Carbohydrates ? Or sugar…
What is the difference between carbohydrates and sugar ? Can we live without carbs ? Which food has some and what type ?
The role of carbohydrates in your body.
75% of dried plants are made out of carbohydrates, it serves as structural element or energy reserve as starch. Therefore it is by eating plants that we can meet most of our needs in carbohydrates. It’s primary function is to provide us energy through an oxidation process. (1)
Some other good examples of carbohydrates functions are:
- Glycogen formation that can be stored and used later as energy.
- Carbon atom supply for biochemical reactions. (protein and lipid synthesis for example)
- Part of our cells membrane structure.
- Part of our DNA, RNA, ATP and protect also against oxidative damage.
Our brain and nervous system use only glucose to function except under starvation, same for our red blood cells. When our body does not meet its carbohydrates needs, our system convert our protein and fat into energy which can lead to muscle depletion and health issues. (2)
Oxidation comes from the inner cell respiration where the bonds between carbon molecules is broken to release energy through many different chemical reactions.
It exists different molecule of “sugar” present naturally in our food: monosaccharides, disaccharides and polysaccharides. (3) Depending on the chain length and structure they are subdivided in different carbohydrates.
What are the differences ?
Fructose, glucose and galactose are the common monosaccharides. Glucose, called also blood sugar is the most abundant. Lactose is the only major sugar present in animal products (milk). (4)
The association of two monosaccharides are called disaccharides like sucrose for example, our common white sugar is a combination of glucose and fructose. You have to extract it from sugar cane or sugar beet.
The combination of more than 2 sugars are complex carbohydrates. Oligosaccharides are shorter than polysaccharides which are divided into two subgroups depending on their digestibility, starch or fibres contents.
To say it simply, when your sugar molecule is part of a long chain, it’s digestion will be slower and therefor beneficial, it will improve your insulin secretion and will give energy on a long run. In most whole food, sugar is paired with other molecules, in whole grains and legumes for example the fibre content will slow down its digestion and even with a high glucose content it can be low GI. But when processed and refined like white sugar and white flour or juiced fruits and vegetables, the fibres are gone, the glucose is absorbed much faster which raise dramatically the blood sugar level and can lead after a long term consumption to type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer… (4)
That is what is happening when sugar (fructose, sucrose, glucose…) has been extracted from the whole food and used in its simple form. (5)
The food industry thought then about creating substances that have a sugary taste but not made with sugar.
What about fake sugar or sweeteners ?
Human being started to become addicted to sugar long ago but with industrialisation refined sugar production exploded leading to over consumption while the global health is rapidly declining.
Instead of going backward, using less sugar, human-being decided to create sweeteners, either natural from plant or chemically engineered, those new “sugar” have the convenience to be sweet with close to no calorie. But were the calories the only issue?
Research are done intensively on sugar and sweeteners to understand the negative impact on our body. The food industry claims there are no danger and should not be linked to the raise of obesity and modern diseases… Is it just bad luck for those industry that obesity and most of our modern diseases happen where people over-consume fast food and refined products made out of refined sugar and sweeteners?
A recent study proved that our brain receive a false information after sweetener absorption. Thinking it is sugar as the taste buds will taste sweetness, it will start the process of glycogenesis, the glucose production… Insulin is produced, people are less hungry, oxidation occurs… But as it is a fake process, the result is the reverse of what we wanted to get. The body will scream for even more food, more sugar, insulin resistance can happen leading to type 2 diabetes, and free radicals are produced, linked to oxidative damage, cancer, depression… (6)
It is just a personal view on the subject. We will need to wait for decades before being able to linked sweeteners to cancer for example. Studies show it already on animals, but no real valid studies have been done on human.
The question is: how much sugar can we eat? what type of carbohydrates should we consume?
How much do we need ?
I will talk here about the empty and full calories. We do need glucose to function, but not on its own. To be beneficial, glucose has to be part of a more complex molecule that will create a suite of chemical reactions, giving us energy and also protecting us against oxidative damage resulting from ATP creation. A refined product will have none of those other molecules. It will be absorbed really fast without undergoing chemical reaction and will cause inflammation, which on long term can cause irreversible damages.
On the mayo-clinic website they sate :”The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that carbohydrates make up 45 to 65 percent of your total daily calories. So, if you get 2,000 calories a day, between 900 and 1,300 calories should be from carbohydrates. That translates to between 225 and 325 grams of carbohydrates a day”. In France the new guideline is more around 190 gr to 250 gr from which no more than 20 gr should come from refined sugar. WHO is campaigning for a 25 gr daily consumption. A hamburger bun has 21 gr of carbohydrates (mostly refined), a slice of banana cake is 47 gr (again mostly refined), 1 milky way bar is 41 gr, a 1 sugar cube is 4 gr…. One mango has 50 gr (paired with fibres and vitamines but should be avoided by people suffering from type2 diabetes), one piece of rye bread is 13 gr, 1 french pancake is 16 gr, 80 gr of cooked white rice is 22 gr (but no fibre meaning it is refined sugar), brown rice is 23 gr (with fibre), 1 greek yogurt or 30 gr of cheese would be around 8 gr. None for meat and fish… (7)
The list could be long and it will still be difficult to imagine how to get to 250 gr of carbohydrates without reaching 20 gr of refined sugar! example: 1 pieces of rye bread is 13 gr, one apple is 33 gr, one cup of cooked lentils is 40 gr, 2 serving of mixed vegetables will give you an average of 30 gr, 80 gr of cooked brown rice is 23 gr, 1 yogurt or cheese 8 gr. Knowing we recommend to eat one piece of bread, one serve of legume with a bit of animal protein, one serve of grains, plenty of vegetables, one dairy and possibly a fruit at lunch and dinner it already brings us to 294 gr with the examples taken… with no added sugar, not counting breakfast and all the extras… That makes us think… And I did not go through the different type of sugar contained in those food.
The ecological note.
Mass consumption.. Mass production ? which is the one to blame ? Could people stop eating products, even knowing they are bad if they are still available ? We proved sugar acts like a drug, same level than cocaine or cigarette… those are punishable, illegal, taxed, banned… When can we do the same for sugar ?
There is now an emergency call about our health and also about our planet pollution. Most of the refined sugar bio products are creating pollution through carbon print, pesticides and land farming or only one product, plastic wrapping… And still companies are spending millions each year, targeting children through advertisement, to push them into fast food consumption… (8)
It is fair to say that we can allow ourselves some sweetness in life as long as it does no go out of proportion. A slice of a homemade chocolate cake will give you so much more satisfaction than an industrial one !
Eat sugar, not “sugar”.
(1) Stoker, H. S. (2013). General, organic, and biological chemistry (6th ed.). Australia: Brooks/Cole Cengage Learning.
(3) Byrd-Bredbenner, C., Moe, G., Beshgetoor, D., & Berning, J. R. (2013). Wardlaw’s perspectives in nutrition (Ninth edition /). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
(4) Dr Stanton, R. (2007). Foods that harm foods that heal. Australia. Readers digest.
(5) Andersson, A., & Bryngelsson, S. (2007). Towards a healthy diet: from nutrition recommendations to dietary advice. Scandinavian Journal of Food & Nutrition
(6) Translated from French Edulcorants faux sucres, vrais problèmes.
(7) Byrd-Bredbenner, C., Moe, G., Beshgetoor, D., & Berning, J. R. (2013). Wardlaw’s perspectives in nutrition (Ninth edition /). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.
98) Sharma, L. L., Teret, S. P., & Brownell, K. D. (2010). The Food Industry and Self-Regulation: Standards to Promote Success and to Avoid Public Health Failures. American Journal of Public Health, 100(2), 240–246.