Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

Sugar and Carbs: Friends or Foes?

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In regard to my last article about healthy fats and sugars, a few interesting points were raised. I’ve heard many people say that they are limited to eating 2 pieces of fruit a day, because of all the sugar that fruit contains. Does this type of sugar , even though it’s from a natural, whole food, count as excess sugar in one’s diet?

Because fruit is a carbohydrate, when we go on low carb diets, we may be told to limit our fruit intake.  Fruit has the essential ingredient of fiber, which encases its simple sugar, fructose. Because the fiber helps slow down the metabolism of the fructose, sugar spikes in the blood stream are reduced. For example, when you consume sugary drinks, blood sugar rises dramatically because the drinks are so easy to metabolize. When blood sugar levels rise, the pancreas produces the hormone insulin, a signal to your cells to absorb the glucose so it can be used immediately as energy or stored in the liver and muscles for later use. When this happens repeatedly with the intake of simple sugars, it stresses the pancreas, adds to weight gain, and could potentially cause Type 2 diabetes. Although blood sugar rises with other carbohydrates, like legumes, because of their high fiber, vitamin, and mineral content, it rises more slowly, and doesn’t start a potentially damaging cycle of excess insulin production.

When you assess the healthfulness of the food you eat and the sugar within it, look at whether the sugars are simple or  complex. This chart can help clarify:

Single sugars from foods include:

  • Fructose (found in fruits)
  • Galactose (found in milk products)

Double sugars include:

  • Lactose (found in dairy)
  • Maltose (found in certain vegetables and in beer)
  • Sucrose (table sugar)

Honey is also a double sugar. But unlike table sugar, it contains a small amount of vitamins and minerals.

Simple carbohydrates that contain vitamins and minerals occur naturally in:

  • Fruits
  • Milk and milk products
  • Some vegetables

Simple carbohydrates are also found in processed and refined sugars such as:

  • Candy
  • Regular (non-diet) carbonated beverages, such as soda
  • Syrups
  • Table sugar

Refined sugars provide calories, but they lack vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Such simple sugars are often called “empty calories” and can lead to weight gain.

Also, many processed and refined foods, such as white flour, sugar, and white rice, lack B vitamins and other important nutrients unless they are marked “enriched.” It is healthiest to eat carbohydrates, vitamins, and other nutrients in the most natural form possible — for example, from fruit instead of fruit juice or table sugar.

Complex carbohydrates, often referred to as “starchy” foods, include:

  • Legumes, such as beans, peas, lentils and peanuts
  • Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes, corn, green peas, and parsnips
  • Whole-grain breads and cereals

All the foods listed directly above contain essential vitamins such as B vitamins and fiber, so they are an essential part of a healthy diet.  Because whole grain breads and cereals are complex carbs, they have a health halo, but recent studies suggest these foods may be inflammatory for many because they contain gluten. Here’s a short list of foods that contain gluten:

  • Wheat
  • Wheat germ
  • Rye
  • Barley
  • Bulgur
  • Couscous
  • Farina
  • Graham flour

Many other foods you may not suspect contain gluten, like soy sauce, most canned soup, miso, beer, and many packaged and processed foods. Many people have a gluten sensitivity, and although fewer have true gluten allergies, they are affected substantially when they consume gluten.  The symptoms of a true allergy to gluten are much more dramatic, like throat constriction, rash, shortness of breath and a blood pressure drop. In extreme cases, anaphylactic shock leading to death is possible, so you must administer epinephrine (an epi-pen) as quickly as possible. When consumption of gluten is reduced or eliminated, these symptoms tend to resolve fairly quickly.  For further information, check out the book “Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health by William Davis.

Some take-aways:

  • Eat whole fruit whenever possible, avoiding fruit juices, unless you have a juicer that retains the pulp to get essential vitamins from the skin and pulp
  • Try limiting gluten to see if you feel better and lose weight
  • Try to eat more complex carbohydrates, like legumes and vegetables to stay satiated and derive the benefit from the fiber, vitamins and minerals contained within them
  • Eliminate or reduce consumption of sugar from processed and refined foods, as it has no nutritional value, and adds empty calories. Regular consumption of sugar also perpetuates sugar cravings.

It’s difficult to eliminate carbohydrates from your diet, and because your brain and organs are fueled by glucose, which is what carbohydrates are broken down into, they’re necessary and essential for good health.  Just avoid overconsumption of processed foods and remember to focus on the nutritious choices of complex carbs like vegetables, legumes, and fruit in moderation.

Bon appetit!

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