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All About Carbohydrates PDF Print E-mail

Article by Laura McDermid

Mention the word carbohydrates in public these days and you are likely to get lynched. I almost became a victim of a hysterical womans tirade at one of the markets that I sell at this past week-end. She happens to be a great follower of a certain Professor who is strongly advocating a complete no carb diet.

I managed to provoke the womans ire when I said that one needs to be extremely cautious when taking advice from people who tend to be extremists. This very same professor claimed the exact opposite fifteen years ago at the height of the carbo-loading era. The devotees opinion is that I should be really grateful that this professor came to his senses and finally saw the light instead of being sceptical of his motives. She asked me if I happened to be a professor and if not than I had absolutely no right to question this mans authority!

I have every right to question any authority, regardless of their titles because ultimately I am the ONLY person responsible for my health. Food fads come and go but no fad should preclude wisdom for the sake of vanity.

Why does this certain professor annoy me so? Part of it was the hysterical womans insistence that this professor uses data gleaned from clinical trials to support his claims with. If this is true then he must have been using data from trials fifteen years ago when he was enthusiastically encouraging people to gorge on spaghetti the night before a race. The stark reality is that data regarding nutrition has not changed much over over the past fifteen years, it's the interpretation therof that is changing. The one trial that this woman said that the professor uses to support his argument regarding how bad carbohydrates are was an unpublished experiment that was carried out in 1960! Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor were given eighteen laboratory rats. These were divided into three groups: one group received cornflakes and water; a second group was given the cardboard box that the cornflakes came in and water; the control group received rat chow and water. The rats in the control group remained in good health throughout the experiment. The rats eating the box became lethargic and eventually died of malnutrition. The rats receiving the cornflakes and water died before the rats that were eating the box! (The first box rat died the day the last cornflake rat died.) Furthermore, before death, the cornflakes-eating rats developed aberrant behaviour, threw fits, bit each other and finally went into convulsions. Autopsy revealed dysfunction of the pancreas, liver and kidneys and degeneration of the nerves of the spine, all signs of insulin shock. The startling conclusion of this study was that there was more nourishment in the box than in the cornflakes. This experiment was designed as a joke, but the results were far from funny.

I have personally shared this trial with my audience too to highlight how bad processed carbohydrates are. So considering that this information has been available for over fifty years, why was it not mentioned fifteen years ago when the esteemed professor was encouraging his flock to chow down on healthy processed wholewheat bread? Having worked in the pharmaceutical industry for many years I know only too well how data from clinical trials can be manipulated in ones favour. When I was the marketing manager overseeing a range of antibiotics used in feedlot cattle to treat respiratory diseases, we would conduct trials until the outcome was favourable. Any trials that showed the products in a negative light were simply filed away, the truth forever hidden in the Top Secret file.

Carbohydrates have gone from Messiah to antichrist in a heartbeat for no valid reason except for the select interpretations of a handful of influential people. Trying to unpack this would take a lot more than this article as there are so many subtleties.

Let me begin by saying that not all carbohydrates are created equally - just like not all protein is necessarily beneficial. The online definition of carbohydrates is: “any of a large group of organic compounds occurring in foods and living tissues and including sugars, starch, and cellulose. They contain hydrogen and oxygen in the same ratio as water (2:1) and typically can be broken down to release energy in the animal body”. Carbohydrates are found in many foods ranging from grains and legumes, to fruits and vegetables. The processed carbs that most people so love -- white bread, white rice, cookies, and soft drinks - have led to carbohydrates being blamed for everything from expanding waistlines to heart disease to the epidemic of type II diabetes. And there's no doubt that over-consumption of simple sugars and refined-flour products has contributed to the problems of obesity and type II diabetes across the globe!

And here’s where the takkie hits the tar. It’s not so much carbohydrates as a group that creates the problem but more specifically wheat! Processed wheat products in the form of pasta’s, pizza’s, bread, cakes, muffins and cookies are the culprits behind the increase in insulin resistance and the rise in VLDL (Very Low Density Lipoprotein) cholesterol. The advance in convenience that the industrial revolution heralded means that for the past forty years we’ve basked in all the processed food products that hit the supermarket shelves. We’ve indulged in carbohydrate-rich breakfasts, lunches, suppers and snacks. This has resulted in wide fluctuations of blood sugar, increasing resistance to insulin, growth of abdominal and internal fat and all sorts of inflammatory responses the likes of arthritis, fibromyalgia and auto-immune disease.

There is no doubt that we have created a carbohydrate-indulgent phenomena over the past few years – there is evidence of this everywhere you look. My question remains – is it really necessary to exclude an entire class of macronutrients from our diets due to our laziness and gluttony? After all it would seem that the primary motivation behind this new diet fad seems to be driven mainly by a desire to lose weight rather than an improvement in overall health.

There is no doubt that intolerance to wheat and wheat-based products as well as intolerance to dairy products is on the increase. This is mainly due to the frequency that these foods are consumed. Consider the average person’s diet:

  • Breakfast- bowl of All Bran flakes with milk
  • Snack- slice of toast or a yoghurt with tea or coffee
  • Lunch – wholewheat sandwich with cheese and tomato
  • Snack – blueberry muffin and an apple
  • Dinner – macaroni cheese
  • Snack – ice cream or chocolate

This may sound extreme, but in my experience this is what the average person considers to be a balanced diet. People can’t be blamed for this way of thinking as our dietary guidelines suggest that a meal be made up of 45 – 65% carbohydrates, 10 – 35% proteins and 20 – 35% fats.

Thus at a minimum people consume wheat- based products (and dairy products) three times in an average day. Is it any wonder that our poor body’s are at the threshold of their tolerance to the repeated exposure to the same lectins (carbohydrate binding proteins) that are found in the foods we consume?

Not only that but the dwarf wheat variety which is grown today for its high yield and fast growth is very different from the wheat that was first cultivated by our agrarian forefathers 10,000 years ago.

So even if you are sticking to the recommended guidelines you are still eating food that your body barely recognizes anymore due to hybridization and convenience.

So let’s investigate this a bit further. Your body requires glucose as its primary source of energy. Carbohydrates are universal fuel for all cells and are readily and easily broken down into glucose which is the cheapest source of dietary energy, and also the main source of plant fiber. The complete absence of dietary carbohydrates entails the breakdown of fat to supply energy (glycerol as a gluconeogenic substrate, and ketone bodies as an alternative fuel for the central nervous system) which means theoretically that carbohydrates are not essential for humans to survive on so you will continue to live if you only eat bacon and eggs.

One gram of protein and one gram of carbohydrate both contain 4 grams of calories whereby one gram of fat contains 9 calories. So guru will tell you to replace those nasty carbohydrates with protein and fat. He will even use the example of our friends the Eskimo’s who thrive on a low carb high fat diet and have almost no incidence of high cholesterol or cardiovascular disease. All of this is true except that Eskimo’s live in extremely cold climates where temperatures are -40 degrees Celsius and they actively hunt down their walruses thus expending huge amounts of energy just keeping warm and staying physically active. To my knowledge the coldest it got in Gauteng last year was -4 degrees Celsius and there aren’t many walruses to hunt in our neighbourhood! Once again this highlights how any argument can be ‘proved’ using selective case studies which if delved into further are actually completely irrelevant to the point in case!

Part of the reason for the great carb divide is that science hasn't settled the debate. In addition to the research that demonstrates the success of a low-carb diet, there are also plenty of studies that show benefits of high-carb diets. Barnard's 2006 article in Diabetes Care, for instance, found improved cholesterol and decreased A1C (a measure of average plasma glucose concentration over a prolonged period) in people on a vegan diet (consisting of no animal food or products, including dairy) that consisted of a whopping 75% carbohydrate content. Barnard supports a vegan diet because it beat out both low-carb and moderate diets when it came to heart health and glycaemic control.

Another article from Diabetes Care, this one published in 2009, didn't find any difference between moderate-carb diets (45 percent of calories from carbs) and higher-carb diets (60 percent of calories from carbs) when it came to glucose control and cholesterol levels in people with type 2 diabetes.

But for now let’s ignore all the overwhelming evidence in support of carbohydrates and go along with what the enlightened ones are saying. You cut out all carbohydrates and sugar and voila, you start to lose weight. FANTASTIC! Now there is tangible evidence that The Prof’ was right all along. The real reason behind the weight loss seems to escape the biggest loser entirely. They are no longer eating highly refined processed junk food. Gone are the coco-pops and Special K, banished are all the cola’s and fizzy drinks, obsolete are the Oreo’s, croissants and chocolate bars. Pizza is now on the back-burner together with pretzels, beer, slap chips and wine to be replaced with salads, vegetables and steak. And amazingly the weight falls off and they have more energy than they’ve had for decades. Sound the trumpets the Holy Grail has been discovered!

Victims to this evangelical transformation are things like sweet potatoes, beetroot, pumpkin, parsnips, turnips, carrots, peas, squash, rice, rye, barley, oats, quinoa, millet, beans, lentils, chickpeas and tofu to be replaced with bacon, mutton, pork chops, T-bone, butter, full cream milk, eggs, chicken, crispy duck skin and lard. Put that way it makes perfect sense doesn't it?

So now I finally have someone with authority to not only condone but to encourage my carnivorous habits. No one stops to give a thought about the amount of animal’s being slaughtered because everything is available in the meat section of the supermarket isle, neatly wrapped and portioned in polystyrene packs. There are approximately 10 head of cattle for every human being on the planet. That would add up to approximately 80 billion head of cattle. These cattle aren’t idyllically frolicking in fields of green pasture. On the contrary they are standing hock deep in their own manure dismally waiting for their eight month serving time to be up in a small pen with no shade. All the while being fed genetically modified maize and wheat and occasionally being treated with (not so effective) antibiotics for respiratory infections that spread faster than a rumour on twitter! We can thank the 500 million Indian’s who don’t eat meat for decreasing this massive planetary burden.

But why should you care – as long as you have your prime fillet of beef and baby spinach you’re okay! Speaking of which – how many people even bother to grow their own vegetables? Perhaps the prophet of doom would like to address the issue about food security next time he inspires you to feast on a rack of ribs. However I digress – the irony never fails to escape me that a cow weighing 500 kilograms has to be fed with the very same grains that apparently have created this carbohydrate hysteria as there is not enough of the cow’s natural food available (i.e. grass). So cattle are fed something totally foreign to their digestive systems all for the sake of optimizing feed to meat conversion and lack of available grazing. And you’re happily munching on your hamburger patty (which I hate to tell you contains a maximum of only 14% meat) in the mistaken belief that you are eating something nourishing when the meat of today bears very little resemblance to the meat that our hunter-gatherer brethren enjoyed back in the day.

There are many cultures that to this day not only survive but thrive on carbohydrates. Let’s consider Asia for a start. Anyone who has been to an Asian country will know that a meal is not complete without noodles or rice. Indian’s love to consume the myriad forms of pulses and grains which all form part of their staple diet. Yet I didn’t see many obese Indian’s on my recent trip – the only places where I noted a rise in obesity was in the main cities where the fast food giant’s are making steady inroads. One of our tour guides readily admitted that his increasing waistline is due to fried chicken and fizzy drinks. However the peasants tilling their fields were lean and healthy, yet they eat grains, rice and whatever vegetables they grow on a daily basis, and what’s more they’ve been doing so for 3000 years which in itself is irrefutable proof of a healthy lifestyle.

Thailand proved to be the same – there are noodle bars on every pavement in Bangkok which are frequented by the locals. Almost every meal has some form of noodle or rice as the base yet the residents are petit and slim.

Is it fair to blame ALL carbohydrates for the Western epidemic of obesity? The fact that South Africa is rated as the third fattest nation in the world is a sobering thought and one that needs to be addressed. However perhaps we need to regard what I consider to be one of the number one contributors to this embarrassing ranking – sugar – before we give carbs the bad ‘wrap ‘. Sugar has been linked to all sorts of conditions ranging from heart disease to endometriosis, yet I don’t see this perpetrator being demonized anywhere nearly as badly as carbohydrates are at present.

And then of course one of the other major contributors to this weighty issue is the sedentary lifestyle that we have created for ourselves. It’s so much easier to blame a bowl of muesli for our ample derrieres than to take responsibility for our slothful habits. How many of these “anti-carb” brigade are rotund because they are just plain lazy? Have you ever seen a slim person park in the handicapped parking at the mall for the mere convenience of not having to walk more than twenty meters to the frozen yoghurt shop?

However, as with all diet fads this one will also come and go. The reason I know this is because eating just salad leaves and chicken breasts will not be enough to satisfy this group of ‘converts’ for long. It takes extreme discipline to maintain any diet and that’s why most of them fail. There rarely is ever just one factor that can be blamed for being overweight; a complete lifestyle overhaul is what is needed for sustained transformation. This does not magically happen overnight and usually requires a quantum leap in thinking. Clients I have personally treated that have been brave enough to implement the required changes have never looked back. There can never be a “one size fits all” approach as we all have different needs. Where Fred Flintstone may thrive on a meat only diet, Popeye would suffer from chronic constipation.

As Shakespeare once quoted “this above all; to thine own self be true”. Get to know your own body, differentiate between what it needs to thrive versus what it needs to merely exist. Then you’ll never need to follow some crazy diet and be disappointed ever again and furthermore you may still have your cake and eat it provided it's an occasional treat and not a mainstay meal!