TIP of the Week: The Essentiality of Carbs
Yes, I made up "essentiality". I like it, though, so we are stuck with it.
I was challenged recently on Quora.com for my stance that all food types (with the obvious exception of the highly processed stuff) are essential to balanced healthy eating. A gentleman named Matt challenged, "When is sugar ever a good thing in anyone's diet?"
That is a really good question, especially in the face of several fad diets out there proclaiming sugar as enemy number one, and carbs of all sorts close behind. There are several misconceptions held close by the anti-carb crowd, and it will help in understanding the essentiality of carbs if we clear them up.
Chief among these is the notion that consuming carbs effects certain hormone levels in the body, and that the hormone leptin messes with a person's metabolism, slowing it down or causing it to catabolize the wrong things. Let's clarify this. There is certain evidence suggesting that leptin production is affected by carbs. However leptin does not affect metabolism; it affects appetite. As such, leptin levels are influenced by several things.
To understand the role of carbs better one must realize there are two kinds: simple carbs and complex carbs. Simple carbs generally include highly processed foods and sugar, are broken down very quickly in the body, hence providing quick energy. If that energy is not used up, it will quickly be stored as body fat. Complex carbs include fruits, some vegetables and the like, are broken down more slowly and provide more even energy levels for a period of time.
Leptin levels appear in some studies to elevate when one consumes simple carbs. In other words, a person may actually feel more hungry after eating simple carbs, rather than sated. It is no secret that sugar is addictive, right? Now you know why. Metabolism is not affected by this, however. Instead, it is a person's giving in to their appetite and consuming even more calories that is the problem.
So, what positive role can carbs possibly play in a balanced diet?
The most obvious role is providing energy during heavy, intense work or exercise. There is a reason marathon bike riders and runners consume orange juice, climbers eat chocolate and power lifters eat large doses of grain products. Protein alone does not provide enough energy in the moment to sustain these activities. However in these circumstances complex carbs are the better choice over simple carbs.
Another role is providing healing energy when a person is ill. During such times a person's appetite may be reduced, but carbs such as bread or even a little ice cream are calorie dense, nourishing the person through what little food they may be able to eat and providing 'hotter' energy levels as the body fights its war against the illness. In the case of sickness, simple carbs may be the better choice. There is also a reason why hospitals use an IV drip of what amounts to sugar water to keep those with little appetite nourished.
Lastly, there is a valid role for carbs in normal eating. I don't know about you, but I enjoy having a steady energy level through the hours between meals. A small amount of simple carbs like bread or sugar provide quick energy. A small amount of complex carbs like fruit or whole grain kick in a little bit later, as the simple carbs burn off. Protein is more like a time release capsule, providing longer term sustained energy. Obviously, in correct quantities, there is a place for all of them, together with copious amounts of vegetables which counter the leptin kick of simple carbs.
And you know what? I believe in quality of life, and a little wine, candy or pie definitely contributes to mine. For this purpose, just make sure you keep treats in the role of treats, and don't let them become staples.
One last word on the positive role of carbs. Carbs are more calorie dense than vegetables or lean protein. The simpler the carbs, the higher the calorie count. Carb portions must be kept small, therefore, else the positive role becomes negative awfully fast.
Happy Eating, Everyone!
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