…carb haters, please understand that the source matters, and try to distinguish between processed carbohydrates and starch because they are not the same. Glucose derived from digested starch is literally a nutrient of life, but this cannot be said about glucose ingested from the chronic consumption of soda drinks, fruit juices, cakes, cookies, desserts and other processed foods.

As one who had his early life in a typical African village but is now resident in the United States, I continue to consider myself an outsider, with a unique perspective, as I watch unnecessary fierce debates between low carb, high fat and high fat, low carb dieters on social media. In my experience, there was food in the village but admittedly not in abundance to necessitate bickering on silly arguments of the superiority of one food over the other. If we agree that our human ancestors were simultaneously hunters and gatherers before more sophisticated agriculture came into practice, it therefore meant that there was no distinction between hunting for dietary fats and gathering tubers/fruits for carbohydrate sources. Even now, the Hadza tribe, the often cited present-day hunters and gathers, are hardly successful at killing wild games, but they never give up daily hunting to devote their lives to the full time gathering of tubers and fruits.

In late 1970s, high carb diet was advised by the U.S. government because dietary fat was assumed to be the cause of heart attacks and it was tagged the artery clogger. As with human behaviour, the pendulum is swinging too far to the other end, with the apostles of high fat/keto diets now ascribing all the ill health of digital civilisation to carbohydrate diets. As I tend to just leaf through books in my spare time, the following quote on page one of Pure, White, and Deadly, published in 1972, jumped at me: “It did not seem to occur to anyone that it made any difference whether…carbohydrate consisted of almost entirely starch in wheat or rice or maize, or whether the starch was gradually becoming replaced by increasing amounts of sugar.” To be fair, one of the goals of the U.S. Senate’s 1977 high carb, low fat goals was to “decrease consumption of refined and other processed sugars and foods high in such sugars” but you would never hear the “high fatters” acknowledging this. On page two of this interesting book, late Professor Yudkin, a leading proponent of dietary fat, clarified his earlier opinion in his 1958 book on weight reduction by stating that, “I strongly recommended a diet low in carbohydrate, but I made very little distinction between the benefits of avoiding starch and avoiding sugar”.

What is yet to be acknowledged is that no human civilisation has ever been as exposed to so much cheap refined sugar. In the age of COVID-19, the word “expose” in the context of refined sugar, just as viral exposure, should now makes sense to lay population, as we are inundated with man-made table sugar and high corn syrup. Therefore, the basic principle of toxicology cannot be overstated: “The dose makes the poison”. Glucose is the most abundant carbohydrate molecules in nature, but it pairs with fructose in water medium to form natural sugar found only seasonally in fruits and honey. Beyond nutrition, just as bones form a support system for the human structure, cellulose, a conglomeration of several thousands of glucose units, supports the plant stems, branches and plant leaves. Quoting a writer: “cellulose makes tree trunks strong enough to hold up the tallest trees!” In other words, no glucose, no vegetation and no vegetation, no life.

Unlike high corn syrup and table sugar that can be broken down within seconds by the salivary enzyme, starch has many bonds that are embedded within dietary fibre, which causes it to digest and absorb much more slowly by preventing the glucose spikes associated with refined sugar and highly processed carbohydrates.

As nutrients of life, hundreds of glucose units join together to form complex carbohydrates called starch, which are found year-round in leaves, tubers and cereals. Unlike high corn syrup and table sugar that can be broken down within seconds by the salivary enzyme, starch has many bonds that are embedded within dietary fibre, which causes it to digest and absorb much more slowly by preventing the glucose spikes associated with refined sugar and highly processed carbohydrates.

More importantly, irrespective of anyone’s dietary preference, the human body uses glucose from ingested carbohydrates or made from intermediate metabolites, to make and store limited amounts of “tissue starch” called glycogen. Some of this is stored in the liver and released into the bloodstream as glucose during overnight fast and/or rigorous exercise. In the interesting intersection of fat and carbohydrate metabolism, the depletion of liver starch in the absence of dietary glucose mobilises stored/dietary fats to produce ketones, a temporary alternative energy source for the brain. Also, the amount of tissue starch stored in the skeletal muscle is dedicated to protecting and defend life in emergency situations of “fight or flight”, as glycogen can quickly be broken down to glucose for immediate energy needs because fatty acids cannot undergo anerobic respiration to generate chemical energy called ATP in life threatening situations.

I am wary of processed oils, such as vegetable and corn oils, but I generously use palm oil, one of the oldest foods in the tropics. As an equal opportunity dieter, whether at home or out of town in the hotel room, when the spirit of the village moves me, I can easily put 3 to 4 cocoyams in the microwave and lay them on real butter without a calorie check. Therefore, the main message to carb haters, please understand that the source matters, and try to distinguish between processed carbohydrates and starch because they are not the same. Glucose derived from digested starch is literally a nutrient of life, but this cannot be said about glucose ingested from the chronic consumption of soda drinks, fruit juices, cakes, cookies, desserts and other processed foods. Therein lies the difference.

Mukaila Kareem, a doctor of physiotherapy and physical activity advocate, writes from the U.S.A and can be reached through makkareem5@gmail.com

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