Carbohydrates are NOT Killing You: Part 1

By now I’m sure you’ve heard that carbs are killing you.  Carbs are the enemy.  Carbs make you fat.  Carbs prevent fat burning.  Carbs are pure sugar.  Carbs will make you a diabetic.  Carbs are dietary napalm.

Is any of this true?  How did carbs get such a bad name?  In this post, I’ll share with you both the validity and flaws of this argument, so that you can make up your mind for yourself.  In order to understand the situation completely, we’ll have to learn some basic human physiology.  Strap on your science helmet.  Here goes.

In today’s dietspeak, carbohydrates are the nutritional equivalent of Enron circa 2001.  Bad.  Really bad.  Unethically bad.  Carb-restricted diets like the Atkins diet, the South Beach diet, the Zone diet, and the Paleo diet have become commonplace, resulting in a plethora of meal options high in both fat and protein.  These diets became popular because they result in weight loss in the short term, allowing dieters to shed pounds in an effort to regain health.

Ten years ago fat was the enemy.  Now fat is in vogue.  What happened?

Take a careful look at this popular (and very well designed) infographic.  In it, the creators Massive Health show you a 12-step process by which carbohydrates make you fat.  Let it be known that I have nothing against Massive Health as an organization, merely the logic that they present regarding the deleterious effect of carbohydrate feeding.

In order to fully understand this article, let’s take a 2 minute crash course on carbohydrate metabolism in the human body.

A Crash Course in Carbohydrate Metabolism

There are only three macronutrients that your body derives energy from.  They are (1) carbohydrates, (2) fat, and (3) protein.  Vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and water do not provide energy, they are necessary components of a healthy diet that have a host of other effects.  Suffice it to say that your body can only derive energy from these three sources.

Carbohydrates are found mainly in fruits, vegetables, dairy and grains.  Meat has only a small amount of carbohydrate energy.  Carbohydrates are long necklaces made up of sugar (“monosaccharide”) beads.  When carbohydrates are ingested, a veritable army of enzymes in your GI tract break the long necklaces into smaller necklaces, and then into individual monosaccharide units.  The types of monosaccharides that become available to your bloodstream vary based on the type of carbohydrate ingested.  Glucose is one of the most popular monosaccharides, in most carbohydrates.

See this video below for a good animation on how carbohydrates are digested:

In response to glucose in the bloodstream, the pancreas responds by secreting insulin.  Simply stated, insulin transports glucose to where it wants to go: the liver and muscle.  More than 50% of the glucose in circulation is used by your brain.  Guess why?  That’s right, because the brain operates on only one fuel for 99% of your waking life.  Glucose.  Most other tissues in your body can run on either carbohydrate, protein or fat, but your brain is absolutely dependent on carbohydrate energy.  We’ll address this more later.

Insulin transports glucose to the liver and muscle, and allows it to be properly deposited in these tissues.  Once in the liver and muscle, glucose has two choices:

Choice #1: Burn the glucose for energy

If the glucose is burned for energy, then congratulations, your liver and muscle are now being fed.  The energy contained within the glucose molecule will be used to power both tissues.

Choice #2: Store the glucose as glycogen

Glycogen is an on-board storage form of glucose that both the liver and muscle keep within the tissue for later use.  The liver has a unique ability to break down glycogen and export it to the brain for a constant supply of energy, whereas the muscle can only break down glycogen for it’s own use.

Now that you are a carbohydrate metabolism master, let’s understand the flaws of anti-carbohydrate propaganda.


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Photo credit: Dustin Diaz / / CC BY-NC-ND

About The Author

Cyrus Khambatta

Diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 22, I have spent over a decade learning the fundamentals of nutrition at the doctorate level. My goal is to share my knowledge of practical nutrition and fitness with people with prediabetes, type 1 and type 2 diabetes. Diabetes is an OPPORTUNITY to attain excellent health. Reversing the effects of insulin resistance can be a fun and enjoyable process if the right system is in place. That's why I've spent over 10 years developing a rock solid system that can minimize blood glucose variability and insulin resistance.

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