Carbohydrates are the hidden parents of the fats that can kill us. Refined dietary sugars almost always turn into fats, and starches can also turn into saturated fats. Let’s see how sugars and starches can keep us healthy and make us sick, and can even kill us.
The sugars category includes all refined sugars and syrups. These are: simple sugars: glucose (or dextrose), fructose (or levulose), and galactose; double sugars: sucrose (table sugar), maltose (in beer), and lactose (in milk); dextrins and dextrans; and syrups made from sugarcane, sugar beets, sorghum, and maple. Even honey and maple syrup are included.
Our body digests and absorbs these concentrated sources of sugars rapidly, and quickly turns them into saturated fatty acids.
Starches are sugar (glucose) molecules bonded together. Enzymes in our body must break the bonds between the glucose molecules, gradually turning (digesting) starches into glucose, the primary fuel for all cells in our body. Starches are preferable to sugars because they are digested more slowly, and therefore absorbed more slowly over an extended period of time. Refined starchy foods – white flour, white rice, pasta, enriched flours (both white and dark), corn starch, tapioca, breakfast cereals, and products made with these ingredients – are more likely to turn into fats than starches from whole grains, which contain more fiber and are digested even more slowly.
Products that contain hidden sugars and/or starches include soft drinks; cakes, cookies, and pies; candies and confections; many canned fruits and juices; ice creams and shakes; jams and jellies; and desserts. Ketchup contains a huge amount of sugar.
Many meat and sausage products are extended with refined starch. Protein-starch mixtures are more difficult to digest than either protein or starch by itself. When poorly or incompletely digested, such mixtures can lead to bloating, intestinal pain, and gas.
Whole grains do not usually present problems. They contain more fiber, and are digested and absorbed more slowly than sugars and refined starches. They are also rich in mineral and vitamin co-factors that enable our body to completely burn them for energy. Complex carbohydrates can fatten us only if we live sedentary lives without exercise, eat for social reasons when we’re not hungry, or eat compulsively for psychological reasons. Complex carbohydrate foods include grains, corn, and starchy vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower. Potatoes and yams contain starch that is quickly broken down, and can increase blood sugar levels rapidly.
Sweet fruits contain starches, but also large amounts of sugar, and can lead to fat production when they form more than a small part of our diet. In nature, fruit is available mainly in the fall. Wild animals such as bears eat fruit in the fall in order to build up their fat. These fat stores are used up during the bears’ mostly foodless winter hibernation. When we eat sweet fruit year-round (an unnatural situation in temperate climates), we can get fat on it year-round.
Carbohydrates and Health Problems
If we are active and healthy with competent digestive function and no food allergies, we can eat natural complex carbohydrates (vegetables and grains, a little fruit) without getting fat. In fact, complex carbs are the best sources of slowly released glucose, which is the best fuel for providing the energy we live on.
Complex carbohydrates contain fiber and other materials that are digested slowly. Their starches are only slowly converted into glucose, which is then burned (oxidized) in body functions at the same rate at which it is produced. Therefore, complex carbs do not provide excess energy that turns into fat. Complex carbs also contain vitamins and minerals (cofactors) that enable our body to burn them cleanly into carbon dioxide, water, and energy.
People who spend most of their working day sitting in an office and their evenings as couch potatoes, or people whose diet contains a lot of refined starches and sugars, are likely to have a weight problem (really a fat problem). Males may die from the results of cardiovascular disease (CVD) or diabetes as early as their late 30s to early 60s. Women are protected from CVD during their reproductive years due to hormones (resulting in menstrual iron loss).
In the next post in this series, I'll discuss the role of glucose and how our body deals with it.