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The Breakdown on Carbohydrates

· health,carbohydrates,keto diet,alzheimers disease,vegan

There is a bit of controversy in our age of fad diets that carbohydrates are looked upon as a kind of villainous, evil entity which will destroy our health. Numerous commentators, critics and even doctors on social media are constantly repeating the same mantra: Carbs=bad!

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Vegetables and fruits are an important source of carbohydrates. Photo by Adobe Stock Images

However, let’s examine what carbohydrates exactly are. Carbohydrates, or carbs, are sugar molecules. Along with proteins and fats, carbohydrates are one of three main nutrients found in foods and drinks. Carbohydrates can also be broken down into 2 different categories: simple or complex. Complex carbohydrates include polysaccharides, starches, fibers and glycogen.

The human body cannot function without carbohydrates. In the Western diet however, simple carbohydrates such as maltose, lactose and sucrose exist in nearly all processed foods, and these carbs, or the bad carbs, can have a negative impact on health.

Carbohydrates are also naturally found in plant-based foods, and these are typically considered good carbs. Vegetables and beans are considered complex carbs, which promotes a healthy digestive system and metabolism.

Let’s look at a list of high carb foods:

- Breads, grains, and pasta

- Nuts and Legumes

- Starchy Vegetables

- Milk and yogurts

- Fruits

- Snack Foods

- Sauces and condiments

Fruits are a type of simple carbohydrates of monosaccharides such as fructose, but they also contain vitamins and fibers. Bread, grains and pasta are considered complex carbs, however, bread is controversial as refined white bread contains no fiber nor vitamins as whole grain unprocessed bread.

If you are an athlete, or physically active person who is sensitive to minute changes in your body’s performance, you might have noticed that after eating bread, even whole grain bread, that your performance in sports or athletics is significantly hindered. You might feel sluggish or lack energy and feel as if you’re pushing yourself towards gains instead of flying through them.

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Bread is a source of complex carbohydrates, however because bread is often made with bromides and contains preservatives that alter glucose metabolism, bread has been erroneously labelled a "bad carb" whilst the bromides and preservatives that bread contains are actually harmful to health and alter thyroid functioning and cause insulin resistance. Photo by Fran Hogan, wikipedia

Many people, especially doctors and nutritionists often attribute this to the negative effects of glucose on the body. However, let’s examine bread a little bit further. The vast majority of bread on the market today often are made with bromides in the United States. Bromides are a type of carcinogen that alters your thyroid function, which could lead to negative health consequences and hinder performance, which has been banned in breadmaking in Europe and Asia, but still commonly used in the United States. In addition, nearly all the bread that one can purchase in shops and markets today often contain preservatives, and these preservatives such as propionates (calcium or sodium propionate), sorbates (sorbic acid and potassium sorbate), benzoates, parabens (methyl and propyl) and acetic acid are used to prevent bread from moulding quickly. It is to no surprise that consuming foods with these preservatives will also have a negative consequence on our health and lead to sluggish athletic performance.

Although glucose is considered the culprit to bad health, it is actually the bromides and preservatives in bread and other grain products that can negatively affect thyroid functioning and insulin sensitivity. If one was to make bread at home with organic flour without bromides and preservatives, these effects would most likely not be evident.

Carbohydrates for Energy

The human body’s method of using glucose for energy is the most efficient way of utilising and distributing energy and gaining the most optimal athletic performance. Although we have a backup system that can also use fats as energy, through ketosis, this is not as efficient as using glucose.

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Novak Djokovic, one of the greatest athletes in the world, revealed that he mainly eats a high carb diet of fruits and vegetables. Djokovic has said of his diet: “I eat a lot of fruit during the first part of the day and salads. I don’t like to eat any food that would require much energy for digestion, especially during the first part of the day because that’s when I need the most energy for my training. So I’m keeping things quite light and would probably have some grains like quinoa, millet, and wild rice. Sweet potato and normal potato, steamed or boiled.” The athlete revealed that upon waking, he drinks warm water with lemon, followed by celery juice, and a green smoothie packed with algae and different fruits. Photo by Getty Images

If you consider the diets of top athletes such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Novak Djokovic, they primarily eat a high carb diet based mainly on the consumption of vegetables, fruits and rice, with minimal protein from animals. In the average American and UK diet today, people eat a high protein, high fat diet in which meat is served in large quantities at every meal.

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The top nations with the highest incidence of Alzheimer's in the population are not unsurpsingly, those very nations in which a high protein, high fat diet is consumed by the population. The nations with the lowest incidence of Alzheimer's include Japan, South Korea and Singapore, in which the population consumes a high carb diet of vegetables and rice with minimal protein and fats.

The UK is no.2 nation in the world for the highest incidence of Alzheimer's and ranks in the top 10 for other health conditions. The US follows just behind the UK in widespread health problems within the population. Whereas, if we examine the populations that eat a high carb diet from rice and vegetables, one can clearly see nations like Japan and South Korea with the lowest incidence of chronic health problems and neurological diseases that Western counterparts often have.

The Cons of the Ketogenic diet

The Keto diet evolved from a movement away from eating grains, breads and pastas, towards more of a high fat, high protein, meat-based diet, but how healthy is this? Firstly, without adequate amounts of good carbs from vegetables and fruits, one will have to depend entirely on energy metabolism through ketosis, and this could cause a loss of fat cells, which for many people trying to lose weight might be beneficial in the short term. But loss of fat cells also result in loss of fat volume, leading to a shrunken appearance, such as development of bags under the eyes, and a lack of firmness in the body. Since fructose is necessary in the recycling of the hair shaft, the lack of fruits and juices in the keto diet could also lead to loss of hair volume. A low level of fructose has been shown to decrease hair keratinocytes during androgenetic alopecia.

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The ketogenic diet attempts to convert the body's use of energy from glucose to fats, in a process called ketosis, leading to rapid weight loss. However the consumption of high protein, high fat foods mainly from meat sources with little carbohydrates may injure the liver and kidneys, a long-term effect which may not be apparent until the end stage of kidney disease. Photo by Twigs Cafe

In addition, the consumption of high amounts of fat and protein can exert stress on the liver and kidneys, which could exacerbate chronic health conditions. A high fat diet has been consistently shown to cause injury to renal functions and a high protein diet has been shown to promote the development of kidney stones. Since kidney disease is often diagnosed only in the final stages, the negative effects of the keto diet for the long-term would not be visible for many decades.

A diet high in protein also has been repeatedly shown to cause cardiovascular problems, leading to heart attack and stroke, sometimes even sudden death.

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During the beginning of the industrial farming era in the United States, meat became advertised as an important source of "protein" and hence this advertising rhetoric still is evident in today's society as people erroneously believe that a high protein diet is necessary for good health, despite all the evidence of the contrary. Photo by the American Meat Institute, Nourishing Meat Advertising Campaign of the 1960s.

Good Carbs vs. Bad Carbs

Foods that give optimal athletic performance come in the form of complex carbohydrates such as vegetables, fermented foods like natto, kimchi and sauerkraut, and grains such as black rice. In fact, you might find that just having just one or two spoonfuls of black rice before working out leads to enhanced athletic performance.

Black rice also contains anthocyanin which has potent antioxidant properties and gives it its unique purple-black colour. In Ancient China, black rice was considered a superfood that was only available for royalty. However, in our modern democratised world, black rice is plentiful and available as an everyday option.

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Black rice, a high carb superfood with antioxidants, was only served for royalty in Ancient China.

Bad carbs or refined and processed carbs are those which contain one or more of the following ingredients: high fructose corn syrup (a synthetic form of fructose that the body cannot metabolise and lead to insulin resistance), white refined sugar, preservatives and bromides. These are evident in foods such as store-bought bread, cakes, snacks, donuts, candy, chips/crisps, and other packaged foods, including sodas, sauces and syrups. These foods contain virtually no nutritional value and should be altogether avoided for its negative impacts on health.

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The "bad carbs" are mainly those pre-packaged food that contains high fructose corn syrup, preservatives and refined white sugar, which have negative effects on health.

All in all, carbohydrates have been painted with a wide brush by social media experts and it has been labelled the culprit of bad health which has led to a trend in the promotion of ketogenic diets. However, upon closer examination, we can see that not all carbohydrates are the same, and in fact a high protein, high fat diet has been shown to cause numerous health issues in the long-term that keto diet promoters often overlook.


Disclaimer: This article is not intended as medical advice and is for educational purposes only in order to stimulate dialogue and discussion.