Let’s Talk About Carbohydrates

The health and fitness industry always talks about carbohydrates. Some diets advocate reducing the amount greatly while others suggest that it should be eaten in adequate proportions. While there are many articles on this blog that talk about such diets, we will be going deeper into the dry science today.

This post will be for people who already know the basics, but are seeking to understand it more. We will be exploring the issue of complex carbs, also known as starches, or sometimes as “dietary fibre”, the latter of which is technically inaccurate, but common. We will be exploring why some diets dissuade people from consuming too much carbs.

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Unlike simple carbs, complex carbs (dietary fibre) have a very complicated molecular structure, and also are resistant to most digestive enzymes produced by the human body. As a result, they cannot be broken down into glucose or other nutrients at all. This is why fibre transits the intestinal tract largely undigested. This has a knock-on effect on the speed of digestion of other carbs around them.

For example, where certain starches are “protected” by indigestible fibrous wrapping, the enzymes cannot get to grips with the starch as fast as normal. Also, the presence of soluble fiber in the stomach and intestine typically creates a viscous mass of digesting-food in which carbs and enzymes take longer to mix. Result? Carb digestion slows down.

As we have seen, because the human body runs on glucose all carbs are converted into glucose in the digestive tract. The glucose then enters the bloodstream and thus contributes to a rise in “blood-glucose”. Of course it stands to reason that too much of it will result in an overstimulus. Blood glucose levels must always be kept within limits.

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A very high level of glucose in the blood is toxic, while a very low level is detrimental to bodily functions. Therefore the body has a system to regulate the amount of glucose in the bloodstream to ensure that it remains balanced within safe parameters. This glucose balancing system depends upon two mechanisms: hunger and insulin.

Before we talk about the dangers of high glucose levels, let’s touch on low blood glucose levels first. If blood-sugar levels drop, the brain causes us to feel hungry. Result? We eat food that is then converted into glucose and our blood glucose levels rise. If we don’t eat and blood-glucose levels fall too low, we trigger the condition known as hypoglycemia.

Conversely, if we eat a diet that contains too many high GI carbs (carbs that are rapidly converted into blood glucose) we force our body to respond by releasing equally large amounts of insulin into our bloodstream to cope with the glucose. Over time this excessively high level of insulin can cause the “insulin-receptors” in our cells to become less sensitive to insulin.

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The hunger-or-insulin see-saw mechanism works well, provided that we don’t eat too many high glycemic index (GI) carbs that are rapidly converted into glucose. When this happens, when a large amount of glucose enters the bloodstream, also called a “sugar spike”, the system responds by releasing a large quantity of insulin.

Why does this happen? Because the body thinks, or rather knows, that the individual has eaten a huge amount of food. The amount of insulin is so much that not only does it disperse the food-glucose we have just eaten, it disperses a lot more. While this might not seem significant, the flow-on effects inevitably are.

The final result of this is that our blood glucose falls to the point that it is too low, simply because of the redistribution. So, within a short time, roughly about two to three hours, the brain tells us to feel hungry again. This is when we recommence eating out of habit. This rapid rise and fall in blood glucose, caused by excess production of insulin, is not good for our health or our eating habits.

If we were to continue this article in more detail, you will start to understand why some people can subsequently develop diabetes. However, there are other articles on this blog that deal with that topic specifically. I do not want to overload you with too much too quickly. I hope you have learnt something from today’s post.

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Also published on Medium.


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