This is a guest blog post by Shoshi Domb.
The sun is shining, the snow is melting, and summer is right around the corner. As summer arrives, so does diet season. Since there are so many diets on the market it is sometimes hard to choose a sensible one. Regardless of the diet that you end up following, or your eating habits, one thing that is important to keep in mind is this:
Don’t skimp on carbohydrates.
In the past decade, we are bombarded with ads touting low-carb diets. Before you kiss carbs goodbye, it is important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of carbohydrates consumption (or lack thereof).
What you need to know:
Dietary carbohydrates come in many forms. The 2 main groups are simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates include the sugars, while complex include starch and fiber.
The simplest sugar is glucose and its compound is part of all disaccharides and most polysaccharides. It is an essential energy source for all of our body’s activities.
Starch is the way plants store glucose and can be found in many foods such as rice, wheat, legumes, and potatoes. Since we can digest starch, our bodies break it down to glucose to be used as energy. Humans store glucose as glycogen.
Fiber is the structural part of plants and thus found in many foods: vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and legumes. We cannot digest fiber and therefore it is not a significant source of energy (or calories). However, it has very important health benefits, such as maintaining colon health, relieving constipation, and may help reduce cholesterol levels.
As mentioned, our bodies use glucose for energy. More specifically, muscles are able to store glucose and use it when needed (especially when trying to catch the bus…glucose is your savior!). More importantly, the brain and other nerve cells survive solely on glucose, plus they don’t have reserves like muscles do, so you can imagine what would happen if those supplies are not maintained.
Glycogen is our bodies’ glucose reserve and is present in the liver. Since glycogen is a bulky compound, there is not much room for it and glucose reserves are depleted pretty quickly (within a day; or with exercise, much less).
Even though the other macronutrients (protein and fat) can be broken down to provide glucose, that process is rather inefficient. Protein has important jobs no other compounds can do and should not be interrupted – for example, the immune system cannot function without proteins. Fat, which has unlimited storage in the body, could have been the perfect candidate to provide glucose; however only 5% of its compound can actually be converted to sugar, so it is not a viable option.
It is important to understand is that you should never eliminate a nutrient (specifically carbohydrates) because your body won’t just throw up its hands in defeat and say ”oh well I guess I’m not getting glucose…you win” , but will adapt to these new conditions by breaking down anything it needs to get that glucose.
In this case, it breaks down fat, which may sound like a positive thing to many people. This is the reason we are drawn to carb-free diets, without the knowledge of how this breaking down actually affects us. However, as fat is broken down, fat fragments will start to combine with one another to form ketone bodies.
Ketone bodies are by-products of the breaking down of fatty acids (the portion of fat that can be converted to glucose). They provide energy during starvation when the body isn’t getting any energy from outside sources; however, when too many are produced, they accumulate in the blood and cause ketosis, a condition that disturbs the body’s normal acid-base balance. The effects this can have on your body include acetone-smelling breath, headaches, mental dullness, dizziness and more, mostly due to having very low energy. Prolonged ketosis can cause serious health problems and may, in extreme cases, even lead to death.
Even though carbohydrate consumption is vital, moderation is essential. It is important to mention that any excess carbohydrates will be stored as fat. As there is no limit to how much the body can store, you should be watching the amounts that you are consuming.
The recommended dietary allowance for men, women, and children is 130 g/day (Atkins diet and other low-carb diets allow you to consume only 12-15 g/day). It is also recommended to choose whole grain products and limit sugar intake. To put this into perspective, one slice of whole wheat bread contains about 15g of carbohydrates; 1 medium banana has almost 30g; and 1 cup cooked brown rice contains 45g.
There is no perfect diet. But there are bad diets. Any diet that eliminates or significantly reduces one of the important nutrients cannot be good for your body. Try to eat wholesome, natural food, make sure you include all the nutrients into your diet, don’t forget about the exercise and eliminate stress. Balanced diet, exercise and stress management are three pillars of a happy and healthy life!
Paisley, Judy. “Carbohydrates.” Class Lecture. Ryerson University, Toronto, ON. 19/10/10. Lecture.
Whitney, Ellie, and Sharon Rady Rolfes. Understanding Nutrition. 11. Belmont CA, USA: Thompson Wadsworth, 2008. Print.
Shoshi Domb has an Honors B.A. in Psychology, and is currently studying to become a Registered Dietitian at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada. She is passionate about health education, especially in regards to children, and also aspires to teach kids the art of healthy cooking.