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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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.

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.

Why we will change our eating habits, one way or the other

Here is another article (from 2011) from my other website, The Food Futurist that is popular and worth reading:

In the discussion about producing enough food for the 9 billion people the world will have by 2050, one of the sensitive issues, especially in the overfed world, is about what to eat and how much of it. There always is resistance to change, and changing eating habits may be even among the most difficult challenges we have. Eating habits are developed unconsciously since early childhood, and switching to conscious choices is not easy to achieve. It requires will power and self-discipline.

Most of the gloomy scenarios about the challenge of feeding the world are based on the assumption that the diet model would have to be the Western diet, and in particular the American diet. This is far from certain. Actually, do not expect this to be the case.

Changing eating habits will happen in two ways. One will be voluntary and the other will be a consequence of food prices.

There is a growing awareness of the health consequences due to overconsumption of food. All the stakeholders seem to blame each over for obesity, diabetes and other heart conditions, and try to convince the public that they are not the cause of the problem. Whose fault is it? Is it meat? Is it corn syrup? Is it fast food? Is it salt? Is it lifestyle? Is it the parents’ fault? Is it the schools with their vending machines offering snacks and soft drinks? We all have read such statements. Here is a scoop: overweight is caused by consuming more calories than are burnt through physical activity. Ailments are the results of rich and unbalanced diets. Eating (and drinking) too much, and too much of the wrong things is bad for you. There is a reason why gluttony is one of the seven deadly sins! Actually, our societies should have a close look at that list, because we might be in trouble.

In Western countries, we eat too much, and that should not be a surprise to anyone. Obesity and diabetes are becoming society problems in the USA, but other countries are following the same path. Europe and China have a rising percentage of obese people, especially young people. Even in Africa, there seems to be an increase of the number of overweight people. A recent study confirmed this (click here for the interactive chart). Awareness about health problems has already generated action. There are government campaigns. Food producers are reviewing their formulas and are working toward healthier products, in particular by lowering the content of salt and sugar of their foods. More and more consumers are also adjusting their eating habits, mostly by changing what they buy and where they buy it. The trend towards healthier and more natural food is growing and it will not stop. Only biotech companies seem to ignore this fact. This food trend is not just in Western countries but in China, too, the demand for natural and organic foods is increasing. After all, nobody really feels happy with being fat or unhealthy. If some people are taking action to improve their diets and its impact on the environment, this voluntary choice is still about a minority of the population, today. One of the reasons for this is that healthy diets seem more expensive than the junk fattening eating habits. I say seem, because those who can cook know that it is quite simple to make delicious balanced meal for less than the supersize combo deep fried so-called menu.

Money matters. That is a fact. This is why money is probably the best incentive for change. And the future will bring us plenty of incentive to change our diets. The current concerns about food prices, and the food riots of 2008, have created awareness about food supply. Although the price hike is more the result of investors, not necessarily speculators, looking for a safe haven for their US dollars through transactions in futures contract, the reality is that the commodity markets, even on paper, becomes the “official” market price. This enters the real economy and affects the price of food for households all over the world. The poorer countries are more sensitive to food price inflation, and this has the potential to cause very serious unrest.

Regardless of the current causes of food price increase, simple economics show that when demand increase, while supply has difficulties to keep up, prices increase. And this is exactly what will happen. In a previous article, I showed that the potential for meeting food demand, or I should say the demand for nutritional needs, of 9 billion was there. Quite easily. However, in this calculation, I indicated the road to success includes reducing food waste and a reduction of the quantity of meat in the diet. This means that we need to change our behaviour towards food.

If there is a sensitive topic about diet, this has to be meat. Opinions vary from one extreme to another. Some advocate a total rejection of meat and meat production, which would be the cause for most of hunger and environmental damage, even climate change. Others shout something that sounds like “don’t touch my meat!”, calling on some right that they might have to do as they please, or so they like to think. The truth, like most things in life, is in the middle. Meat is fine when consumed with moderation. Eating more than 100 kg per year will not make you healthier than if you eat only 30 kg. It might provide more pleasure for some, though. I should know. My father was a butcher and I grew up with lots of meat available. During the growth years as a teenager, I could gulp a pound of ground meat just like that. I eat a lot less nowadays. I choose quality before quantity.

The future evolution of the price of food is going to have several effects. The first one is the most direct. As food becomes more expensive, consumers look for the more affordable alternative first. If their budget is tight, they buy slightly smaller portions. People will slightly reduce their food intake. Those who were over consuming might actually benefit from a positive impact on their health. For those who already were struggling, this will be more difficult to deal with. From all the food sorts, animal protein will be the most affected by an increase of the price of food commodities. Already today, there are clear signs from the meat and poultry companies that the price of feed is seriously squeezing their margins. As usual, passing the price increase to consumers will take time, as retailers will resist. If the price of agricultural commodities is to stay high, consumers will inevitably have to accept price increases for food in general, and for meat and other animal products in particular. The price of meat is going to be affected by other factors than just feed prices. The need for more control on food safety issues, the stricter environmental regulations that will come for animal husbandry, on the land and in the sea, a change in animal husbandry practices, especially a lower use of antibiotics and farms with lower densities of animal will all contribute to an increase in costs. Energy will become more expensive, too. A whole system based on cheap commodities is about to change, simply because there will not be any cheap commodity anymore. These are all adjustments to rebalance our consumption behaviour from the unbridled overconsumption of the past decades, when consumers were not thinking about the consequences of their actions. The industry will figure out how to increase efficiency to contain some of the cost increases, but the change of farming practices will make meat significantly more expensive than it is today. The price of ad-lib cheap meat is ending. The future dynamics of food prices as presented here will be ongoing. A long as we will not have adjusted our diets to a new equilibrium, meat will keep increasing faster than other basic food staples, until meat consumption, and therefore meat production, will reset to different levels. Do not expect this to happen overnight. It will be a gradual process. There will not be any meat or fish riots. If food riots happen, they will be about the basic food staples, simply because the first ones to riot will be the poorer among us, and their diet is composed mostly from rice, wheat, corn, cassava or potatoes. Should the situation become dire, governments will intervene to ensure food for the poorest. Such price systems are already in place in many developing countries, and they are likely to be maintained, and even strengthened.

The same critical factors to keep food prices in check are very much the same as the ones that I presented in the previous article that I mentioned earlier: food waste reduction, moderate meat consumption per capita; and economic development, especially in Africa.

Copyright 2011 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Nutrition basics should be taught in school

Here is one of the articles (from 2009) from my other website, The Food Futurist, that motivated me to create this website:

When food costs twice!

A recent report showed that the annual medical cost of obesity reached $147 billion (see article). On the other hand the contribution of the meat and poultry industry in the US is $832 billion annually. Therefore, we can expect ongoing arguments between economic interest and health care costs for a while. The simple fact is that too many Americans do not eat a properly balanced diet and that should change.

The most efficient way to improve eating habits is by understanding nutrition and educating children at an early age about health and food, and about diseases caused by either unbalance or excess. Food safety is not only about bacteria or residues, but also about handling food properly and eating right.

People know actually very little about proper nutrition. The average person may have some ideas about how many calories he/she needs on a daily basis, but it hardly goes much further than that. Only few people know how many grams of protein they should consume on a daily basis. They know even less how many grams of fat they need. When it comes to carbohydrates, the situation is just as confused and confusing. Most people do not even know how the different groups of carbs (starch, sugars and fibers) are metabolised and what ratio between them they should consume. The result is a diet that has negative long-term effects.

If the FAO estimates the daily calorie needs at 1,800 for an average human being, the averages in developed countries are much higher, reaching about 3,500 on average for Western countries and even 3,800 in the US. The same conclusion is true for protein and other nutritional elements. It should be no surprise then that when people eat twice as much as they should, they get twice as big as they should, too. The reality is that in developed countries, people do not eat what they need, but they eat what they want. And they want too much.

Balanced nutrition is not difficult to understand, but someone needs to teach it. As parents have about as little knowledge and understanding as their kids do, schools would be quite well inspired to put nutrition on their curriculum. After all, schools are the places where future generations are educated to do the right things in the future, or at least it should be part of their mandate. Helping people eating right is part of creating healthy and prosperous societies. Sick societies will not be leaders. Of course, including nutrition in the curriculum is not enough for schools. They must also provide foods and drinks that contribute to healthy eating. Offering kids access to junk foods and junk drinks in vending machines may generate revenue for schools, but it works against helping kids to have a healthy diet. If they have the choice, kids will not spend their lunch money on water and broccoli. The responsible adults in charge must help them make the right choices. Offering treats is not to schools to decide, but only to the parents.

Copyright 2009 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.