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Sep 10

The Facts About Carbohydrates

junk foodModern advertising has given the public a lot of conflicting information about carbohydrates, or carbs. Certainly, low-carbohydrate diets are effective for weight loss, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that eating carbohydrates makes you fat. While some types of high-carbohydrate foods are nutritious, even helpful for maintaining a healthy weight, others are harmful in many ways.

Put simply, carbohydrates are organic molecules that contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Proteins, fats and carbohydrates form the main elements of any food, and a healthy diet requires all three. Most people get the energy they require principally from “carbs.”.

Carbohydrates come in three varieties: sugar, starch and fiber. Many people could tell you that starch and sugar are carbohydrates, but often they do not know that fiber is in the “carb club” as well. Fiber is a carbohydrate, and it is a very desirable part of any healthy diet; please do not be misled into thinking that all carbohydrates are bad. A gram of carbohydrate generally provides the body with four calories. The exception to this is fiber, which usually does not deliver as many calories, because it can’t be digested (broken down) as easily as starch and sugar.

Let’s think about the types of carbohydrates, one at a time.

Sugar. Sugar is not a new addition to the human diet, but the amount of sugar found in modern food is really unique (see our blog article, The Sugar Mill). For thousands of years, sugar was just not easy to get, but in the year 2000 America’s annual sugar consumption peaked at 149 pounds per person. Mother Nature would be astounded to learn this, because she designed the human body to operate on far less sugar than we consume.

Without becoming too technical, there are several types of sugar, consisting of individual sugar molecules or short chains of molecules. These include glucose, fructose, galactose and sucrose. “High-fructose corn syrup” has become a popular villain in the lay press. It is literally an industrial product, shipped in container rail cars and tanker trucks. Economically, this is a good way to sweeten many types of food, but as the use of high-fructose corn syrup has increased, so have levels of obesity and related health problems.

Whether the effects of any one type of sugar are better or worse than others may be academic, but there is no doubt that excess total sugar consumption is a major concern. Sugar-sweetened drinks and “added sugar” food contain large amounts of easily absorbable sugars and contribute to obesity, increased risk of diabetes and other problems. Ideally, adult women should get no more than 100 calories a day from added sugar and adult men should be limited to 150 sugar calories. Typical diets greatly exceed these recommendations; a single 12-ounce can of a cola drink contains about 140 to 160 sugar calories.

Starch. Starches are longer chains of carbohydrate molecules that must be broken down during digestion. Starch has been a mainstay of the human diet for centuries and is a big part of all agricultural production. Some starchy foods like legumes (peas, beans, lentils) provide many health benefits while other sources (like refined wheat flour) are associated with increased health problems. Whole-grain products contain the germ, bran and endosperm components of grain; refined grains remove the germ and bran. Whole grains are naturally high in dietary fiber, but refined starches (i.e. white bread, pasta and white rice) are not as nutritious.

Complex carbohydrates from starch can be excellent energy sources, but many foods with starches are unhealthy, lacking essential nutrients and high in calories.

Fiber. It sometimes seems like the forgotten member of the carbohydrate club, and that is a shame; fiber is always found in the healthiest foods, like whole grains, fruits and vegetables. Fiber is a carbohydrate, but it does not get broken down the way starches and sugars do. It does not flood your body with a sudden jolt of glucose that requires increased insulin production. Because they are more difficult to digest, high-fiber foods leave people feeling satisfied, without feelings of hunger for a longer time.

There are two types of fiber, soluble (dissolves in water) and insoluble which does not dissolve. Soluble fiber, found in foods like peas, oats, carrots, and some grains, can help lower blood cholesterol and glucose levels. Insoluble fiber, from sources like wheat bran, beans, nuts, and vegetables like green beans and potatoes, promotes the movement of material through your digestive system.

Food and beverage makers often advertise “low-carb” products implying that they are healthier, especially if you are dieting. In some cases this is true, but the advertising blitz gives people the impression that all carbohydrates are bad, and that is not true.

That sums up a brief look at carbohydrates. This little bit of knowledge does not make you a biochemist, but it should inform some of your eating decisions. Try to remember these points:

  • Carbohydrates are a natural and essential part of the human diet, but refined carbohydrates like table sugar, cola drinks and white flour products are not.
  • In general, complex carbohydrates are better for you than simple carbohydrates.
  • Fiber is a carbohydrate and it is your friend! It generally has a high nutrient to calorie ratio, leaves you feeling more satisfied and has considerable other benefits.

A balanced diet of healthy choices including carbohydrates is the best way to maintain a healthy weight or to lose weight if you need to do so. Our community has numerous resources to help you achieve that weight loss goal. One of them is our Monthly Bariatric Support Group Meeting. It is always on the third Thursday of each month (September 20, this month). This meeting starts at 5 PM in our main office located at Florida Hospital Memorial Medical Center. Motivated patients can discover a wide range of options offered by the hospital and other organizations.

If achieving a safe weight loss is your goal and first-line measures like diet, exercise or behavior modification have failed, then weight loss surgery might be one option. A thorough evaluation by a qualified physician is the only way to determine if bariatric surgery is appropriate for you. The expense of weight loss surgery is often recovered quickly by lowering treatment costs for diabetes, heart disease and the other medical problems that accompany obesity. Advances in weight loss surgery have made this option a practical choice for many patients.

If you have any question about, bariatric surgery or any other area included in general surgery (laparoscopic hernia surgery, or minimally invasive breast surgery), please contact our office. You may use Contact Dr Birkedal or phone us at (386) 210-9794. Our offices, located in Daytona, New Smyrna and Palm coast are all part of the Florida Hospital Network.

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