A “carb” or “carbohydrate” is a word that is thrown around recklessly in the world of nutrition. It is true that carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients that we find in food. Along with protein and fat, carbohydrates are a fuel source utilized by the body.
I do appreciate simplicity and minimalism, and certainly believe that we should avoid unnecessarily complicating or distorting things. However, when it comes to breaking down all food stuffs and placing them into three distinct categories, this a huge over-simplification.
Even if we choose to play along with the rules that have been laid out in the field of nutrition, we must understand that in reality, every single food on the planet contains all three of the basic macronutrients. Yes, even a bowl of spinach contains fat in addition to protein and carbohydrates! The one exception to this is meat, which is essentially comprised of just fat and protein. Of course, we can choose to focus on diets that are higher in certain macronutrients while being lower in others, hence the diet wars of contemporary times. High fat low carb vs high carb low fat can often unfolds into an emotionally driven and violent dispute!
I am ultimately a seeker of truth, peace, and harmony. I strive to lay out the facts neutrally and directly. In doing so, I trust we will come to resonance with the truth. I know that when I face truth, I feel it throughout my body. When I see truth, I know it. When I hear truth, I can’t deny it. If I do go against truth, or deny it for even a moment, it doesn’t feel good. In fact, maybe denial of truth is one aspect of disease. That feels true to me anyways.
In this article, I’ll lay out what carbohydrates are, how they are used by the body, and what are the main important considerations when it comes to choosing food sources of carbohydrates.
I don’t want to go to deep into science and biochemistry. That would take far too long, and I would probably give myself a headache in the process. It is important, however, to grasp the basics. It is important to cultivate a foundational understanding about what we are talking about when we throw around “carb.” And hopefully, in so doing, we can be much more mindful and precise with regard to word choice.
A carbohydrate is a molecule made up of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms – the most abundant atoms on the planet, and the building blocks of life. Hydrogen and oxygen atoms are bound to a carbon chain of varying lengths. For a number of complicated reasons, 5-carbon and 6-carbon sugars are the most abundant in nature, and most utilized by the body. When these simple sugars, or monosaccharides, are bound together they can form disaccharides (two-sugars), or polysaccharides (many sugars). The main 6-carbon sugars of importance are glucose, galactose, and fructose. We will also point out one major 5-carbon sugar towards the end of this summary.
Before we go on to dissect the different carbohydrates of importance to humans, let’s pause to understand the miracle of carbohydrate creation. Remember photosynthesis? Carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O) is combined to create carbohydrate (sugar) and oxygen. This miraculous reaction is only possible with sunlight. The sun hits leaves of plants to harness light energy to be transformed into chemical energy. This chemical energy is stored in the bonds of sugar/carbohydrate molecules, which ultimately fuels our bodies. Oh ya… and the waste product of photosynthesis? Oxygen! The gaseous molecule we all love, and the very substance that ultimately allow for the complete breakdown of sugars through oxidative phosphorylation (we’ll get there) to form carbon dioxide and water, which we breathe off and excrete. The circle of life continues… the plants take in this carbon dioxide and water to create sugar and oxygen. We fuel the plants. The plants fuel us. If this is not divine and universal perfection, I don’t know what is!
There’s another important carbohydrates in plants – cellulose. Though cellulose is not a fuel source for humans, it does provide fuel for the microbes that populate our digestive systems. This “dietary fiber” is only found in plants. Even though it doesn’t fuel our bodies, it is essential to our health for so many reasons – a big topic for another day.
Back to boring sugar biochemistry. The three main 6 carbon sugars that fuel humans are glucose, galactose, and fructose.
Glucose is the main sugar of vegetables and many plants, mainly existing in a polysaccharide form which is often referred to as “starch.” Since the dawn of biochemistry, glucose has been referred to as the primary fuel source for human beings.
Galactose is structurally very similar, though unique enough to be metabolized completely differently. When bound to glucose, lactose is formed, a disaccharide which is the primary sugar present in milk and dairy products. It’s interesting that human beings possess an enzyme that’s turned on after giving birth that enables glucose to be converted to galactose so lactose can be synthesized for human lactation.
Fructose is the last famous 6-carbon sugar, which is the primarily found in fruits. This sugar is quite unique sugar that is worth diving into a little bit deeper. When alone in it’s unadulterated and natural state (i.e. a piece of fruit) it of course comes with an abundance of vitamins, minerals, fiber, polyphenols, etc. When we bite into a piece of fruit, the magical and mysterious metabolic process breaks things down into fructose molecules, which get absorbed into the bloodstream. Unlike glucose, fructose does NOT require insulin to make its way into cells and create energy. Therefore fructose does not cause or worsen insulin resistance, nor does it lead to elevations of blood sugar (i.e. prediabetes or diabetes). Once in the cell, fructose undergoes a simple enzymatic reaction to magically transform into glucose where it is metabolized to create cellular energy. It is almost as if we human beings were designed to be fueled by fructose, a magical molecule that provides an abundance of energy without really any downsides – no high blood sugar, insulin resistance, or any downstream pathology associated with those chronic states.
Yes, fructose has gotten a bad rap lately due to commercial production of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), where fructose is extracted from corn (yes, corn has some fructose, but mainly glucose in the form of starch). HFCS is actually mainly sucrose, a disaccharide (two-sugar) of glucose bound to fructose. This sucrose disaccharide is the famous substance that has been demonized in modern society, table sugar. This sugar, in addition to being highly processed and refined, void of any nutritional value other than pure caloric energy, also does lead to hyperglycemia (elevated blood glucose), insulin resistance, and ultimately type-2 diabetes. No bueno.
So those are the 6-carbon sugars that fuel the body. But let’s not forget about one amazing 5-carbon sugar! RIBOSE. Ribose is literally the building block of life. The D of DNA stands for deoxy-RIBOSE. When you take oxygen from the 5-carbon ribose sugar you create a polymerized chain that forms the lattice of your genetic code. You are literally programmed in sugar. The very essence of who you are in this world is dependent upon one big carbohydrate.
So maybe your thoughts of carbohydrates have changed a bit…?
We already discussed how fructose is absorbed by cells and metabolized to create energy without the need for insulin signaling. An amazing phenomenon! How about the other carbohydrates?
Glucose exists in plants as polysaccharides, also called starch. When we put this fuel source in the mouth, the metabolism process takes place immediately. An enzyme in saliva called amylase breaks down polysaccharides, to create oligosaccharides, disaccharides, and even monosaccharides. If you put a cooked potato into your mouth and chew gently and thoroughly, you will notice that this “bland” and “starchy” food takes on a sweetness. That sweetness is created when polysaccharide/starch is broken down to form glucose that acts on sweet taste receptors at the tip of your tongue. The metabolism of carbohydrates is well underway in the mouth. By the time those mono, di, and oligosaccharides of glucose make their way down the gut tube they are easily absorbed through the intestinal lining, into the bloodstream, and ultimately into cells with the help of insulin signaling
Before we silo ourselves into a camp labeled high fat low carb or high carb low fat lifestyle, we need to comprehend the nature of carbohydrates. It has been well established that human physiology thrives on a fuel source of carbohydrates, or glucose. Though as I mentioned before, it is impossible to get straight glucose from nature. Every food that comes from the earth also contains proteins (amino acids) and fats (fatty acids) in addition to other essential vitamins and minerals.
Carbohydrates or sugars really only ever become problematic for anyone when they are refined and processed. For example, when you take wheat (a seed of a grass) and grind it up into a fine powder (wheat flour) then you may potentially create issues. Even worse, consider refining corn or beets so aggressively through chemical compounds and other toxic processes that you get corn syrup or beet sugar.
I like to set the intention to eat all foods as close to their natural state as possible. I recommend eating foods that you recognize as food. There is no donut tree or cookie plant. There are, however, potato plants, grape vines, orange trees, beet roots, broccoli flowers, and even wheat grass. All are great sources of carbohydrates, especially when consumed in their natural forms.
Like Michael Pollan says, let’s all just “eat food, not too much, and mostly plants.” To this I would add, eat your plants in their natural, organic, unadulterated states. Doing so will keep you healthy and happy, the microbes within you happy and healthy, and the other organisms that share this planet happy and healthy.
Have you heard that high carbohydrate diets cause diabetes? It’s a popular belief. But if this were really true, why were rates of diabetes so low in asian countries that have a rice-based diet? More interesting, why do rates of diabetes increase when when rice is replaced with protein and fat based foods like meat?
It doesn’t take any sort of advanced training to figure out that rice, or other carbohydrates are really not the issue. In our omnivorous culture, what is the issue is how these carbohydrate based foods are consumed.
In addition to eating foods in their unprocessed and natural states, it is best to know the basics of proper food combination to best care for the metabolic machine that is your body.
It is important to point out that so much of the packaged and processed foods are high in carbohydrates and fats. Donuts, pastries, crackers, cookies, cakes, potato chips, etc. These foods are all examples of the lethal combination of processed carbohydrates and saturated fats.
There was a popular belief that carbohydrates make people fat – but that is simply not the truth.
Additionally, when a diet is high in saturated fat (mainly from animal products) these fats can become toxic within the cells. This cellular toxicity inhibits proper insulin signaling, resulting in insulin resistance which can evolve overtime into diabetes.
The orthodox dietary approach to diabetes management is a low carbohydrate diet. This will indeed have varying degrees of effectiveness in controlling blood sugar. However, it does not reverse the underlying cause of the blood sugar dysregulation – insulin resistance. The only way to REVERSE diabetes is by getting the toxic saturated fats out of the cells, which is best achieved by keeping the saturated fats off of your plate.
I wrote before in greater depth on this topic, but I wanted to bring it back to the surface. Sugar cravings and addiction is a widespread issue. We are told to just quit it, go cold turkey, or maybe focus on filling up with other fats/proteins. This advice doesn’t work for everyone, and I’ll tell you why.
Sugar cravings are often a strong message from the body for fuel. Though the body really wants a high-quality food source, we often reach for a candy bar. While the sweet tooth might be satisfied, our bodies are not. We are often left hungry and unfulfilled.
When cravings come, recognize it as a message from the ever-wise body. Choose a carbohydrate source that the body really wants – a piece of fruit, a sweet potato, a date. These guilt-free and nourishing foods actually fuel the body in a powerful way.
For so many reasons, it’s always best to keep the diet whole food plant based. That means limiting or avoiding processed carbohydrates that would be found in crackers, breads, pastas – some of the quintessential “carbohydrates.” Instead focus on whole foods and intact grains (rice, barley, millet, buckwheat, quinoa, oats, etc).
I love potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, beets, parsnips – essentially any root vegetable. These root veggies are sometimes referred to as underground storage organs of plants. They contain tons of energy in the form of carbohydrates along with quality minerals and phytonutrients.
The biggest take home message from this all is to understand what carbohydrates really are, so we can hopefully lose our fear around this fuel of life!
Know that all natural foods from the earth contain some amount of ALL macronutrients – fat, protein, and carbohydrates.Remember all foods are best consumed in their natural and unprocessed, and unrefined state, so limit or avoid crackers, breads, pastas, etc especially when experiencing any symptoms of disease.Remember to consume foods that are higher in carbohydrates away from foods that are dense in protein or fat (especially saturated/animal fat) – no steak and potatoes!Listen to sugar cravings, and consider that they may be calls for high quality fuel.Don’t be afraid of FRUIT, an incredible source of fuel for the body with an abundance of vitamins and minerals, but do be also mindful to eat away from other food groups as to avoid gastrointestinal symptoms.
Trust your body and follow your gut. Eating real food will heal your body and transform your life.
Blessing of Health,