Carbohydrates are the nutritional food group, which are commonly referred to as sugars. Carbohydrates are divided into three main groups- monosaccharides, disaccharides, and polysaccharides. Monosaccharides are single units of sugar molecules and are found in grapes, (glucose) and honey (fructose). Although these are “natural sugars” they have similar effects on the body, as does table sugar and should not be thought as being healthy in large amounts. Sugar is sugar, and no matter what form it is in, it still causes the same physiological reactions to occur in the body. It is important to know that all sugar is converted to glucose in order to perform its function as an energy producing substance in the human body. Honey, which is often touted as being healthy because it is “natural” can result in health problems just as any other sugar when taken in excess. This will be considered when we discuss the physiology of sugar metabolism later.
Disaccharides are two units of sugar molecules bonded together much like a two-car train or car hitched to a trailer. The most commonly used disaccharide is table sugar, which is composed of a molecule of glucose attached to a molecule of fructose. Besides having the same physiological effect on the body as does glucose and fructose, table sugar has even worse effects because it has been refined and is devoid of all the other cofactors to assist in its metabolism that may be present in glucose (grape sugar) and fructose (honey). This concept of whole food complexes as opposed to synthetic, pure, crystalline substances is discussed in the paper natural verses synthetic. It must be emphasized that natural sugar in the form of grape sugar or honey is harmful to our health primarily because of the quantity of sugar which is consumed. Small amounts can be beneficial, but according to our present food paradigm, what are considered small amounts are actually far higher than they should be, and pose a severe stress to our body’s ability to handle sugar. As a result gastrointestinal stress occurs resulting in impaired digestion and increased absorption with a loss of selective absorption, alteration of the lower gut flora (microorganisms), an increase of inflammatory reactions in the gut, amplification of blood glucose levels, an increase of foreign sugars in the blood, an increased immunologic response to those foreign molecules, increased insulin demand, increased adrenal demand, increased thyroid demand, increased liver demand, and other stressors occur causing the body to compensate for the overload. Years and years of this type of abuse takes a toll on the compensatory mechanisms of the body and sooner or later it begins to show the signs of breakdown. Diabetes is not the only sign of this abuse because of the multiplicity of organ abuse.
Polysaccharides are the third major class of carbohydrates and generally referred to as complex carbohydrates. These include potatoes, rice, grains, and starches. Complex carbohydrates may be considered a long freight train composed of many cars, all linked together. The rationale has been in the past that complex carbohydrates or starches did not affect sugar levels causing them to rise like the “simple” sugars did. Although this reasoning continues to exist today, the glycemic index was devised in the late 1980’s which tested this hypothesis. The glycemic index test is performed in the following manner: A particular food containing 50 or 100 grams of the sugar or starch is given to several individuals following at least 8 hours of fasting. The blood sugar levels are monitored much like the way a glucose tolerance test is performed for 5 or 6 hours to measure the physiological response of the body to the particular sugar tested. The values are averaged with several other individuals. A value of 100 is given to a standard sugar, usually glucose, and the other values are compared based on this scale. Some substances may go above 100 and many fall below 100. Starches have a fairly high value when compared to other sugars depending on the form in which it is eaten. Baked potatoes, for instance, have a glycemic index around 70. Apples have a glycemic index around 40. So, as you can see, potatoes cause a more dramatic response of blood sugar elevation than do apples, which is not what one would expect. The conclusion is that any type of starchy carbohydrate causes a dramatic sugar response, and one must be careful in eating these types of foods. This test demonstrates that starch can have adverse effects on a person having sugar handling problems.
Another claim made about carbohydrates is that they are needed for energy. Although they do provide energy, it is short-lived and the resultant lows in energy usually results in the individual consuming more sugar in order to fight off these lows in blood sugar. If you find yourself getting tired or sleepy about 2 hours after a meal it is because your blood sugar levels are low (this is called hypoglycemia). The body has to either signal the liver by way of the adrenals to breakdown its glycogen (a complex carbohydrate) and get it into the blood stream, or before this is given time to occur, you eat more carbs to force your blood sugar back up, in order to get out of these blues. Either way, the body has to work hard in order to compensate for these changes in blood sugar levels.
A good analogy to the sugar energy problem is to think of a fire. If you throw kindling on the fire it will burn quickly producing immediate heat (energy), but soon the kindling is consumed. In order to produce more heat, more kindling has to be thrown on the fire so that the cycle can repeat itself. In order to avoid this you can put a log or two on the fire which will not burn quite so hot but will burn considerably longer. The logs represent fats in the diet, but everyone today wants to avoid fat because of the health problems with it. I will reserve my comments on fat for my article on fat. If you are interested in learning about fat refer to my article on fat or ask for it if you don’t have it.
One more point which must be covered while talking about carbohydrates. Of the three major types of foods, proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, the only group which can be totally eliminated from the diet and not cause harm to the body is carbohydrates. The reason for this is simple. The body has the ability to manufacture carbohydrates from both proteins and fats. If there is a deficiency of carbohydrates in the body, it has the ability to convert dietary or structural protein or fat for use. There are “essential” amino acids (these are the building blocks of proteins) and essential oils (fats). The term essential means that they cannot be produced by the body and must be supplied by the diet. There are eight essential amino acids and two essential oils. Without the proper diet containing these essential building blocks to the body nutritional deficiencies develop and the body cannot perform its’ functions properly. On the other hand, there are no such things as essential carbohydrates. The body could maintain a very healthy existence if it had to with no carbohydrates in the diet at all. The major source of energy would be fats, and fat would be burned instead of stored on the body. People would not develop obesity or diabetes and there would be no endocrine stress. People would not be riding the roller coaster of energy drain. The simple truth is the body is designed to burn fat, not carbohydrates.
For more information call Dr. Link, (815) 889-4407