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Understanding Carbohydrates

Not all 'carbs' are the same

Dr Padma Garvey/Plant-Based Doctor Mom

Understanding Carbohydrates

Jicama salad on a whole wheat cracker

Humans need carbohydrates.  Our brains work well on the energy provided by carbohydrates.  For those people severely restricting their carbohydrate intake, realize that when proteins or fats are supplying your energy, there is an accumulation of toxic substances known as amines and ketones.  Thus, severely restricting carbohydrates not only deprives our bodies and brains of a source of energy that it prefers but leads to the accumulation of toxic substances.

Italian spinach and lentil soup

Humans need carbohydrates.  Our bodies are geared for starch digestion.  When food enters our mouths, our saliva starts the digestion process right away by subjecting our food to an enzyme called amylase.  Amylase has one job, to digest carbohydrates.  Human saliva has a lot of amylase in it, because our bodies need carbohydrates.  A lion or a dog has much less amylase in their saliva because they need animal protein to function. 

The term carbohydrate refers to a broad category of foods.  Basically, a carbohydrate is any food that contains sugar molecules.  Foods like table sugar have simple carbohydrates.  Simple carbohydrates require almost no digestion and are rapidly absorbed into our blood stream.  If you placed a sugar pill under your tongue, glucose would get absorbed into your blood stream without even swallowing the pill.  Simple sugars like table sugar and high-fructose corn syrup cause a quick spike in the sugar levels in our blood.  High levels of sugar in our blood can damage our nerves and blood vessels and are the reason why diabetics develop problems like kidney failure, heart disease, and nerve damage.

Whole wheat tortillas

Some foods contain sugar that is more complex.  If you imagine table sugar to resemble a bowl of pearls, then some foods are pearl necklaces and some foods are pearl lattices.  Such foods, where the sugar molecules are connected in more complicated ways, are called complex carbohydrates.  The most complex of these is fiber.  Most people don’t realize that plant fiber is a complex carbohydrate.  Complex carbohydrates require a lot of digestion to release their sugars so they provide a slow and steady amount of energy and don’t lead to sugar spikes.

Glycemic index is a term used to categorize how much of a rapid spike in our blood sugar levels various food cause.  A food with a low glycemic index is better than a food with a high glycemic index.  When you need to sweeten your food, pick the following options: banana, unsweetened apple sauce, dates, or agave nectar.  Even these should be used sparingly but have a lower glycemic index than cane sugar or syrups.

Swiss chard, mushroom, and roasted garlic soup with whole wheat pasta

When constructing your plate, the food pyramid to follow is one where the largest portion is vegetables, especially green leafy vegetables which are rich in wonderful plant fibers.  Whole grains should be next.  Eat a variety of whole grains like oats, quinoa, brown rice, barley, and wheat.  Beans and legumes should be next on the pyramid.  They are a great source of fiber and protein.  Fruits should be higher up.  Fruits have fiber as well as simple sugars.  Nuts should be at the very top of the pyramid.  Eat no more than a small handful a day.

For recipes and more information, including my latest podcast where Carmen talks about dealing with her recurrent urinary tract infections:

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