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CARBOHYDRATES
& LOW-CARB DIETS

            Carbohydrates are sugar molecules that are a combination of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.  They are most commonly found in sugars, fibers, and starches which are found in bread, beans, milk, popcorn, potatoes, cookies, spaghetti, corn, and cherry pie.  Carbohydrates provide the body with the energy it needs for physical activity, and for organs to operate properly.

            At one point, carbohydrates were grouped in two main categories, simple and complex carbohydrates.  Now, carbohydrates are grouped in three categories, simple, refined, and complex.  Simple carbohydrates consist of sugars (fruit sugar, corn or grape sugar, and table sugar).  You want to avoid taking in too much simple carbohydrates for the fact that they are not necessary for your body, they only raise your blood sugar.  Refined carbohydrates are made of flour (pasta, bread, and pastries).  Complex carbohydrates deal with low and high fibers.  Fibers cannot be digested by humans because we do not have the enzyme it takes to digest it.  Simple and refined carbohydrates are known as “empty calories.”  They are known as this because vitamins and minerals are needed to be metabolized, but simple and refined carbohydrates do not supply them. 

            After consuming carbohydrates, the digestive system breaks them down into single sugar molecules.  Carbohydrates need to be broke down to single molecules in order to be absorbed into the bloodstream.  Once the sugar enters the bloodstream, it gives the body energy to do any activity.  As the blood sugar rises, cells in the pancreas churn out more insulin.  Insulin is a hormone that signals cells to absorb blood sugar for energy, or to store it.  As the cells absorb the sugar out of the blood, the amount of sugar in the bloodstream returns to its average level.  While this happens in most people, those with type 1 diabetes cannot make enough insulin to absorb all the sugar, and people with type 2 diabetes are unable to respond to the insulin (known as insulin resistance) and all the high sugar level stays in the blood system for a long period of time after eating.  Insulin resistance has also been linked with high blood pressure, high levels of triglycerides, low HDL cholesterol (the good kind of cholesterol) heart disease, and some cancers.

            The Glycemic Index is used to classify carbohydrates, and allows people to find out how fast and far your blood sugar has risen after eating certain foods.  For example, white bread is converted almost immediately into blood sugar.  White bread is classified as high on the Glycemic Index.  Brown rice is the exact opposite of white bread.  Rice digests more slowly which gives it a low Glycemic Index.  Complex carbohydrates fall under the High Glycemic Index while simple carbohydrates are under the Low Glycemic Index.                                Ranges for Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load

 

Glycemic Index

Glycemic Load

High

70 or more

20 or more

Medium

56 to 69

11 to 19

Low

55 or less

10 or less

 

Glycemic Index compared to the Glycemic Load

Food

Glycemic Index

Glycemic Load

Apple

40

6

Baked Potato

85

26

Brown Rice

50

16

Carrots

92

5

Corn Flakes

92

24

Orange Juice

50

13

Plain Bagel

72

25

Potato Chips

54

11

Pound Cake

54

15

Table Sugar (sucrose)

58

6

                        * Adapted from International Table of Glycemic Index, 2002

                        * Source:  www.glycemicindex.com

            There is one glitch in the Glycemic Index.  It tells you which foods are high and low on the Index, but they do not tell you how many carbohydrates there are in each food.  For example, watermelon is high on the Glycemic Index, but they only have a small amount of carbohydrates.  Due to this, researchers have found a new system which includes the amount of carbohydrates in food, and the impact it will have on your blood sugar.  This new system is called the Glycemic Load.

            There are diets out there that are filled with high-glycemic index foods, and there are diets that say carbohydrates are not needed.  The theory behind low-carb diets is that carbohydrates increase the blood sugar level, which causes insulin to kick in and distribute the sugar to cells throughout the body where energy is needed.  This keeps your body from burning up excess fat and loosing weight.  So since carbohydrates increase blood sugar levels, increase insulin levels, and can cause weight gain, experts say to eat less carbohydrates, and you will have lower blood sugar, which will lower the amount of insulin produced, which will allow the body to burn up the excess body fat faster, and sooner, allowing the person to loose weight.  But the weight loss does not come from eating fewer carbohydrates.  It actually comes from eating fewer calories (calories that come from carbohydrates, fat, or protein).  The Atkins diet is what considers carbohydrates to be bad, and they say that they are the root of all body fat and excess weight.  There is evidence that low-carbohydrate diets can help people lose weight quicker that a low-fat diet.  Researchers are still trying to figure out the long-term effects of eating no carbohydrates.  If a person were to go on a low-carbohydrate diet, they should eat some fruits, vegetables, and whole grains everyday to get the vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that are healthy for the body.  Studies have shown that low-carbohydrate diets can result in weight loss.  The rate at which you loose the weight depends on which program you use.  For example, the Atkins diet will allow you to loose weight faster, but in the long run you will loose the same amount of weight that you would if you were using a different low-carbohydrate diet. 

            When on a low-carbohydrate diet, people are likely to not receive the amount of essential nutrients in foods that are healthy for your body.  Without these essential nutrients, people can experience health problems like unbalanced blood chemistry, constipation, and other problems.  According to the American Heart Association, it is recommended that foods with low saturated fat and low cholesterol should be taken instead of going the low-carbohydrate route.  This will be much safer, and easier on a person’s health.  People are to be aware that too many complex carbohydrates have been linked to an increased risk for diabetes and heart disease.  But, the body still needs carbohydrates in order to give the body energy to do any activity. 

            There are three reasons why low-carb diets work:  loss of water weight, decreased appetite, and reduced calories.  Your body loses water weight when it begins to burn up fat for energy.  When your body is burning up the fat and carbohydrates, water is released, and you loose weight.  Carbohydrates have been liked to hunger, but that is not certain yet.  When you burn fat without carbohydrates, byproducts enter your bloodstream instead of the sugars.  Without the insulin needed, your body does not crave food as much, which results in less eating, and eventually weight loss.  Many carbohydrates contain calories in them.  Low-carb diets limit the amount of calories a person takes in because of the restrictions it has on what foods you can eat based on how many carbohydrates there are in it.

            Carbohydrates can be addictive.  When food is consumed by people the carbohydrates within that food raises insulin, which causes cells to absorb sugar from the blood, and lower the sugar level in blood.  This is known to cause a desire or craving for more food that has a lot of carbohydrates.  Studies have shown that when the body’s blood sugar level gets low, it stimulates hunger.  When the body craves food, it usually craves food that is high in carbohydrates, which gets rid of the hunger, and it gives the body a quick source of sugar.  Another study says that a decrease of serotonin in the brain affects the “mind-mood-food connection.”  Serotonin helps a person feel less pain, les anxiety, and less stress.  It improves your mood by increasing relaxation in your body.  This study by experts says that people who crave carbohydrates have low levels of serotonin.  One way to help stop the craving/addiction is to reduce the amount of carbohydrates taken at one time, or eat foods with lower glycemic index.  This will reduce the amount of insulin produced, and the craving for food/carbohydrates will be less. 

            Carbohydrate intake should come mainly from complex carbohydrates.  They are healthier for the human body, and they are the most effective in adding energy to your body.  Along with giving the body energy, complex carbohydrates give the body important nutrients such as fiber, vitamins, and minerals.  Complex carbohydrates are usually low in calories.

            The Food and Drug Administration has not yet defined what low-carb food is.  The words Low-Carb have no meaning at this point, they are only marketing terms used to sell more products to people who are trying to loose weight.  People may also buy the food thinking that the food is healthier.  This is not true in all cases, you can buy low-carb cookies, cakes, or other pastries.  The label may say low-carb, but the fat content and amount of calories can be high.  Low-carb foods can also replace the needed carbohydrates with substituted sweeteners.  The sweeteners used to replace carbohydrates are not as healthy for the human body as actual carbohydrates.  The Dietary Guidelines for Americans has developed 7 guidelines for better health.  Americans are to: (1) eat a variety of foods to get the energy, protein, vitamins, minerals, and fiber you need for good health, (2) Balance the food you eat with physical activity, (3) select a diet low in sugar, (4) choose a diet low in salt to help reduce your risk of high blood pressure, (5) eat plenty of grain products, vegetables, and fruits, (6)choose a diet low in fat, saturated fat, and cholesterol, (7) drink alcohol in moderation.

            Carbohydrates can be calculated as either total or net carbohydrates.  On labels, the amount of carbohydrates in a serving is considered the total carbohydrates.  Net carbohydrates can be calculated by taking the fiber, glycerin, and sugar alcohols away from the amount of carbohydrates listed on the label.  There is a theory behind fiber, glycerin, and sugar alcohols that say they do not raise blood sugar level.  But the truth is that they do raise blood sugar, and they are also high in calories.

Written by Mark Johnson, May 20, 2005
 
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