Our DNA is coded for protein – which means, among other things, that every muscle and organ in our bodies requires protein in order to function. Our body doesn’t have similar mechanisms for carbohydrates. But, it’s important not to misunderstand that last statement. Carbohydrates, specifically complex carbohydrates, are critical for the body. We need them to construct cell membranes, for our connective tissues and for the metabolism of red blood cells. However, as we’re only coded for proteins, the body has to use special enzymes to connect to the carbohydrate structure to utilise it.
Riding the blood sugar rollercoaster
We generally think of grains (bread, pasta, cereals) as the main source of carbohydrates, but the refined (‘white’) forms are simple carbohydrates and break down mostly into sugars (glucose, fructose, ribose, maltose and sucrose). These simple sugars do give the body energy (glucose is essential to the body), but are very easy for the body to break down and are used up very quickly, so we end up being hungry again not long after. So if you eat a slice of white toast for breakfast and wash it down with a fruit juice, to the body it’s just like throwing paper onto an open fire. It burns fast! And if you eat these foods all day long you end up riding the energy rollercoaster, with highs followed by crashing lows. It plays havoc with your concentration levels! (see Is your brain trying to eat itself happy?). In reality, we can get ‘better’ carbohydrates from many other plant-based sources. These complex carbohydrates are harder for the body to break down and take longer to burn in that fire, which translates into more sustained energy. They also provide other essential nutrients at the same time and are the carbs of choice to focus on if optimum health is your goal.
Grain and dairy drain
Many people today experience digestive problems eating any grains – refined or unrefined – in the form of gluten intolerance, and we’ve already looked at lectins (see Dietary lectins: what are they and how might they affect your health?) and the damage they can do in the intestinal tract (see The Wholegrain Myth). Milk and many milk products too contain some carbohydrate in the form of lactose. But, modern-day milk production methods are also making milk increasingly difficult for people to digest, especially when 65% of the world’s population can’t actually digest lactose (see the lactose low down and Is dairy really human food?).
This leads nicely back to complex carbs (simply fruit and vegetables are the best source), which for the large majority of people are an aid rather than an issue for digestive health because of the high fibre content. These also break down into sugars for the body to burn as fuel, but critically, they provide us with essential protective phytonutrients (plant-based vitamins and nutrients), amino acids and antioxidants at the same time. And most importantly of all, they are alkaline balancing to counteract acidity in our bodies – all to keep us feeling in tip top shape. What’s not to love about nature?