whole food, plant-based carbohydrates are the easiest foods to digest, absorb, and assimilate due to their ability to break down in water. This characteristic is part of the reason why carbohydrate-based foods are the most energy efficient of the macro-nutrients. Plant-based carbohydrates are full of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidant phytochemicals, and can be anti-inflammatory, hydrating, and alkalizing. These carbphydrate sources also regulate bowel movements, maintain balanced blood sugar levels, assist with weight loss, support high fitness levels, raise metabolism, and supply vital nutrients to all the body cells.
Note: If particularly sensitive to carbohydrates/sugar, avoid/minimize the low fat, plant-based refined carbohydrates like fruit juices, fruit smoothies, dried fruits, white rice, flour products, and coconut sugar. The processing of these foods can cause elevated blood glucose levels in some individuals. Generally, the tolerance for these foods goes up as fitness increases and body fat levels decrease. Ultimately, you want to aim to get the majority of your dietary carbohydrates from whole food, plant-based sources rich in fiber to assist with blood sugar regulation and weight loss.
Bad carbohydrates generally contain little to no fiber, are high in fat/protein, are heavily processed/refined, and lack any essential nutrition. This combination of factors causes the sugars from these carbohydrate foods to spike blood sugar levels. After consumption, these foods typically cause hypo- or hyperglycemia, which over time can cause insulin resistance. Even good carbs can become bad ones with the addition of too much animal-based foods such as dairy, meat, or eggs. Due to their processed and high fat nature, prolonged consumption of bad carbs can result in constipation, weight gain, inflammatory diseases (heart disease, cancer), metabolic syndrome, diabetes, lowered immune function, lowered metabolic function, candida, acidic blood pH, dehydration, kidney/liver disease, and many other health-related illnesses.
Examples of bad carbs include pizza, chocolate, hamburgers, chips, ice cream, milk shakes, meat-based sauce over pasta, buttered bread, cookies, crackers, cakes, soda, hot dogs, donuts, alcohol, granola bars, macaroni and cheese, butter and pancakes, sour cream/buttered potatoes, white sugar, etc. Any of these foods can be made into a low fat, plant-based version by cutting out the animal-based foods and opting for less processed ingredients. Also, It's important to note that craving bad carbs (like chocolate) is a sign that the body is in need of good carbs like fruit or starches!
Candida is a condition that can result from the regular intake of high fat foods and/or lots of refined sugar sugar. Symptoms of candida vary, but some people explain them as feeling drunk or hungover. Nonfermenting Candida Albicans exists naturally as part of our gut microflora, and feed off of plant foods, or prebiotics. When bad or refined carbs are consumed on the regular, the good bacteria can get depleted and die, causing a fermenting strain of Candida to take over. This mutated candida ferments, producing ethanol as a byproduct, thus creating a hangover sensation. Symptoms can include brain fog, blurry vision, lethargy, insomnia, GI disturbances (bloating, flatulence, constipation, diarrhea) vaginal dischange, weight gain, and chronic fatigue. Candida overgrowth can also be a result of antibiotic use, alcohol abuse, smoking, recreational drug use, prescription medication, birth control pills, poor/processed diet (low in nutrients), artificial sweeteners, high refined carb/sugar diet, lack of exercise, inadequate amounts of sleep, low fiber diet, calorie/carbohydrate restriction (low carb diets), and lack of sunlight (vitamin D). It is also believed that candida is generally the result of an acidic blood pH (<7.0).
Websites and some "health" professionals will suggest killing your candida with anti-fungals and a high protein/fat, low carbohydrate diet. This method only masks the actual problem, which is a lack of good, whole food, fiber-rich, plant-based carbs in the diet. The best way to treat Candida is by avoiding the foods that are feeding it (meat, dairy, eggs, bad carbs, refined carbs/sugar, alcohol) and adopting a diet high in good, whole food, plant-based carbohydrates high in fiber to sweep away toxins and bad bacteria as well as plenty of prebiotic foods to aid the growth of good bacteria. Prebiotic foods include bananas, blueberries, brown rice, sweet potatoes, apples, beets, jerusalem artichokes, and spinach. These foods are high in soluble fiber and help to nourish the good Candida, aiding in the re-balancing of the digestive tract and immune system. In severe cases, probiotics may need to be taken along with prebiotic foods.
The recommended daily allowance for an adult is 200 grams of carbohydrates per day, but this amount is too little for the average adult to be able to participate life drug free or without stimulants.
The standard dietetic recommendation for daily carbohydrate intake is 50-65% of total caloric intake. Many plant-based physician's suggest a dietary intake of 75-90% carbohydrates to prevent excess fat/protein related diseases and aid in achieving/maintaining a lean figure. I recommend consuming no less than 70% total calories from carbohydrates. For those looking to lose fat/weight, 85-90% calories should come from carbohydrates on a daily basis; this will allow for an optimized metabolism over time, as fat and protein are kept to a minimum and hence eliminated from within the system. When getting started, it is extremely helpful to use a nutrition tracking tool such as cronometer.com to work out your daily carbohydrate intake as well as other nutrient needs.
When figuring out how many carbohydrates you need, it is important to be able to recognize when the body is low on carbohydrate fuel. Symptoms of carbohydrate insufficiency include fatigue, brain fog, feeling cold all the time, concentration and memory problems, lack of motivation, irritability, mood swings, insomnia, lack of energy to do mental or physical work, low immune function, weight gain, high or low blood pressure, hypo-/hyperglycemia, low thyroid function, and hormonal imbalances.
As always, if you have any questions/concerns/comments/criticisms, please leave a Comment below or Contact me!
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