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So I recently ran across this article that said a significant number of people believe doing their own taxes is easier than eating right. It got me thinking: maybe I should help people understand the basics of nutrition – the stuff we know for sure. It’s hard to put an article about low-carb diets into context if you don’t know what carbs are. Plus, I felt funny about posting anything nutrition-related without getting some of the basics out of the way first. So here goes! My first Nutrition Basics posts will be a 3-part series about carbohydrate.

Carbohydrates come in many shapes and sizes. When people talk about carbohydrates negatively, they are usually, and for good reason, talking about sugar and starch. When I first heard of the Atkins diet, I was the president of a vegetarian group on my college campus and thought it was ridiculous. However, over the years, I realized I had to give the infamous Dr. Atkins credit where he deserved it.

I remember my medical school interviewer asked me – “Given your background, how do you feel about the Atk

ins diet?”

I replied that before Atkins, nobody in the mainstream at the time was talking about sugar and starch. The bottom of the food pyramid was all about the carbs, and we all demonized fat. In fact, advocates of low-carb diets often hail Dr. Atkins as a hero because of the attention he brought to sugar and refined (non-whole grain) starches.

Sources of carbohydrate:

Sugars are found in large amounts in any kind of table sugar, syrups of any kind, honey, fruits and fruit juice. Heres a more detailed article about types of sugar. Too much sugar all at once puts the body in sugar overload, because too much sugar enters the blood stream at the same time. The body scrambles to get it out of our system, causing us to crash. Suffice it to say, foods high in sugar should be avoided, but finding out which foods are high in sugar is a whole other story. The food industry is great at confusing people, and added sugar is a great example. Whole fruit is fine, because of the fiber. However, avoid sugary drinks at all costs (soda and all juices including fruit juice). Desserts in which sugar is the first ingredient aren’t good. Some desserts made of all whole ingredients that use less sweetener can actually be healthy. Sugary cereals are also a huge culprit, as is flavored yogurt. Watch out for labels like “no sugar added.” The food could already be high in sugar without them having added any more to it. Also, fat-free foods are notoriously high in both sugar and starch in order to compensate for the loss of what is called “mouth-feel” in the trade. The website sugarstacks.com is great for helping people visualize how much sugar is hidden in their foods.

Starches are found in anything you can make flour out of, but you get the biggest bang for your buck in foods like grains (bread and pasta) and potato. Starches are not recommended by low-carb advocates because of the fact that they break-down very easily into glucose and stimulate insulin production.

We like sugars and starches because they provide quick fuel. Our bodies are hard-wired to be attracted to high-fuel foods because they think we are in the cave-man days and food is scarce. Unfortunately for us, they weren’t turning their heads trying not to buy the Gatorade, tortilla chips, or the many other culprits we don’t think of in the super-market.  If they had maybe we would have evolved a little differently.

Fiber is a carbohydrate that no-one contests is good for you. It is found in the outer husk of grains and beans, and in vegetables. It is found in the fibrous parts of the plant like leaves, roots and stems, and in fruit. Here’s a nice article about sources of fiber. Fiber is good for us because it provides bulk to the stool, and it makes the stool move faster through the colon, making our bowel movements easier. This is important because it prevents diverticulosis. Also, some types of fiber are broken down by our gut bacteria into fuel for our colon. This means that a diet without fiber causes severe digestive problems.

Stay tuned for my next post! I’ll talk more about this in my next post about whole grains, and how to calculate the carbohydrates in a food label.