Thursday, March 01, 2007

Carbs Are Our Friends

The “low carb” diet craze has long since died out from its peak a few years ago, but it seems to have left a general feeling within the population that carbohydrates are bad and must be watched carefully to ensure that we are getting proper healthy nutrition.

This is an unfortunate misconception.

Our body’s cells require energy in order to function properly. Without energy, the cells would die and so would our body. For this reason, all life requires nutrition. When we eat foods, our body’s cells get energy from the nutrients within the food. There are three sources for cellular energy: carbohydrates, fats, and proteins.

Carbohydrates are the first nutrients metabolized by our cells. They are the cells’ preferred source of energy. When all the carbohydrates have been burned, our cells then turn to fat. When there is no fat left, the last resort for our cells is protein. If your body is metabolizing protein for energy, you are on the verge of starving to death. This is what happens in anorexics and starvation victims.

The reason low carb diets work so well is because they function by eliminating the cells’ first choice for energy, thereby forcing the cells to metabolize fat. Obviously, when the cells metabolize fat, they are breaking the fat down and burning it off as energy. This is what makes you lose weight. In that sense, low carb diets are an efficient and appropriate way to lose weight.

However, when low carb diets become a lifestyle habit, they begin to lose their effectiveness and instead become a liability in our body’s health. This is particularly true for many type 2 diabetics who maintain low carb diets in an effort to control their blood sugar.

When we ingest carbohydrates, our digestive system breaks them down into glucose, which is a simple sugar called a monosaccharide. That glucose becomes the source of carbohydrate metabolism by the cells. Any glucose that is not metabolized is stored as glycogen in the liver, for later use. It is for this reason that many type 2 diabetics avoid carbohydrates – they don’t want that extra glucose in their bodies, since their insulin is not effective in breaking it down (that’s what defines type 2 diabetes – the increasing inability of the person’s insulin to get rid of glucose; type 1 diabetes, on the other hand, is characterized by a lack of insulin).

The problem with avoiding carbohydrates over the long term, however, is that carbohydrates are the cells’ preferred metabolic source. The cells function best when they are getting energy from carbohydrates. That’s why people who ingest sufficient amounts of carbohydrates have more energy and generally feel better. And since carbohydrates are the cells’ preferred metabolic source, the cells are healthiest when they are getting the majority of their energy from carbohydrates. When you eliminate, over the long term, the cells’ preferred choice for energy, the cells will suffer. This has far reaching implications, because healthy cells make for healthy bodies. People whose cells are continually getting energy from fat will eventually have cells that are not as healthy as those who get their energy primarily from carbohydrates. This can result in everything from early aging to the quicker and more likely onset of chronic diseases.

For diabetics, and for anyone wishing to watch their sugar intake, low carb diets are not necessarily the answer, and, more times than not, will actually be more harmful in the long run. Instead, the focus should be on exercise. If a person stays active on a daily basis and gets plenty of exercise, they can eat a normal diet of carbohydrates without any fear of increasing their sugar. This holds true for the type II diabetic as well. The reason the diabetic can have no fear of increasing their sugar is because they don’t have to be dependent on their poorly functioning insulin to break down the carbohydrate glucose. Instead, the cells will metabolize the glucose for energy, which will not only make the person’s cells more healthy in the long run, but will also make the person feel more energized and more healthy in general.

Exercise is the key. Our bodies are not biologically designed to be sedentary. We are designed for activity. And our cells work best – and therefore keep us healthier – when they are drawing energy from carbohydrate metabolism.

Whether you are a diabetic, or just someone concerned about healthy lifestyles, don’t worry so much about carbohydrates, and focus instead on staying active every day and reducing your fat intake. Then, you won’t need a low carb diet to help you lose weight, and you can ingest an appropriate amount of carbohydrates without fear of increasing your blood sugar.

If you need to shed a few pounds, low carb diets are a good way to do it. But once you have lost the weight you need to lose, end the carb counting and start eating sufficient carbohydrates, low amounts of fat, and plenty of vegetables, along with daily activity and exercise.


Anonymous said...

I don't know that low carb diets, even in the short term, are a good idea. We need all three of those things you mentioned to be healthy, and swearing off carbs for the short term doesn't instill a healthy sustainable life style. In other words, when you go back on them, you'll just gain the weight back. You haven't learned to eat properly in order to maintain an appropriate weight level.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for verifying that all of the bread and potatoes that I eat are keeping me healthy! Now I don't have to feel so bad about NEVER eating seafood, salads, or fruit. What a great day!

Scott said...

No, you should feel bad for not eating seafood, salad, or fruit. Salad's not a big deal, as long as you are eating vegetables on a routine basis. You need to eat fruit, however, or at least drink 100% fruit juice drinks. You're gonna get scurvy from Vitamin C deficiency. And if you don't eat seafood, you should try to get Omega-3 fatty acids from some other source, becaue that is an essential protein that you can only get through nutrition. The body needs about 20 proteins, but only manufactures about 10. Thus, you have to get the other 10 through nutrition.