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.

Lifestyles have changed but our biology has not

By the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution brought many changes in the relation between humans and nature, and between humans and their nature. The changes continued and amplified after World War II with the rise of the so-called consumption society in developed countries. I say so-called because the economic model is not so much about consumption as it is about buying more goods all the time, while consuming them is secondary. In my opinion, the consumption society should be called the shopping society, as the latter term would describe its purpose more accurately.

The change of economic model has been accompanied with changes of lifestyle, both at home as at work. The level of physical activity has dropped in many jobs and now a lot of workers spend hours daily sitting. With TV and computers, the same trend has happened at home, especially with more and more housing units in urban centers without yards. Even though, many people try to practice some physical activity, there is a sharp contrast with life as it used to be. Nothing is perfect and progress also has its shortcomings.

If our societies have evolved amazingly quickly over the past several decades, our biology has not. Our metabolism, our physiology and our biochemistry are very much the same as they were tens of thousands of years ago, even as before agriculture appeared in human societies. The contrasts with today are many.

By then, food was scarce and humans had to travel long distances and put a lot of physical activity to find something to eat. Today, food is plentiful and all it takes is to sit in your car to drive to the supermarket, which involved little physical exercise, and with online deliveries, the physical activity is even reduced to zero. The former hunter will now turn into a larva.

By then, there would be days without food and if the human organism could survive, it is because it has the ability to store reserves in the body from times of abundance to be used when the hunters and gatherers would come back empty-handed. Today, many people do not even know hunger at all. The easy availability of food exceeds the nutritional needs and what is eaten but not burnt ends up being metabolised into body fat. The old biology does what it is supposed to do, as one of its key roles is to deal with periods of food shortages. In the developed world, people consume on average about twice as many calories, twice as much protein and fats as they actually need. Since that is on average, you can imagine the multiple for some people! The excess portion does not disappear. It is transformed into fat reserves. I like to say that if you eat twice as much as you should, it should not be a surprise to end up twice as big as you should be. Joke aside, it is actually a good thing that animals store food reserves as fat and not as starch as plants do. Reason for that is the calorie density of starch versus fat: 4 calories per gram for starch versus 9 calories per gram of fat. In other words, if you have an excess weight of 10 pounds, it would be 22.5 pounds of starch, so more than twice the burden. Plants do not move, so it is not much of an impediment, but if you need to run away from a predator, an additional 12.5 pounds would make you an even easier prey.

Another difference between modern foods and the old biology is that our bodies have evolved to eat what I would call primary foods; some might want to call them primitive foods even. My point is that our biology is actually rather effective in extracting nutrients from rough foods. A side effect of processing foods is that it makes nutrients more easily accessible, because the processing often breaks physical barriers to the nutrients. As the nutrients are easier to access and our biology is eager to get them, it is only logical that processed foods are metabolised differently and faster than primary foods, thus in fact increasing their nutritional density, which results in more excess nutrients ready to be sent to the fat tissue.

A lot of the issues about the skyrocketing statistics of obesity, overweight, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and other food-related ailments find their origin in the fact that our lifestyles have changed while our biology has not. Food availability has changed. Foods have changed. Agricultural methods have changed. Economic models have changed. Diets have changed. Level of physical activity has changed. They all contribute to an imbalance between consumption and needs, which results to food-related problems. This is why, it is more important than ever to make education about food, agriculture and nutrition mandatory in schools. If we consider that education is the basis for better lives, then there is no argument why these topics should not be life basics for all children and adults alike!

Also considering the cost of health issues related to food, I bet you that education about food, agriculture and nutrition would pay off for individuals, insurance companies and governments alike.

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