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Carbohydrates

This is the second post in a four-part series on what makes the body run.  Fat, covered in the first post, Carbohydrates, this post, Protein, and Water will be upcoming.  Carbohydrates, or carbs for short, are thought of as bad. Many diets are centered around eating low-carb and cooking shows and books use low-carb as their main theme or point of view.  What are carbohydrates and are they bad?  Does our body need them, and if so, why?  What do carbs actually do anyway?

These are the questions discussed in this study, so read on!

tiny grape leaves

tiny grape leaves (Photo credit: Martin LaBar)

Carbohydrates are just one of the hundreds of constituents in a plant. They are manufactured during photosynthesis in plants, algae, and some bacteria.  Photosynthesis is the process of converting light energy into chemical energy.  By using light energy, water, and carbon dioxide (CO2) special cells in the leaves of plants convert CO2 into organic substances by splitting the CO2 molecule and thus producing carbohydrates and oxygen.

Some facts about carbohydrates.  A carbohydrate is an energy-rich carbon-based molecule that is usually composed of 6 carbon, 12 hydrogen, and 6 oxygen atoms. (wiki.answers.com)  They include sugars, glycogen, starches, dextrins, and cellulose (fiber).  Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for our bodies.  This energy is used by our body’s organs and for physical activity.  You can say that carbs are the “fuel” for cellular processes.

There are 2 types of carbohydrates, simple and complex.  Simple carbs are short-chained and complex are long-chained.

In the simple category we have:

  • monosaccharides – fructose and glucose
  • disaccharides – sucrose(table sugar), lactose(milk sugar), and maltose (malt sugar found in malt products and sprouting seeds)

In the complex category we have:

  • trisaccharides – stachyose & raffinose (these are mostly found in beans)
  • polysaccharides – cellulose, starch, chitin, and miscellaneous others

Our bodies get its supply of carbohydrates from the food we eat.

As I stated, carbs are our main source of energy.  This is true because all carbs, except fiber, are digested and metabolized into glucose.  Glucose is the energy source for plants and is found in their sap; and the main source of energy for us too, known as blood sugar.  For plants the best example I can think of is pure maple syrup. It  is made of the “sap” of the sugar maple tree.    Glucose is the only fuel source the brain and red blood cells use!! So to me being on a low carb diet does not make much sense.  If the brain and red blood cells are deprived of their only fuel, how can they function and make us happy?

Here is the basic metabolism of carbs.  The end product? Glucose.

  1. Digestion begins in the mouth – we put a bite of food in our mouth and we chew.  Chewing involves smashing the food and mixing it with our saliva, this is mastication.  This is very important because the enzyme amylase in our saliva begins the breaking down of complex carbs into simpler ones of cooked (not raw) food.
  2. In the stomach the enzymatic activity slows down as digestive juices are added to the food.
  3. In the first part of the small intestine  pancreas-produced amylase acts upon cooked and raw complex carbohydrate molecules and breaks them down into simple sugars, you can see why simple sugars take much less time compared to complex to metabolize.
  4. Each simple sugar has an enzyme that breaks it down further into glucose in the  mucus lining of the small intestine. (maltose by maltase; lactose by lactase; and sucrose by sucrase)
  5. The glucose can now be transported through the intestinal wall via the bloodstream to the liver.  In the liver the glucose is , stored as glycogen, sent to muscle tissue where it is also stored as glycogen,  stored in adipose (fat) tissue, or used right away.

There is an indigestible form of carbohydrate called fiber. It is considered indigestible because its chemical structure does not change during digestion, and it has no nutritive qualities.  Generally this is the cell wall structure, or cellulose.  It is a polysaccharide.  There are two types of fiber: soluble and insoluble.  Soluble fiber will bind to fatty acids during the digestion process and is then eliminated in the waste.  This is healthy for us because this action lowers the LDL cholesterol, helps regulate the use of sugar by body systems, and helps us feel satiated hindering our cravings thereby stabilizing blood sugar levels.  Insoluble fiber is the plunger and sweeper of our intestinal tract.  This is a vital component of food that prevents stagnation, putrefaction, and disease in the bowel.  Who wants this going on inside of them?? Fiber is crucially important and must be consumed every day.

Ok, so now we are educated about what Carbohydrates are, how we digest them, and what they do for our bodies. The next logical question is: What food should we eat to supply the right kinds that we need?

Honey Jars

Honey Jars (Photo credit: IndigoValley)

Here it is.

Good Simple Carbohydrate Sources:

  • fruit
  • honey
  • molasses

Good Complex Carbohydrate Sources:

  • whole grains(wheat, barley, rye, millet, brown rice, oats, buckwheat)

    Diversity in dry common beans

    Diversity in dry common beans (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • dry beans(pinto, kidney, black, peas, lentils)
  • vegetables(green leafy, carrots, onions, celery, broccoli, cucumber)
  • corn
  • fruits(plums, pears, apricots, oranges, prunes, grapefruit)

When you study these lists of foods I hope you noticed there are NO refined or processed foods.  This is key to understanding what is healthy and what is not.  Some people are led to believe that simple carbs are bad and complex carbs are good.  This is not the truth as you can see.  The real weapon is understanding processed verses unprocessed carbs.  Processed carbs include doughnuts, cakes, cookies, crackers, and pasteries.  These foods are a negative to our health level.  Imagine your level of health on a number scale, and now imagine it several points lower because you ate a refined carbohydrate.

salad greens

salad greens

salad greens with edible flowers

edible flowers with salad greens

Just so you know you can eat ALL the salad you can stuff down yourself, even until you feel like you ate the Thanksgiving Turkey!!  You should also remember that fresh fruit, fresh veges, whole grains, and legumes also supply vital nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, water, and other phytochemicals, discovered and the ones yet to be discovered. Fruit is super good to eat daily.

Hope this helps clear the bad wrap on carbs.  So eat up, your brain power, organ function and red blood cells depend on you to feed them.  You are what you eat!

Love life & breathe deep,

Angela

“Let’s Chew The Fat”

This is the first of 4 installments to what runs our bodies:  1) fat, 2) carbohydrates, 3) proteins, and 4) water.  For this first post under Nutrition I thought the topic of Fat would be an attention getter.  We all talk, think, dream about and eat fat!!  Most women think they have too much, or that what they do have is not in the right area.  Men just like to eat fat flavored food!  But seriously, what is fat?  Does it do anything besides annoy us and cost us $$$?

The surprising answer is yes.  First let’s get some basics down.

Calories – we equate fat with calories, and that is correct.  So what exactly is a calorie?  A calorie is a unit of measure.  It measures the amount of energy, or heat, it takes to raise the temperature of one gram of water one degree C. (or 1.8 degrees F.).  Food nutrition labels give the number of calories in a specific serving size.  (These are actually kilocalorie.)  Fat has 9 calories per gram, carbohydrates & protein contain 4 calories per gram.  So one gram of fat = 9 calories and one gram of carbohydrates or protein = 4 calories. Our bodies require a certain amount of calories for it to function properly.  But there’s more to it than that.  Where should these calories come from?  They come from three sources: fat, carbs, and proteins.  This post is going to be all about FAT!

What is fat?  It is a combination of 3 fatty acid molecules and 1 molecule of glycerol.  The fat cells in the body do not multiply greater in number, just greater in size.  So what does fat do in the body anyway?  To answer this we must first know that there are two types of fat tissue – white (or “yellow”) & brown.

White Fat – Also known as storage fat, is what we refer to when we say “I’m so fat”.  It has two main functions – a) storage of energy and b)produces hormones.  When we go without food for 4-6 hours this white fat is broken down and used as fuel for energy, hence the name “storage fat”.  This fat is needed for the production of hormones.  Some other attributes of white fat are:

  • helps satiate us when we eat it in its natural form
  • insulates us from cold and heat
  • serves as protection to bones and organs from shock
  • prevents fatty acid deficiency
  • insulates and surrounds nerve fibers
  • is a component in cell membranes
  • helps body metabolize fat soluble vitamins as  vitamins A, S, E, and K

White fat located under the skin is called sub-cutaneous fat, this is what is measured to find body fat percentage.  Visceral fat is fat found in the abdominal cavity around the internal organs. Too much visceral fat may engender health issues.

Brown fat This fat is less abundant.  Its main function is to generate heat, and it has a higher number of mitochondria which contain a high amount of iron.  This gives it its dark reddish-brown color and why it is called  brown fat. Babies, children, and animals that hibernate have higher levels of brown fat.  When brown fat is stimulated it will actually burn white fat.  Brown fat is found in bone marrow, organs, central nervous system, and muscles. 

So that is a partial rundown of body fat.  Let’s move on to dietary fat. Here is where we get our supply of fat, and it does matter what kind we choose to take in.  There are 4 types of dietary fat.

Saturated fat is a fat that has all the “places” on the carbon chain filled with hydrogen and has no double or triple bonds.  It is solid at room temperature.  Some examples are animal fat, cream butter, and cheese.  This is the fat the American Heart Association warns us about.

Trans-fats are fats not found in nature, but are man-made.  This type of fat is made from a hydrogenation  process of an unsaturated fat making it stable and solid at room temperature.  Some examples are vegetable shortening, margarine, and soft tub spread.  Body cells do not recognize this substance and it may be quite harmful.  They are used to make commercial baked goods.

Unsaturated fat has two types, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated.

Monounsaturated fats have one double bond in the carbon chain.  It is liquid at room temperature.

Polyunsaturated fats have more that one double bond in its carbon chain.  This fat is known as the “healthy fat”.

Monounsaturated Fat Sources

  • olive oil
  • sunflower oil
  • peanut oil
  • sesame oil
  • avocados
  • nuts (peanuts, macadamia, hazelnut, pecans, cashews)
  • peanut oil

Polyunsaturated Fat Sources

  • soybean oil
  • corn oil
  • safflower oil
  • walnuts
  • sunflower, pumpkin, sesame seeds
  • flax seeds
  • fatty fish – salmon, tuna, trout, herring, mackerel

What we learned – we need fat in the diet!  Wierd to say  that or to think it, but it’s true.  However make sure it is the right form of fat, naturally occurring in nutritious food.