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One of the most common dietary questions that arise with my clients, as a personal trainer is the idea of carbohydrate intake - just how much is enough - and should they eat them at all. Firstly it is important to acknowledge that the even the most motivated among us cannot sustain a diet that calls for severe restrictions on their carbohydrate intake for a prolonged period of time. It is simply impossible to maintain.
In selecting a dietary course we must be very honest about the limitations of the human body, and respectful of what our body needs. Proper weight loss must follow a sensible and realistic progression and also incorporate a realistically sustainable program of resistance exercise. Before even delving into the workings of body fat reduction through carbohydrate manipulation I must stress that without a long term exercise program, it is not going to yield long term results.
Carbohydrates & Evolution
The truth is that when it comes to carbohydrates our bodies still have yet to come to terms with 21st century life. The human body is not made to handle a large influx of carbohydrates at one time. Here's why: Naturally occurring carbohydrates all are very high in dietary fiber. Dietary fiber is the term for several materials that make up the parts of plants your body cannot digest. Its composition promotes satiety by slowing gastric emptying, leading to an overall decrease in the amount of food you are able to ingest. (As an example- consider how filling a bowl of oatmeal can be, that filling sensation that stops you from eating a large amount is due to the high fiber content. Low fiber content foods such as pasta, however can be eaten in relatively larger quantities due to the low dietary fiber that such foods contain.)
However with the advent of food processing technology in the 19th century, meant to supply a large amount of food to an ever increasing population in the Western world, we were able to make foods 'light and tasty' by removing significant amounts of the naturally occurring fiber. Foods cook faster and more can be consumed at a time, which equated to consumers buying more of it. Consider the contents of the average human diet before the advent of fast foods outlets such as Krispy Kreme, McDonald's and other fast chains, as well as mass produced items that were once home made, such as cookies, cakes and pastries. The refined carbohydrates of today were not around yet and more importantly, neither was prevalent obesity and the slew of dietary related diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, all of which make up the leading causes of death in our world today. The trend of the past few years has been to restrict carbohydrate intake as a means to weight management and overall health improvement, however there are major flaws with this approach, as carbohydrates in general are viewed as the cause of obesity, not the refined carbohydrates that are truly the major culprits.
Carbs As A Primary Fuel Source
Carbohydrates cannot be continuously restricted as they are necessary for so many metabolic functions. Carbs are broken down into glucose (a form of sugar) and is the primary fuel source of the cells in your body, including your muscles and your brain. If you don't eat enough you will feel fatigued and experience a very noticeable loss of energy. You will also have a hard time concentrating and maintaining your focus, since your brain will literally be low on fuel. To combat a low carbohydrate intake, your body is forced to burn off valuable muscle to fuel itself. This process, called gluconeogensis, is not a good thing at all, as muscle mass plays an important role in the overall health of the human body and you don't want to lose it. Many proclaimed the effectiveness of the low carb diets, however the weight loss that they saw on the scale was mainly water and muscle. Consequently, even though they lost some weight they still did not get the toned and firm look that they were seeking since they lost so much muscle in the process. So we have established the importance of carbohydrates as our body's primary fuel source and negated the idea of taking too many of them out of our diet. Now we are going to look at what the real issues are regarding healthy carbohydrate management and proper weight control.
The Dangers of Refined Carbs
Refined carbohydrates are usually made from white flour products and have a high glycemic index. Foods with a high glycemic index require the pancreas to secrete large amounts of insulin to break them down. These huge spikes causes the body to over compensate for this sudden rise in insulin, so you experience a short term energy boost, followed by a drastic drop in sugar low that creates a sense of urgent hunger causing you to gravitate toward similar foods that elicit the same response. (Sound familiar). The pancreas then has to work overtime making insulin to store glucose and triglycerides and depending on your genetics; this can set the stage for adult onset diabetes. This up and down experience with blood sugar levels also gives rise a condition known as hypoglycemia. One of the unfortunate side effects of hypoglycemia is again that urgent and unbearable hunger and a need to eat much more calories than the body needs. The result- you get fat.
Eating too many carbohydrates, which is so easy with today's low fiber refined carb sources, can indeed make you fat. When you ingest excess amounts of carbohydrates, your blood sugar levels increase triggering your pancreas to release insulin, like we said before. Insulin controls where blood sugar is stored. Some of it is used for energy, and some is stored in the muscles as glycogen (the stored form of sugar). Since your body can store only a certain amount as glycogen, the excess is stored as fat. Insulin also prevents existing fat from being used as energy. Having continuously high insulin levels means continually storing the carbohydrates as fat while keeping the fat you already have. These two aforementioned factors are the among the main reasons two thirds of the population of the US is overweight!
The Trans- Fat Link
Note also that most of the refined carbohydrates today are made with trans fatty acids. There is a great deal of research that has shown that trans fatty acids (usually listed as partially hydrogenated oils) can elevate your bad cholesterol levels and increase your risk of diabetes and heart disease. There are also some studies that suggest that it may damages blood vessels. Crafty manufacturers don't list it but fortunately legislation is being passed to force them to do so. What carbohydrate sources contain trans fatty acids you ask? You may not like the answer- French Fries, donuts, potato chips and even crackers. You can find them by reading the ingredient listing, if you see partially hydrogenated oil listed put it down.
The Dangers of Soda & Juices
The other reason carbohydrates is given a bad rap is the other deadly sinful indulgence of the average American- soda and fruit juice. We all know (I hope) that soda is bad but so are '100% natural juices'. Again here you have a large amount of carbohydrate in the form of corn syrup and table sugar with no fiber- so you can drink it forever whereas you could never eat the dozens of fruits used to make one bottle of fruit juice because of their fiber content. I should also mention the relationship between simple sugars and mucus formation. The biochemical name for mucus is mucopolysaccharide which means "mucus of many sugars." Mucus is basically formed through the linking together of sugar molecules. If you have a condition, such as asthma in which mucus is part of the problem, you can do yourself a lot of good by minimizing your intake of simple sugars and refined foods. Some Good Carb Strategies
Here's what you need to do to keep your carb intake form affecting your waistline:
- Educate Yourself. Get a book or chart detailing the glycemic index of the foods that you eat along with their macronutrient and fiber makeup. Choose carbohydtae sources that have a low glycemic index and if you do eat a food with a high index, combine it with a protein source with fat to lower the rate of digestion, which in turn will ultimately reduce the overall insulin response to the food. A good example of this would be steak and potatoes- on its own, potatoes create a rapid rise in blood sugar, however the fat present in steak serves to significantly reduce the insulin response. A look at foods like ice cream which has a glycemic index of is a good example of this, however you should not eat ice cream under any circumstances.
- Eat mainly fruits and vegetables with a relatively low glycemic index of under 50- (all fruits are not created equal- and so moderate your intake of high glycemic level fruits such as grapes and mangoes).
- Avoid processed and refined carbohydrates - Check labels for high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar, and partially hydrogenated oils.- and stay away from them! You cannot eat something that is inherently bad for your body in moderation.
- Make sure that the carbohydrates that you eat are in as natural a state as possible . The first and most important test for your carb sources, is to simply ask yourself if it would exist without the presence of food processing. If you would not be able to eat it if you were stranded in the wild, far away from supermarkets, fast food restaurants and convenience stores, then it is most likely not a good choice.
- Eat only carb sources that are high in fiber -(since fiber is not digested if you eat a food with 15 grams of carbs and 8 grams of fiber you are only really getting 7 grams of carbs.)
- If you have to eat things like cold cereal pasta or a bread product make sure it has over 3 grams of fiber per serving and is low in simple sugars- (that eliminates a lot on the market but if you look hard enough you can them out there)
- Remember that milk contains a significant amount of sugar.- and stay away from it! You also don't need it for its calcium. Milk is also a poor source of calcium in comparison to foods such as kelp and sardines. Trust me- you don't need it!
- Don't eat a lot of carbohydrates and a lot of fats at the same time. Fettucine Alfredo, donuts and French Fries are all exercises in weight gain.
- Consume an adequate supply of water at all times.
- Eat 5 to 6 small meals daily, always eating before you get hungry! If you wait until you are starving you are going crave everything that is bad for you!
Now everyone is different and as such each individual must determine exactly how much carbohydrates that you need. If you feel sleepy after a carb meal- you've eaten too much. Remember this is not a natural process and feeling sluggish after a meal isn't something to enjoy, it's a hint that you are doing something wrong. Spread out your carbohydrate intake throughout the day, taking in most of it earlier in the day and eating less and less as the day winds down. Even though carbohydrates are an essential part of a balanced diet the idea is not to overdo it. Good luck!