"Oh, no! Not the Carbs! Anything but the Carbs!"
Denis Faye breaks down the nutritional "Evil Empire," but are they really evil?
Whether it's the low-carb beer you can sip at your local watering hole, or Monica and Rachel slinging Atkins quips on the latest episode of Friends, carbohydrates are the new "bad guy" du jour. Fast food joints are offering "protein style" bunless burgers. KFC's latest ad campaign features a skinny dude chomping on fried chicken, implying that a 470 calorie, 28 g of fat (8 g of it saturated), 1230 mg of sodium, 0 g of fiber Extra Crispy Chicken Breast will actually help you lose weightbecause it's low carb. It's getting ridiculous!
Funny thing is, most people don't even know what a carbohydrate is or what it doeswhich is sad indeed, considering it's the body's primary source of fuel and a powerful tool for even the most casual of athletes. Like any food group, carbs should be eaten in moderation, but they have an important job to do, so let's shed some light on them. Sit down, set aside that tub of greasy poultry, and let's take a look at our much-maligned little buddy, the carbohydrate.
At their simplest, carbs are sugars, most notably glucose. Also known as blood sugar or dextrose, glucose flows through the bloodstream, where, thanks to the conductor insulin, it is absorbed by every single cell in your body and converted into energy. Excessive amounts of carbs are stored as fat, so it's important not to overeat them. But carb consumption should be directly associated with activity level, since you burn them quickly whenever you do any level of exercise. Excessive carb consumption can make you fat and lethargic, but so can excessive protein, fat, or alcohol consumption. Without enough carbohydrates, your body's ability to perform, both athletically and mentally, becomes compromised.
Carbs come in several forms. They can be simple carbs, complex carbs, or fiber, all of which play important roles in the dietary scheme of things. Let's look at them one by one.
Also called "sugars," there are six types of simple carbs. Three of them, the monosaccharides, are carbs at their most basic: glucose, fructose, and galactose.
Glucose, as we discussed, is the body's primary energy source. If you get too much, it's stored as glycogen. When your blood sugar is low, your body taps into these glycogen stores. However, in the event that your glycogen stores are also maxed out, then the glucose is stored as fat.
Fructose, or fruit sugar, is the second monosaccharide. Unlike glucose, fructose doesn't go straight into your system. Instead it passes through the liver, where it is usually turned into glycogen, or occasionally glucoseand, as is the case with all sugars, the too-much-turns-to-fat thing still applies. Depending on who you talk to, or whose scientific report you read, this extra step can either be a good thing or a bad thing. Some sources insist that it increases triglycerides, or fat levels, in your blood. Others claim that this extra step prevents blood sugar levels from spiking.
The third monosaccharide, the cosmically titled galactose, only occurs naturally in dairy products. Like fructose, galactose must pass through the liver to be processed.
The other three simple carbs are the disaccharides, meaning, on a molecular level, that they are just two monosaccharides pasted together. They are called sucrose, maltose, and lactose.
The most famous of these is sucrose, otherwise known as table sugar. It consists of a glucose molecule and a fructose molecule. When you consume sucrose, the glucose is quickly digested while, as you may have guessed, the fructose heads for the liver.
In an interesting aside, it's worth noting that high-fructose corn syrup, another villain in the world of healthy eating, is actually approximately 50% glucose and 50% fructose, making it very similar in composition to sucrose. All the hysteria over "HFCS" may indeed be warranted, insofar as Americans are eating too much of itbut at the end of the day, too much sugar is too much sugar, whether it's HFCS or common everyday sucrose.
The second disaccharide is maltose, which is two glucose molecules bonded together. Later we'll learn about starch, one of the complex carbohydrates. When starch is broken down, it turns first to maltose, then glucose.
The final disaccharide is lactose, which comes from dairy products. Lactose is a combo of glucose and galactose. Lactose intolerance happens when your stomach doesn't have enough of the special enzymes needed to separate the two simple sugars.
So there you have the simple carbohydrates. Let's move on to the complex ones.
Complex carbs are just a bunch of simple carbohydrates bonded together. The fancy name for them is polysaccharides. Again, there are three kinds: glycogen, starch, and fiber.
Glycogen, as we learned earlier, is the way we store glucose for easy access. There's no way to eat the stuff, so there's really no need to discuss it further.
Starch is the vegetable answer to glycogenthousands, sometimes millions of glucose molecules bonded together. Corn, potatoes, yams, rice, and other grains are some of the better-known starch sources. It's generally believed that complex carbs, because they are complex, break down more slowly in our system. However, when starch-containing foods are overly processed, they become a lot more like sugar than starch, meaning that your body pumps them into your blood more quickly.
An interesting way to see this in action is to take a piece of white bread, which is heavily processed white flour, and put it on your tongue. Notice, after a second, that the taste becomes sweet. That's the sugars breaking down, right there on your tongue. Now try it with whole grain bread. It doesn't work the same, does it?
Although the overprocessing of the starch is partly the reason for this, another reason white bread converts to sugar so fast is that in the refining process, the wheat is stripped of our third complex carb, the real key to slowing down the absorption of glucose: fiber.
Fiber is the most complex of the carbohydratesso complex, in fact, that the human body can't digest it. It just passes right through. There are two kinds of fiber: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber turns to a gel on your insides and actually soaks up cholesterol. You'll find it in oats, beans, carrots, and apple peel. Insoluble fiber, which shows up in wheat bran and in kidney, pinto, and lima beans, just goes right through you and is essential in keeping you regular.
While these are very important functions, for our purposes, both types of fiber do one other crucial thing: they slow the rate at which your blood absorbs glucose. So for example, if you eat an apple, the sugar doesn't blast into your system because the fiber in the skin holds it back. This gives you a steady flow of energy and reduces the chance of a blood sugar spike, which is great becauseas we all knowwhen blood has too much sugar in it, it converts the extra sugar to fat. Also, when your blood gets too much sugar, your pancreas generates extra insulinwhich, once it's dealt with the sugar, will have nothing to do except cause you to crave more sugar, which you really don't need.
Fats and proteins also slow the absorption of glucose into the blood. With this in mind, Canadian scientists came up with something called the glycemic index (GI), a scale of how fast the sugar in carbohydrate foods enters your body. Foods that are mostly carbs with little or no fiber, protein, or fat, such as white bread, rush into your blood. These foods earn higher ratings on the glycemic index. Foods with a slower absorption rate earn a lower rating. The trick is to create a diet that is rich in low-rated foods. When you eat higher-rated foods, make sure to mix them with lower-rated foods, to slow absorption.
Of course, there are times when a blood sugar rush is a good thing. For example, if you're bonking, or running out of blood sugar while being active, you need to recharge fast. Since your glucose and glycogen are low to empty at this point, a sugar spike isn't going to provide enough glucose to create fat. This is when a banana or a sports drink like Gatorade® comes in handy.
You can also take advantage of low blood sugar with a recovery snack that is 4 parts carbs to 1 part protein. The carbs will rush into your system, replenishing your glycogen stores, and the small amount of protein will piggyback with them, heading right to the muscles and beginning resynthesis. Oatmeal and fruit juice with protein powder are good examples of 4 to 1 snacks.
It's important to remember that the GI rating shouldn't be a primary factor in food choice. Just because a food doesn't rate high on the index doesn't mean it's good for you. Both Coke and peanut M&Ms have acceptable ratings. Coke's carbonation hampers digestion, lowering the GI, but it's loaded with empty calories and has no nutritional value, so there's no point in drinking it. M&Ms have all that fat from the chocolate and peanuts slow things down, but they too have little nutritional value and they're full of saturated fat. When you're operating on a calorie deficit, you need to make every calorie count. These foods count for nothing.
Furthermore, the glycemic index is relatively new to the world of nutrition. While it was founded on solid science, research is still being conducted as to its validity for weight loss. However, when used in conjunction with fiber intake, the case becomes much stronger, as there is more and more research indicating the benefits of fiber.
Simply put, carbohydrates are fuel. If abused, yes, they can be evil, but so can proteins and fats. If eaten properly, they will increase the energy you have throughout the day and during your workouts. A meal filled with lean protein and fiber-rich carbohydrates will help create a healthier you in ways that KFC never, ever will.
Good Carbs, Bad Carbs: An Indispensable Guide to Eating the Right Carbs for Losing Weight and Optimum Health by Johanna Burani and Linda Rao
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