Common Myths and Misconceptions: carbs
Don't I need carbs to survive?
There are no ‘essential carbs’. Your body, specifically your brain, needs a small amount of glucose (one of the one unit molecules that make up all carbs). However, this is a very small amount, and if it is not provided by the diet, the body can make glucose from other sources (such as protein, gluconeogenesis) to meet this minimal requirement.
And you can train your body to adapt to less carbs
Fats are a better fuel source
The body is, when trained, remarkably efficient and thrives on using fat as a source of energy. Furthermore, there is zero requirement by the body for fructose (another type of simple sugar, predominantly found in fruit).
Fructose and Glucose
What are the different types of carbs?
Carbohydrates are chains of various lengths of small subunits, made of carbon and hydrogen. The primary two types of subunits in non-vegetable carbs are glucose and fructose: these are sugars, or carbs, in their most simple form (a monosaccharide). 2 small subunits in a chain together are a disaccharide (eg 1 glucose + 1 fructose). For example, fruit has a higher proportion of fructose as its sugar.
Polysaccharides and Fiber
Vegetables are also carbs
A polysaccharide is 3 or more of these subunits forming chains of various lengths. Depending on the structure and the subunits, these can be more or less (or not at all) broken down by your body to use as energy. Vegetables, for example, are mostly carbs, however the type of carb (fibre, a large portion of which we can’t digest, but some of which feed our gut bacteria) has a much different impact on your body and your blood glucose levels.
THE PERFORMACE-CARB MYTH IS PERVASIVE
What about those pro athletes that carb load before races, doesn’t that prove that we need carbs to perform in a workout?
Don’t I need carbs to have any energy for a workout?
Unless you are doing hours of crossfit every day, you don’t need large amounts of carbs to fuel you at all (this includes endurance athletes). The body can only store limited amounts of glycogen (the storage form of glucose) in the liver (about 100g) and the muscles (depending on how much muscle mass you have, between 350-500g), and once this runs out, if your body is only used to relying on carbs for energy, you experience an energy crash.
Constantly spiking blood sugar -> chronic diseases
If you train your body (as we did as hunter gatherers through a higher fat diet and periods of extended fasting), to utilize fat for fuel, you will have more stable energy levels throughout the day and throughout a workout. You’ll avoid the roller coaster blood glucose levels that leave you suddenly hangry and starving, and incapable of training without carb loading. The bonus is you don’t need to then continuously be consuming carbs to fuel a workout, and bypass the negative health effects of repeatedly spiking blood glucose and insulin levels. This yo-yoing eventually can lead to diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and severely impact brain health.
Aren’t complex carbs healthy?
Complex carbs simply refer to the length of the chains of monosaccharides are broken down in the body to be eventually used for energy or stored (as glycogen or in adipose, fat, tissue). Examples of some more complex carbs legumes, starchy vegetables, ancient grains and quinoa.
The other variable to be considered with and is correlated with how ‘complex’ a carb is is its glycemic index. This is a measure of how quickly a given food will be broken down and spike blood glucose levels. Choosing carbs that are as low on the glycemic index is a good guideline to follow if you’re eating carbs. Keep in mind that this measure will drastically vary from one person to another depending on how carb-tolerant they are, and on the mass of carb consumed. For example: a sweet potato has a relatively high glycemic index for a vegetable, however one serving of sweet potato vs one serving of a grain or bean will likely be much smaller; resulting in a smaller blood sugar spike overall.
Heart health and carbs
With regards to heart disease, higher consumption of especially refined carbs could actually contribute to development of cardiovascular disease: one major pathway for this is the increased inflammation from carb consumption, inflammation being a major, necessary player in developing heart disease. With regards to carbs lowering cholesterol, recent research is suggesting the uselessness of LDL and HDL cholesterol content with relation to heart disease risk, the marker of higher importance being LDL and HDL particle count, and more so oxidized LDL particle count. What oxidizes LDL particles? High levels of inflammation. What about triglycerides, which are also a risk factor for heart disease? In addition to coming directly from fat sources, TG can be manufactured from excess glucose in the liver, and some research is pointing to the up-regulation of the enzymes that convert glucose to TGs as a direct consequence of consuming a high carbohydrate diet.
THE HIDDEN COST OF SUGAR
Your sugar addiction may lead to energy highs and lows, skin breakouts, and mood disorders, but the chronic underlying inflammation that's going on will only manifest it's effects in the future; chronic lifestyle diseases like cancer, Alzheimers, and heart disease
What about cheat days or treats in moderation?
Cheat days work for some people, but in many cases it results in people waiting the whole week to absolutely binge on one days, and taking days to recover from the sugar cravings that are sparked by the cheat days or meals. In addition, some people tend to do well with moderation, whereas others tend to have ‘cheat’ foods be immensely triggering: they find that once they start, it is much more difficult to stop than abstaining in the first place. The moderators can have one piece of chocolate or slice of cake and be satisfied; those more extreme people do much better with an all or nothing approach.
Sugar is addictive
Studies done on rodents show the immense impact of sugar on the brain: it is like a drug, lighting up the same reward pathways, and in one case, the scientists showed the sugar was as addictive as cocaine. Not to say you can’t ever have sugar again: just that when you choose to, choose mindfully, and be picky – go for a quality, homemade sweet or indulgence and really enjoy it rather than scoffing down whatever supermarket cake a coworker has left in the office kitchen.