Carbohydrates are diverse

Carbohydrates have been under scrutiny for a while, in particular since the Atkins diet became popular. Are carbohydrates bad? If the answer is simple in popular media, the reality is, as usual, a bit more complex.

First of all, it is important to realize that carbohydrates are not a homogeneous group of nutrients. They can be divided in three categories: fast carbs, slow carbs and fibre.

Fast carbs are called that way because they pass into the blood stream quickly after being ingested, and provide 4 calories per gram. They are small molecules. They are commonly known as sugars and the most common ones are glucose, fructose (a typical carb from fruit as the name indicates) and sucrose (the powder sugar you find in stores). Sucrose is a combination of one molecule of glucose with one molecule of fructose. The purpose of fast carbs in the body is to provide energy quickly, in particular to provide the brain with glucose, as it is the only fuel the brain can use to function. For as much as they are very useful for a quick energy boost, they will be metabolised and stored as body fat if the body cannot burn the quantity sent in the blood stream. This latter characteristic is important to understand from a nutritional point of view. Do not eat more sugar than you can burn in the short term because it will go to your hips. They are useful during intense exercise. Professional cyclists often use glucose from their bottle. Here is a little calculation to show how it works:

Since fast carbs should be 40% of total carbs maximum and carbs should be 60% max of total calories, the maximum amount of calories you can have from fast carbs is 40% x 60% = 24% of total calories. For a person who needs 2,000 calories per day, the maximum of fast carbs would be 24% x 2,000 = 480 calories. Apples and oranges are about 50 calories per 100g, carrots about 40 and bananas above 80. Let’s say you have 500 g of fruits and veggies per day. This would roughly amount to 5 x 50 = 250 calories. As you can see, with a few fruits and vegetables you get all the fast carbs that you need. Remember, 40% of 60% is the maximum. It is better to get fewer calories than this from fast carbs. But if you want a juice or a soft drink, how much could you have? If the total calories from fast carbs is 480 and you got already 250 from fruits and vegetables, there is room for only 480 – 250 = 230 calories. Since 1 gram of carb provides 4 calories, that would a maximum of 230/4 = 57.5 grams of fast carb per day. If you take a drink at 10% sugar, the maximum quantity of liquid is then 57.5/10% = 0.575 litre. If the drink contains 15% sugar, the number becomes 57.5/15% = 0.383 litre.

Slow carbs are quite different. The typical slow carb is starch, which can be found in grains (wheat, corn, barley, rice, etc…), pasta, potatoes and many legumes (beans, peas, lentils, etc…). They do not pass into the blood stream right away. Starch is a long chain that consists of glucose molecules. During digestion, and with intervention with insulin, starch is metabolized into a shorter chain, called glycogen, which is stored in the liver. As its name indicates glycogen is a word that means glucose-forming substance. Depending on the sugar level in the blood (aka glycaemia), the glycogen in released “on demand” with help of insulin to provide the organism with the needed glucose but just in the right quantity at the right time. This has two advantages. One is that glucose is not provided in one shot, as it would be metabolised and stored as body fat. Glucose is released just to be burnt. It is almost comparable with a high-efficiency furnace. The other one is that through this system, the carbs eaten during the meal will provide energy for a couple of hours at least, depending on the level of physical activity. Then, it is not a surprise that hunger happens around 11:00 am so about 3-4 hours after a breakfast with an appropriate amount of slow carbs. There is no need for snacking between meals if the meals are proper. Slow carbs also provide 4 calories per gram.

A small word is useful about gluten. The word starts with “glu” and is a normal component of grains, but on the contrary to what many people seem to think, gluten is not a carbohydrate. It is a protein. Gluten gives bread its network structure.

Fibres have a rather different function. The main form of fibre is cellulose, which is also a long chain of glucose molecules, but arranged differently than in starch. Cellulose is not providing energy as such, as it cannot be metabolised in the body. Fibres play the role of ballast. They help dilute the calorie density of foods (think of fruit and vegetables) and they probably also play a role in the clearing of the intestine during transit. Fibres may also play a role in reducing the risk of colon cancer.

As you can see, carbohydrates are useful, but they must be part of a balanced diet. Because of their characteristics, one should not splurge on fast carbs, because the excess quantity will be metabolised into body fat. A good guideline is to have no more than 60% of the total calories of the diet from carbs, fast and slow combined. The percentage of calories coming from fast carbs should be less than 40% of the total carbs calories, and less is even better. If you eat fruit regularly, you probably will have enough fast carb. It is better not to add sugar in tea, coffee or yoghurt to name a few, even though sweet tastes nicer for many people. Also pay attention of how much fast carb you have in the foods and beverages you buy. Soft drinks, juices and drink yoghurt can contain between 10 and 20% fast carbs. The best drink really is water (zero calorie).

Slow carbs are a bit less of a problem, because of the gradual release of glucose from glycogen. That said, a proper diet is a diet that just covers the needs of the body, and excessive consumption will inevitably lead to more body fat.

To sum up, carbohydrates are OK as long as consumed in a balanced diet. Too much carbs is bad, and so are too much fast carbs and too much slow carbs. The same is true with all groups of nutrients. Fat is fine but too much fat is not, and the same applies for protein as well.

© 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

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When do you know you have eaten enough?

Our bodies are very sophisticated machines. Through biochemistry, metabolism and physiology, they have developed an amazing ability to regulate themselves. For instance, glycaemia level and blood pH are monitored constantly by sensors that in turn send information to organs and trigger them to get into action whenever is needed. Our brains know only one fuel with which they can function: glucose. Any slight deviation in glycaemia or blood pH that lasts too long can lead to brain damage and even death. Brain sensors can tell the body when it is running low on fuel and the message as we know it is to feel hungry. Brain sensors can also tell us when the fuel tank is full and that is the feeling of being “full” or also known as satiety.

To indicate satiety, our body has two information systems. The brain sensors are only one of them. They function on the blood chemical composition, but of course for nutrients to get into the blood stream and have glycaemia and blood pH back to the proper levels, it takes time. The food has to be processed through the stomach and then transit in the intestine where the nutrients are absorbed and enter the blood stream. The other feedback system is not about biochemistry but more of a mechanical one. There is a nervous connection that goes from the stomach to the brain. When the stomach is being filled, the stomach wall stretches and when the stomach has been filled at capacity, the nerve sends a direct and rather immediate message to the brain to let it know that it is full and should no longer receive any more food. The brain read this message as satiety and the feeling of hunger disappears. The combination of these two systems is great but it has a flaw, though, as it had not been prepared for modern eating habits. It is possible that the flaw was never a cause of problems in the past because the diets of then would not act on the flaw (for background read my previous article Lifestyles have changed but our biology has not). So what is the weakness of the satiety feedback? I see two main reasons: calorie density and pace of meals.

When a person eats a high-calorie meal, s/he ingests a high level of calories in every bite. If the person starts with food rich in fat (9 calories per gram), carbs or protein (4 calorie per gram), s/he usually will get them from foods that do not contain too much water, so the calories are not all that diluted. Opposite to this, if the person starts a meal with a salad or a soup, such dishes are rich in water and in fiber, too. Fresh veggies will contain at least 90% water, and so could be soup depending on how much water you put in it of course.

The pace of the meal or, in other words, fast food versus slow food plays a role in the sense of how much time it takes to ingest all the calories. Remember, it takes time for nutrients to be absorbed and enter the blood stream. The slower you eat, the more time you allow that process to happen before ingesting more calories. That way, you do not fill the tank too fast. But if you eat fast, you can ingest more calories that you need before the chemical satiety feedback system reaches you brain. You brain think that you are not full yet, meaning that you have not ingested all the calories you need, while you actually have. If you eat fast but you eat low-calorie density food, it might not be a problem because you still may not have exceeded your calorie intake when the mechanical feedback through the nerve kicks in. On the opposite, if you eat high-calorie density food fast, you can be almost sure that before your stomach can let the brain know that you have eaten enough, you will have ingested too many calories. The reason is simple: high-calorie density foods take less volume than high-density calorie foods. One pound of feathers has a much larger volume than one pound of lead, same idea. Since the stomach-to-brain connection works on the stretching of the stomach, the stomach will allow a higher volume of high-calorie density food to enter before sending its message to the brain, thus allow you to eat more calories than you need to. And if you combine high-calorie density with fast eating, you will get ahead of the biochemical feedback as well. In the category high-calorie density that do not fill the stomach, do not forget to include soft drinks. Just like as indicated in that same previous article, all the calories that you do not burn will be stored as body fat. This explains a lot of why wrong eating/drinking habits can result in overweight and obesity. Although they are not necessarily the only contributors, but they certainly do contribute to the problem.

This leads me to a theory that some people have about why the French who eat their traditional diet of two large meals a day are not particularly fat. The traditional French diet (I would include all the Southern European diet in this, too) consists of long meals, usually at least an hour at the table, and have several courses, as you could see on the school canteen menu in my previous article. The first course is often a salad or a soup, which is low-calorie density. It starts filling and stretching the stomach, but the person does not ingest a lot of calories by then. Then comes the main course. Because the person is already a bit full, s/he does not feel the need for a huge portion, which means that the amount of calories in the main course will not be that high. The meal ends with a dessert, which can have a high-calorie density, but since the person already filled the stomach with the previous two courses, the dessert size is not that big. The calorie density pattern is not the only characteristic of a traditional French meal. The fact that the lunch and dinner take a long time, there is hardly any lag between the food intake and the biochemical satiety feedback. A traditional French meal is actually a very harmonious process between a variety of foods and letting the body carry out its physiology as it is intended to be.

© Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

A weekly menu at a French school canteen

It is interesting to see what French kids have on the menu at their schools. Here is a link that will show you the weekly menu in a random school somewhere in France. You can click on translate to see the page in English. The translation is reasonably good.

https://www.courrierdelouest.fr/actualite/saint-macaire-en-mauges-menus-du-restaurant-scolaire-municipal-jean-moulin-09-03-2019-391124

As you can see, every day’s menu is, it at least a three-course menu. It shows variety and it is rather well-balanced. As a side note, it is also interesting to know that meals are free, as schools are in France, as they are the school of the French Republic. No lunch money needed.

 

Do diets work?

There is no shortage of diets available, and lots of nutrition gurus as well. They come and go. Some of them have almost reach superstar status. But do they work? It is not an unreasonable question to ask because the societal problems of overweight, obesity and diabetes do not seem to recede in spite of all sorts of solutions out there.

Although most people think that overweight is the result of an overindulging diet, it might not always be this simple. There can be many causes for excess weight. Of course, eating habits play a role. There are simple reasons that will always be true, such as consuming more calories than a person can burn, an unbalanced diet or lack of sufficient physical activity. But nutrition is only one part of a bigger puzzle. Age, gender or genetics also play a role. To find the proper diet, it is essential to look at both the fuel and the machine. Perhaps the person puts the wrong fuel in the tank, but it could also be that the some parts of the engine are not functioning. Overweight could be the result of some organ(s) not functioning properly. It could be the result of hormonal dysfunction. Hormones are quite tricky and it takes a slight shift in the production of hormone, either too much or too little and many things can go wrong. The body contains many glands that produce hormones that regulate the metabolism: pancreas, thyroid, adrenal gland or hypothalamus to name a few. Environmental factors can also play a role in the malfunction of the metabolism. There could be something in the air, water or food that interferes with the body. There are an amazing number of molecules that end up in or environment and that we “consume” without knowing it, comparable with second hand smoke.

So which diet to choose? Some diets work for some individuals and not for others. Some diets need medical supervision and should not be improvised. It is not because a diet is trendy that it is necessarily the right solution for someone. Beware of hypes, as they can have consequences on body and wallet just as well.

The best is to discuss it with a specialist and I mean a real one. Your favorite TV show hosts may be influential but it does not mean that they always know what they talk about. I hear and read so much nonsense about stuff that I know, I cannot think that it is any different for topics in which I have little or no expertise. Speaking of expertise, realize that having an opinion does not make someone an expert, and everyone has opinions on lots of things. Even experts can be wrong sometimes. For good advice, ask a trusted specialist. After all, it is your body and your health that are at stake. They are too important to treat lightly.

Of course, a number of suggestions will always help, such as watch what you eat, reduce the amount of calories, eat more fruit and vegetables, drink more water, go out for walks and exercise more. These suggestions will not hurt anyone.

The best diet of course is to start eating balanced meals at a young age. The role of parents is critical for taking good eating habits from the start. Failure to do so will result in problems later. Good old-fashioned parenting has worked for ages because it is good old-fashioned common sense. It sounds simple, but as everyone knows it is easier said than done.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

How much do people know about nutrition?

Here is a simple fun little exercise. Go ask your relatives, friends, neighbours or colleagues basic questions about nutrition. It is an eye opener.

Here is a list of 10 questions. The first one usually gets a reasonable rate of good answers. From there, it tends to go downhill.

  1. How many calories does a person need per day?
  2. How many grams of protein, fats and carbs does a person need per day?
  3. How many calories are there respectively in 1 gram of carbs, 1 gram of fat and 1 gram of protein?
  4. What percentage of the total calories should come from slow carbs, fast carbs, fat and protein?
  5. What are amino acids?
  6. What are essential amino acids, and how many are there?
  7. What are fatty acids?
  8. What are essential fatty acids?
  9. What is glycogen?
  10. What is insulin?

These are fairly basic questions about nutrition and the items listed play essential roles in or physiology and metabolism, and therefore in our health. Do not feel bad if you do not know all the answers because most people are like you. Even people who are involved in the food and agriculture sectors will stumble on those questions. A reason for this is simply that we do not at food as nutrition but we think of food much more in emotional terms than in rational terms. Our eating patterns are determined rather early in our lives and like many other things in life, we do not take a critical look at what we do but we just follow the pattern. Even serious health problems are not always enough to change our eating habits (what? give up bacon? You must be kidding me? -kind of reaction).

Just as an example, a few days ago I found an article from a significant US food company claiming that “children’s palletes are more adventurous nowadays”, referring to their finding that children are more interested in tasting dishes from exotic ethnic recipes. What on Earth has a palette anything to do with food? The proper word is palate. By the way, a palette is a range of colors. It is also the board that artists use to hold and mix paint.

When I read stuff like that, I am a bit worried. Remember my paragraph about the Gourmet impostors in my previous article? Here is a typical example of that, a company that wants to sound sophisticated by trying to use some fancy word that they do not even know.

I have worked many years in the agribusiness and the philosophy still is to push people to consume more of their stuff, not to educate them to build balanced meals unfortunately. My advice is: just learn about nutrition so that you know more than the food producers, and that should not take too long.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Gourmet, Gourmand & Glouton

These three French words are important to know and understand, as they show very different relationships with food and interestingly enough also show some more general behavioral pattern outside of food.

Let’s start with the Glouton, or as the French-English dictionary translates into “Greedy Pig”. The translation gives it away already. Here we have the human food vacuum. The Glouton will eat anything as much and as fast as possible. The term pig is actually correct. I have spent a few years of my life in pig production and pigs indeed slurp their food at an amazing speed. Actually, there is not all that much difference between humans and pigs in terms of physiology of digestion and metabolism. I will come back on this in another article in the future. We all know Gloutons. Usually, they cannot cook but feel comfortable throwing meat directly on a flame. They are not quite aware of the existence of cutlery but that does not matter. Using a fork and a spoon would probably just be a waste of time that can be spent better with eating. The same rule applies for sauce. Why spend the time making it yourself, while all it takes is to shake a bottle and prrrt there it skirts on the food! It is entertaining to watch a Glouton in action, for a little while. The Glouton has not interest in reading nutritional labels, plus what would be the point anyway. Gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins and the word itself has the same root as glouton. Gluttony is not just about food and Gloutons usually will treat energy, water, packaging, stuff and all other natural resources in the exact same manner. Education about nutrition won’t interest the Glouton but by some interesting twist of fate, many of the Gloutons seem immune to early death related to excessive food consumption.

The line between Glouton and Gourmand is kind of thin. Both simply eat too much. There are some subtle differences, though. First, while a Glouton will eat anything, the Gourmand tends to specialize in some particular types of food. Often, the food of predilection for a Gourmand has to do with sweetness. Cakes, pastries and cookies are among the favorites. Only for those special categories of food will a Gourmand overindulge. For the other types of food, a Gourmand will eat with much more moderation, and can actually be picky on certain foods. For as much as the Glouton is all about quantity, the Gourmand will go for quantity on the favorite foods, but will have a more balanced approach between quantity and quality for the foods outside the special group. For some mysterious reason, it looks like the Gourmand does not seem to have the same resistance to food-related ailments as the Glouton. A Gourmand needs to be careful and make sure they have a lifestyle that allows burning all those delicious calories.

Last by not least, here is the my favorite of the three. The Gourmet looks for a sensual relationship with foods. The Gourmet is looking for a refined pleasure that goes beyond just a physical satisfaction. If food were a sound, the Gourmet would look for music with structure and personality, for a melody and would definitely resent noise. The pleasure a Gourmet looks for goes far beyond just the digestive tract. A Gourmet is not just a mouth linked to a stomach. A Gourmet enjoys a meal with all his/her senses. A Gourmet is in no rush because pleasure is much more enjoyable when it lasts. A gourmet is not going to have only one dish. That would be boring and frustrating. A proper meal for this group consists of several courses, the one leading to the other in a tantalizing manner. A sauce from a bottle does not belong on their table. The pleasure of cooking the entire dish is too important. Time is not relevant, only a stunning result matters. If quality is paramount, the Gourmet will not settle for too low a quantity, though. The meal has to be sufficiently filling. There are many advantages to this approach of food. Taking the time is important in controlling the amount of calories ingested. The diversity of such meals offers a wide array of nutrients and tend to be rather well-balanced. Like the Glouton and the Gourmand, the Gourmet’s attitude towards food extends beyond food. The same quest for lasting quality pleasure without excess appears in all aspects of life of the Gourmet. A word of caution is necessary though as there are some impostors in the Gourmet world. The aura of sophistication of the Gourmet life is of course attractive but the true Gourmet is not up to impress others. A true Gourmet just enjoys the food and the company. What matters to the Gourmet is the experience and the sharing of it. There is no selfishness in a true Gourmet. This is not the case with the “impostors”. We all know these types. They are to food what a “nouveau rich” is to money and bourgeoisie. They try to make themselves more important and are after recognition. They are the Frasier and Niles Crane among us (sorry for those who are too young to have watched the comedy sitcom show “Frasier”). They know very little about food and wine but pretend they do. After all not everyone can be French or Italian, although not all of them are gourmets.

And to finish, just a quick word about the puritans of food, those righteous souls who have mapped out what is right and wrong in food and agriculture and see evil in about everything different from their food beliefs. Sadly enough, they will live without enjoying the great pleasures of Gourmet meals, as they have chosen to impose on themselves to eat the saddest and dullest foods there are. Perhaps, it is only the Gourmet in me talking, but members of that group always strike me as being the opposite of a jovial “Bon Vivant” (translation would be “someone who lives well”). I do not mind. Everyone is free to choose what is best for them. It would not appear that they live any longer than other people, and they are not immune to diseases, either. Being a gourmet is actually about moderation and responsibility. We just choose to have pleasure in the mix.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Food wasted is money wasted

Since it has been making headlines in the mainstream media for some time, you must have heard about it. It is estimated that about a third of all food produced in the world is not eaten and wasted. Recently, I was reading that Canadian households throw about half the food they buy in the garbage. This is bad economics. Here are simple figures to make my point.

You might remember the campaign a few years ago about the challenge of making $5 meals. Those were the days of the Great Recession of 2008 when some people discovered that economy is not always up and economic hardship made them realign their priorities. But time goes by and with economic recovery, being money-savvy has become boring again and who does still care about the $5 meal challenge today? You can see in the text of my Gallery page that all the great dishes I photographed cost even (much) less than $5, so not much of a challenge if you actually can cook and have a good sense of money. So, I will take $5 for a meal per person and with two meals a day that will be $10 per day per person.

Over a year that is $10 x 365 days = $3,650 dollar in food per person

Let’s take the world average of a third of food wasted: $3,650/3 = 1,217 dollars thrown away in the garbage per person per year.

If you take a household of two persons, that is $2,434 wasted per year. For a household of four, that is $4,868 per year. In the shameful case of the Canadian average of 50% (apparently, American and Australian households do not do much differently than the Canadians), these numbers become respectively $3,650 and $7,300 per household per year.

Another way of looking at the impact on household budget is to take the share of the food budget in the entire household budget. In Western countries, food represents roughly 10% of the household budget. Then, it is easy to see that 50% food waste represents 5% of the household income, and a third would represent 3.3% of the income.

Just as in my previous article about cooking in which I presented a calculation of how much money cooking can save you, you can see how much money you can save by not wasting food. That is free money that you can use to pay your mortgage or anything else useful to make your life better now or for the future.

These two examples, cooking at home and not wasting food, save literally thousands and thousands of dollars per year to your household, and the amazing thing is that this is YOUR money. You can make it work for you or join the legions of people struggling financially because of poor sense of home economics. This is easy money to keep on your bank account. All it takes to save this money is just some sense of organization in the kitchen and a bit of discipline.

After reading the article about the poor Canadian performance (I live in Canada), I did my own estimate of how much food I throw away, and I got to a figure less than 1%! Next to that, I compost all food scraps and I use the compost in my garden where I grow my own produce, which also saves me money and it is all produce free from any chemical whatsoever!

And when it comes to food waste, there is of course the issue of waste at the level of restaurants and retailers. Don’t hold your breath too much. I have heard about this problem for about 50 years and it clearly has not improved all that much despite the active communication campaigns when the issue makes the media headlines. I recently read that the US retailers Kroger and Walmart were re-evaluating their “ugly produce” concepts as they notice that consumers prefer to pick the pretty ones, which sounds like they might give it up. So much for social and environmental responsibility that we always hear so much about. When it comes to the $$$, then it is a different tune. There is a reason why there are different quality grades and why people make the choices they make. It is called market and price. It is also about knowledge and perception. it is also about store ownership. I can tell you this: when I was a kid, I used to go with my father on the market. We made sure that we would never throw anything away and that all our products would be sold by the end of the day. It required sensible planning and also the proper commercial thinking, which sometimes included to adjust the pricing on slow days. Money always talks to customers. it also talks to business owners. Trust me when it is your money that is in the business, you look at it quite differently than when it is someone else’s.

Copyright 2019 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.