Carbohydrate: The New Menace?

Welcome to “Diet Basics”, a series where we take all that tasty dietary information and break it down into what you need to know to make better diet decisions in your everyday eating habits. Diet isn’t about a temporary fix or a set of steps you take in the short term to fix everything just so you can go back to bad habits when you’re “done” with the diet. A good diet is a lifestyle choice that you should be consciously making until it becomes habit. This series will arm you with the information you need to make those healthy decisions, and start replacing your bad eating habits (Kit-Kats are not a food group!) with good eating habits (have some carrots, seriously).

We’ve already talked about the amazing muscle builder Protein and much-maligned but misunderstood Fat. Today we’ll talk about the last of the macro-nutrient trio, the way too often consumed: Carbohydrate.

What is Carbohydrate ?

Out of the three major macro-nutrients, Carb’s are the only ones that are called by their chemical name. A Carbohydrate is a simple molecular compound made up of only Carbon, Oxygen, and Hydrogen. Generally, for every Carbon atom in the molecule, you will also have 2 Hydrogen atoms and 1 Oxygen atom. Get it? It’s just a chemical compound that’s basically made up of water and carbon tossed together in different patterns! (Science, w00t!) There are some exceptions to this generality, like the compound C5H10O4, which is also called deoxyribose and makes up the “D” in “DNA”.

Another name for carbohydrates is “saccharides” which comes from the Greek word sákkharon, meaning – predictably – “sugar”. This is going to matter in the next sentence, but it’s also a fun linguistic trivia item (ask me about the plural form of “octopus” sometime).

What we normally call “sugars” are actually two kinds of carbohydrates lumped into one category: monosaccharides and disaccharides. Sugar from fruits is a monosaccharide otherwise known as glucose, while cane sugar is a disaccharide known as sucrose. The sugar from milk is also a disaccharide and is commonly called lactose. Chances are you’ve heard all those names before in various instances (glucose tablets, lactose intolerance, etc.). There are two more carbohydrate types known as oligosaccharides and polysaccharides, respectively. These different carbohydrates are made of the same basic building blocks (mentioned above, Carbon and Water) but of varying degrees of complexity. From here, we’re going to use the abbreviations “carb” and “CHO” to refer to carbohydrates in general (because typing out “carbohydrate” every other sentence is giving me carpal tunnel that’s why, wanna fight about it?)

Note: These categories are actually a LOT more complicated than I’m presenting them here. Within the category “monosaccharides” for instance, there are many different types of CHO in different chemical configurations, orientations, and with different numbers of atoms and atom groups. Unless you want to get into some hardcore chemistry, don’t worry about it.

Monosaccharides: These are the simplest CHO, as they can’t be broken down into smaller CHO molecules by adding water to break apart the CHO molecule (called “hydrolysis”). The other saccharide groups stem from this base grouping.

Disaccharides: These are formed by the combination of two monosaccharides, formed by removing a Hydrogen from one molecule and an Oxygen/Hydrogen group from the other molecule. This is functionally a removal of water, and is also called dehydration. In reality, disaccharides are the simplest polysaccharide.

Oligosaccharides: These are the next step up the saccharide ladder, being a combination of between 2 and 10 monosaccharides.

Polysaccharides: This is the top of the saccharide chain, usually having between 200 and 2500 monosaccharides chained together in various formations. Some are huge chains of the same monosaccharide and some are more complex.

What does Carbohydrate do?

CHO do all kinds of fun and exciting things! Their functions depend very heavily on their build, complexity, and orientation, so that even CHO in the same group with similar chemical structure can behave differently. Below are some examples from each grouping. One major point I’ll make before I throw more science at you is that almost every saccharide bigger than the mono- version can be broken down to monosaccharides and then used as energy in the body.

When broken down, Carb’s provide 4 calories per gram of metabolic energy.

Monosaccharides/Disaccharides

  • These are the major source of energy for metabolism in the human body, with glucose being the most important naturally occuring CHO.
  • These are compressed into polysaccharides in the body for storage a glycogen when the CHO energy isn’t immediately necessary. The compressed glycogen is mostly stored in muscle and the liver.
  • The most common type of monosaccharide is glucose, which is fruit sugar, and is almost universally digestible in all species.
  • A common form of disaccharide is sucrose, also known as table sugar, which is generally use in food preparation as a sweetener. Another good one is maltose, which is a component of malt which you may recognize as a major component in beer!

Oligosaccharides

  • Oligosaccharides can only be partially digested by humans, so we only get so much energy from them for ourselves. A side affect of this, however, is that these saccharides provide nutrition for intestinal micoflora (i.e. bacteria and other micoorganisms that live in the human digestive tract and help us break down and absorb vitamins, nutrients, etc).
  • These also seem to play a role in human reproduction, as an oligosaccharide called Sialyl-Lewisx has been found to completely coat the human ovum (egg cell) and seems to play a role in fertilization.

Polysaccharides

  • Carbs start getting complicated with polysaccharides. They have more than 10 monosaccharides in their chain, with up to 2500 monosaccaharides in different configurations.
  • The function of a polysaccharide is generally storage-related or structural.
  • An example of a storage polysaccharide is Starch, which is a storage molecule of monosaccharides found in plants. There is a similar molecule in animals called glycogen, sometimes also called “animal starch”.
  • Examples of structural polysaccharides include cellulose (found in plant cell walls; most abundant on Earth) and chitin (found in bug exoskeletons; has some Nitrogen attached).
  • Polysaccharides also find usage outside biology, especially the structural versions, which can be used in useful items like surgical thread.

Where can I get Carbohydrate ?

Just about everywhere, really. The best source (i.e. largest concentration with the most grams per serving) of CHO is going to be from refined foods like breads, grains, candies, soda, etc. Foods that take minimal processing tend to be lower in CHO in general, but good sources include rice, beans, tubers, and whole fruits. Animal sources like meat have the lowest carbohydrate content of any foods.

How much Carbohydrate do you need per day?

Something interesting: carbohydrates are the only macro-nutrient which are not essential in any way to the human diet. You can get all the energy, glucose, glycogen, and other saccharides that you need from only eating Protein and Fat. Your body literally does not need to ever eat dietary carbohydrates to live and thrive.

The weird part, though, is that even though our dietary needs do not necessarily include CHO as an essential intake, the Institute of Medicine recommends that adults get 45-65% of their daily energy from carbohydrates, while The Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization say you should get 55-75% of your daily energy from carbohydrates! Now, I think I should briefly share some things from our article on dietary Fat which came before this one:

  • From 1980 to 2008 (28 years), the world-side prevalence of obesity has almost doubled, so that now almost 1 in 10 adults are obese.
  • In 1980, 4.8% of men and 7.9% of women were considered obese (BMI over 30). In 2008, this has risen to 9.8% of men and 13.8% of women.
  • The USA has the highest average BMI in the world among wealthy nations.

The carb recommendations from the Institute of Medicine given above are as of 2005, and they have been recommending that high of carb intake for quite a while. A report by the Center for Disease Control found that from 1971 to 2000 the total calories the average American takes in from a carbohydrate source increase from 42.4% to 49% (for men) and from 45.4% to 51.6% for women. At the same time, we were reducing the fat content of our diet, so that men took in 4.1% fewer calories from fat and women took in 3.3% fewer calories from fat. Similar decrease was seen in saturated (bad) fat intake, as well as a small (-1%) decrease in calories from protein.

So, what do you see here? I see a disturbing trend: the government and international health organizations encourage us to eat more carbohydrates over a 30-40 year span of time. In that same time frame, you see that we are listening to them based on the average American diet. And why wouldn’t we? These are supposed to be the experts; they are supposed to be guiding us to good health and long life. But…they were wrong! The same changes that they told us to make in our diets is now causing overwhelming obesity (which doubled during the same period of time) and increased in the instances of Type II Diabetes in adults and children.

Now, I can stand on a soapbox about carb’s and the poor science/decision making of the Powers That Be for hours, but I’ll leave you with this recommendation: go easy on the carbohydrates. Take in a maximum of 100g on workout days and 50-70g on resting days; always from whole sources like fruits. Make up the rest in healthy Proteins and healthy Fats, and you will see positive health changes.