All about CARBOHYDRATES
By Janis McMath, Editor-in-Chief
One in four Canadian adults are obese, and one in seven Canadian children are obese. This may be why fad diets are extremely popular. Everyday a new fad diet rears its head, and carbs were not immune to this trend. Scott Pilgrim’s “Bread makes you fat” terrified the nation and, along with many other scary stories about “empty carbs,” their reputation has suffered a blow. How should we feel about “zero carb” diets? Should students cut carbs out of their diets in hopes of being healthier and more energized for classes?
ARE CARBS EVIL?
The science says no. Low-carb and no-carb diets have been glamourized without proper consideration for all the macronutrients and their individual functions. There are three macronutrients our bodies need in significant portions: proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates. Each has a specialized function that it excels at, and without it, the other macronutrients must compensate (poorly) to make up for the missing nutrient. For example, let’s look at protein.
Protein is commonly known as the “building block of our bodies” as amino acids comprise proteins and those build muscle, the brain, the nervous system, blood, skin, and hair. This macronutrient also transports oxygen (and other important nutrients). This is what protein is specialized to do, but it also is capable of filling carbohydrate’s role as the main (and preferred) source of energy for the body. Carbohydrates are broken down into glucose with the help of insulin; the process of obtaining glucose for energy from carbs is a simple job for the body. Breaking down protein to create glucose in absence of carbohydrates is a hard reverse process called gluconeogenesis; this process takes a toll on the kidneys and the body’s creation and maintenance of muscle tissue. The body is capable of transforming proteins into energy so it can survive in emergency situations. Stressing your body by not supplying it with an apt amount of all the macronutrients it needs is far from ideal and can cause issues. It is suggested that the ideal balance of calorie consumption is 45 to 65 percent from carbs, 20 to 35 percent from fats, and 10 to 35 percent from protein.
ALL CARBS ARE NOT MADE EQUALLY
Knowing that it is important to maintain a relationship with carbohydrates isn’t enough. Understanding the different types of carbs and what kind of energy they provide is another big part of a having a nourishing diet. Carbs either provide energy in bursts or they provide energy that is stored for long-term use. The bursts of energy come from simple carbohydrates which are easy for the body to break down and turn into glucose. They cause an immediate hike in blood sugar, and while this may be good for an explosive amount of energy, simple carbs have a lot of glaring flaws. For one, you’ll be left feeling hungry as the energy from simple carbs are digested and spent quickly. Blood sugar spikes also cause lethargy and can cause serious health problems long term.
Consuming too many of these simple carbohydrates can cause insulin resistance, meaning that insulin can’t get the muscle cells to convert the sugar in the bloodstream into energy, so blood sugar levels stay high and sugar is stored as fat instead. Insulin resistance leads to weight gain and high blood pressure, and these afflictions can then further end with cardiovascular disease and type II diabetes. Yet these carbs are useful for mid-workout when you’re feeling weary and can be helpful when used properly. Sports drinks, sugar, pop, white bread, pasta, fruits, milk, and sweetened fruit juices are a few examples—some obviously healthier than others.
CARBS YOU CAN RELY ON
If you’re looking to fuel up for an extended period and without the spikes in blood sugar, complex carbohydrates are your man. These carbs take a long time to digest, and that sluggish pace is what prevents the sudden spike in blood sugar. Complex carbs are generally stored as glycogen in the muscles—making them available for immediate access when needed. If you’re sprinting, weightlifting, or doing other similar intense and short bouts of exercise, glycogen stores are rapidly converted into glucose for use. Essentially, complex carbs can do what simple carbs can do—but better. These slowly digested carbohydrates can offer bursts of glucose when needed rather than in the inefficient and often detrimental way simple carbs expose glucose immediately after being consumed.
If this wasn’t enough to make you fall in love with complex carbohydrates, consider that these carbs have more nutrients, vitamins, and fibre on the whole while simple carbs (especially processed ones) are often “empty carbs.” Fibre-rich foods—like beans, whole-wheat goods, broccoli, other vegetables, and nuts—are essential to feeling good; fibre is described as “your body’s natural scrub brush,” as it takes gunk of out of your digestive tract with it. While white bread is empty calories and does fill you with sugar and make you fat if eaten constantly, whole-wheat bread brings a lot to the table—so don’t cry at the prospect of removing bread. Just let better bread be a part of your life. (Good breads usually have three grams of fibre per slice and often have “whole grain” as the first ingredient on their list.)
THE CANADIAN FOOD GUIDE DRAMA: A HISTORY
Do you remember Canada’s rainbow of nutrition that was divided into food groups and taught in schools everywhere across this country? Do you remember that it emphasized that a diet high in carbs, low in fats, and including many processed foods was the best diet? Well, many doctors definitely remember this, as they had been criticizing similar Canadian food guides for misguiding the public deliberately and having influence from profiting food industry groups since the 1980s. During the ’80s, ideas about the benefits of low-fat, high-carb, and processed-food diets were implemented. Since then, we have seen a steady increase in obesity rates. From 1980 to 2010, obesity tripled for Canadian youth and doubled for Canadian adults. Approximately 25 percent of all deaths in Canada are caused by heart disease and stroke. This increase in obesity is also estimated to cost the Canadian healthcare system $8.8 billion dollars by 2021.
These terrible trends were recognized by doctors everywhere; in hopes of getting the government to change the Canadian food guide, the Canadian Clinicians for Therapeutic Nutrition was formed. Their mission was to get the guide changed to one that encourages whole-food diets that include healthy fats, decreases the amount of carbs recommended for consumption, and condemns processed food properly. The old food guide equated fruit juice with juice for example and vilified whole foods with a lot of saturated fat in them. These ideas, along with many similar misguided notions about simple carbs and saturated fats, encouraged more processed food to be eaten by the population. In an interview with the CBC, Hasan Hutchison, Health Canada’s director general for the office of nutrition policy and promotion, stated that “There is strong convincing evidence that one should be reducing saturated fats and replacing it with unsaturated fats, not with sugars or other simple carbohydrates.”
Canadian Food Guide has been since changed to resemble what many vocal critics
were using as an example of a quality food guide: Brazil’s. Our guide now states that
Canadians should cook at home, eat whole foods, avoid processed foods, choose
water as your drink of choice, and be wary of food marketing. Our food guide
only changed in 2019, so completely changing the public perception of what healthy
eating is will take time.
After having been misled to think that high-carb diets with lots of simple carbs and processed foods were the way to go, it makes sense that some Canadians are overcompensating by cutting out carbs completely—but that is the wrong mindset to have. Carbs are friends, food, and fuel. Without this essential macronutrient giving our brains the energy to function, we may make poor decisions—like not eating any carbs.