Sugar: One teaspoon, not a bucket
In this article I will share what place carbohydrates have in the native human diet, based upon how our bodies digest and process them.
The title of this article starts with sugar and that’s because most carbohydrates convert to blood glucose after the stomach digests them.
Excess glucose is always a priority
In the previous article about fats I described the importance of maintaining blood glucose levels within a certain range. To illustrate this point, a healthy body has about one teaspoon of glucose divided over all the blood vessels in it. If this amount were to rise to one table spoon, you would be dead. The hormones that regulate these amounts of blood glucose are insulin and glucagon and are secreted mainly by your pancreas to do so. When blood glucose is high (after you’ve just eaten a meal, especially a high-carb one), insulin is released and it will:
(1) promote glucose metabolism in cells (burn glucose for its activity), (2) promote glucose storage as glycogen in the liver and muscles, (3) promote fat storage (if fat is stored in fat cells it is more likely that glucose will be used for fuel) and (4) promote conversion of glucose into fat and store that fat.
So the first (1) thing that will be promoted is Glycolysis (metabolizing glucose for energy by cells). As we learned in the previous article, this process will be down-regulated by the mitochondria of cells when the rate of glycolysis is continually high (when blood glucose is frequently elevated by eating lots of carbs). This leads to a reduced responsiveness to insulin and a slowed down energy metabolism. The second (2) route is exploited rather quickly as glycogen stores will be filled rather quickly (especially if a person eats high-carb meals on a consistent basis). So the body is either left to take the third (3) and (4) fourth route or to burn all the glucose. You either grow fatter or the body finds a way to still burn all that excessive glucose. The downside of this is second route is that it gradually burns out (exhausts) the body as a person grows older (because the person is too active and ingests to little essential building blocks [in the form of fats and proteins] for repair and healing processes).
Unable to fast
As cells become less responsive to insulin, the pancreas creates more of it to achieve its goal of clearing excess glucose out of the bloodstream. This doesn’t solve the double bind the body’s cells are in, they still need to slow down their Glycolysis in order for the Citric Acid Cycle to keep up (read article on Fat). They just grow more and more insulin resistant. Other cells in the body, namely fat cells, do not grow insulin resistant until they are fully stuffed, so fat can still get stored. Because insulin levels are elevated in people that frequently eat high-carb meals, the hormone that gets fat out of storage (namely glucagon) doesn’t work properly. Insulin and Glucagon are inverse to each other: insulin promotes fat and glucose storing, whereas glucagon promotes the retrieving of fat and glucose back into the bloodstream. With chronically elevated insulin levels, glucagon is less effective at stimulating fat and glucose out of our reserves.
So that means, that two to three hours after a meal, when all the glucose and fatty acids are reaching a low in the bloodstream, you can’t retrieve energy from your reserves properly. The result: light-headedness, low energy and a desire to eat some more high-carb stuff to jam up the blood glucose levels. Eating more high-carb meals will result in a constant up and down-spiking of blood glucose levels and an inability to maintain solid energy levels while fasting for a couple hours. A high-carb diet disrupts our body’s natural ability to maintain a steady blood glucose thru-out the day and is accompanied by difficulties with fasting for more than 3 hours during the daytime. As a result of this, most high-carb eaters snack on cookies, fruits and sugary beverages between meals.
Carbs are for replenishing glucogen
Our bodies were designed in such a way that the hormones of insulin and glucagon keep blood glucose in a healthy range. This healthy blood glucose level of a teaspoon is literally what it means to have a good energy available for use at all times. The body achieves this by having small, but sufficient reservoirs of glycogen stored in the liver and muscles.
The only real necessity for carbs (sugars) in the diet is for that one teaspoon in the bloodstream and keeping the glycogen stores in stock.
A high-carb diet spikes blood glucose levels up and down, disrupts the healthy functioning of hormones (insulin and glucagon) and leads to either hyperactively trying to burn off the excess glucose in the bloodstream and/or converting it all to fat storage.
So what is a high-carb diet?
I define a high-carb diet as any diet that includes more carbohydrates (glucose) above the needs of maintaining a healthy blood glucose level and replenishing glycogen stores. This obviously depends on the activity level of the person. It is well-known that highly active people burn more glucose. It is my experience that a diet with moderate amounts of carbohydrates is much more satisfying than a no-carb diet. Our brains require quite some glucose and they cannot fuel on fats. Even though it is true that one can survive on fats and proteins alone, it is simply not ideal. Some fanatics get all extreme after they realize the destructive impact that high-carb diets have and start avoiding them altogether. I prefer to strike a healthy balance of all the macronutrients and focus on an eating plan that is compatible with the way our bodies work. Aside from that, I like being physically active, so I include a substantial amount of carbohydrates in my meals.
I find that for me eating between 100-150 grams of carbohydrates a day is ideal and then I eat some more carbs on two days out of the week (on days I’m most physically active). This keeps my cells responsive to insulin and helps me maintain a more steady blood glucose level, which means my energy levels are more stable.
Conclusion: High-carb foods in moderation
Carbohydrates are a key component of what I eat, I just make sure all of them come from real foods (like vegetables and fruits) and I eat high-carb foods (like potatoes, carrots, beets, fruits, alcohol) in moderation.
The challenge for most people is that supermarkets are now filled with all sorts of processed high-carb foods (like bread [yes, bread is a processed food, it’s ground up birdseeds and it does not occur in nature, in fact, you can’t even eat it in its natural state, although birds can :P], cookies, sugary beverages, even processed meats and salad dressings).
A lot of these products even get falsely presented as being healthy whereas in reality they fuck up our body’s metabolism and contain very little nutrients in comparison to real foods. You simply can’t expect to maintain a steady blood glucose of a teaspoon when you pour buckets of carbs into your body on the daily. There needs to be a healthy fat : carb : protein macronutrient distribution (in alignment with our bodies inherent energy metabolism) for that.