Updated: Sep 16, 2020
Last week, we talked about the critical role that protein has in our diet. It is the macronutrient that we recommend focusing on the most to optimize your health and longevity. Today we will push into learning about one of our two energy sources- carbohydrates.
Carbohydrates are nature’s quick fuel, mostly found in plant foods that grow with the sun. We generally take them in relatively quickly and reserve a small amount of them for use in times of stress. That is a critical point that we will discuss at length. Carbohydrates are a less efficient fuel than fat is, which is another energy source. And since you can only store such a small amount of carbohydrates in your body, the storage tends to fill up quickly.
We like to divide carbohydrates into two categories- sugar and starch (fiber is also a carbohydrate, but since it remains mostly in the digestive system, we do not absorb it well.). Sugar is a simple form of carbohydrate that breaks down quickly and gets into the blood quickly. Starch is more complicated (it is why we call them “complex”). It is more bound up, and the body must work harder to break it down, a process which is much slower. We like to use analogies when we explain this to people, so we will use an analogy between a hybrid car and a race car (Yes, we know that Formula 1 race cars are electric now, we’ve watched that series on Netflix almost four hundred times, but you know what we mean...). For most of your day-to-day activities, efficiency would be desired over inefficiency. We do not necessarily need a race car to the store to stock up on toilet paper. We can use a hybrid car, which will use less fuel, put out less pollution, and use less gas than the race car would. This is what it’s like to burn fat as fuel.
Suppose we get out of our hybrid car and we see a bear. No, not the cuddly looking bear on the toilet paper package you were about to buy, a REAL bear, and he looks hungry! Now which car would we prefer, the race car or the hybrid car? Of course, now we would want the race car. It is terribly inefficient, uses a ton of fuel, and puts out a lot of pollution. But who cares? We do not want to be bear food! The race car is like burning carbohydrates for fuel. Generally, this stressful situation would happen only occasionally, and would not last very long, at which point we could switch back to using the hybrid car.
As humans, we have both engines built in, which is pretty handy when you need to fetch toilet paper or run from bears. We can run on eco mode for most of the time and occasionally rev up the turbo engine when needed to not get eaten. In a normal environment, we could switch easily between the two, as needed. Let’s use another analogy! Let’s say that the freeway is your bloodstream. This is where the sugar and starch will eventually end up before it is stored. The only difference is the rate at which it gets into the bloodstream. Consider this freeway at rush hour. Sugar is like having an on-ramp to the freeway that has no meter. A massive amount of sugar (cars) gets into the blood (freeway) all at once. We all know that can be pretty disruptive! Consuming the starch is like putting a meter on the on-ramp. Cars feed onto the freeway in a much more controlled way. There are still just as many cars on the freeway, but the process takes a little longer, and so it feels much less disruptive.
Too many cars on the road is a problem. And too much sugar in the blood is a problem. In our bodies, the hormone insulin is like a signal that you would see on the freeway. It tells the excessive number of cars on the freeway to go find their appropriate parking spaces so that they can get off, and traffic is reduced. In fact, insulin is so good at its job, it gets almost ALL of the cars off the road. You know that feeling of a crash about 30 minutes after drinking a soda? That is what you are feeling. Now, this is where things get tricky. Remember, we can only store a small amount of carbohydrates at any given time. That is like having a limited amount of parking spaces. Once you exceed that number, what happens to the rest? Here comes the bad news. The body converts the sugar into fat. It is as if the body can make new parking structures to hold more cars whenever he needs to. Unfortunately, that fat is something most of us want less of, not more of. Therefore, we consider the overall amount of carbohydrate in the diet to be extremely important. We believe that the frequency that you consume carbohydrates matters just as much. In a temperate climate, carbohydrates would be much more rare than they are today. They would also be more seasonal; more in the summer and fall, less in the winter and spring.
Your body will always reward you for eating certain carbohydrates like fruit by making them taste sweet and delicious. That way, you can stock up on them when you need them. Your insulin will surge, causing your body to store energy, both carbohydrate and fat. And that was good for most of our evolution. Eat all the apples in October, because in January you might not find many more. That is when the body can shift into more of a fat burning machine, where you burn off all the fat that you stored when you were eating apples. However, these days, carbohydrates are everywhere. They are available from the minute you wake up to the minute you go to bed. For years, they were the foundation of the Food Pyramid, and the reason why I ate thousands of PBJ’s as a teenager. Most people eat carbohydrates several times a day, all day, every day, for years and years, blood sugar surging and crashing, energy up and down, feeling great after lunch then feeling terrible at 3 pm (BREAK ROOM TIME!). They never experience steady, clean energy and mental clarity. And they wonder why they can’t lose any meaningful amount of weight.
Over time, a normal amount of insulin is no longer sufficient to keep your blood sugar in check. Your body must make more and more of it, just to get the same reaction. Excess insulin means you are always storing fat and never burning it. This process causes the disease known as insulin resistance, and we believe that this is the root cause of every major chronic disease that ails us today. Our recommendations for carbohydrate intake is to keep them as low as you can tolerate for most of your life. We recommend somewhere between 50 g to 150 g per day, which, unless you are a professional athlete, should be more than enough to give you what you need. When you consume carbohydrates, we recommend more of the starchy and fibrous kind over the sugary kind. If you did nothing else, eliminating any kind of sugar dissolved in water (soda, juice, sports drinks, energy drinks, etc.), will do more to improve your health than almost anything else we can think of.
Because carbohydrates spike your insulin and put people into storage mode and turns off fat-burning mode, we recommend that you consume them as infrequently as possible. When you desire a treat, make it count! Choose something that will really make you happy, appreciate how great it tastes, and do it as infrequently as you can tolerate. We would rather have a giant slice of local, seasonal peach cobbler on occasion rather than slamming a package of cheap cookies every afternoon.
We hope you have enjoyed our article! Next week we will talk about one of the most maligned and misunderstood nutrients we can consume. FAT.