Complex carbohydrates made simple

Complex Carbohydrates Made SimpleAlmost everything about whole-food, unrefined carbohydrates is healthy, because these carbohydrates are rich in one or more of the following micronutrients: fiber, essential fatty acids (especially Omega-3), enzymes, minerals, phytochemicals and vitamins. Examples of whole foods that contain these unrefined carbohydrates include potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, carrots, butternut squash, all types of fruits, vegetables, root vegetables, whole grains, legumes, beans, nuts and seeds. Some of these foods (e.g., beans) are high in complex carbohydrates, while others (e.g., avocados) are high in healthy fats.

Conversely, there is everything unhealthy about refined and processed carbohydrates, which are what the food-processing industry has created by stripping the nutrients from whole foods as listed above. The food industry has taken what God created for us to consume and made the many flavorful but nutrient-devoid “foods” such as white flour, white sugar, refined brown sugar, high fructose corn syrup, refined honey and store-brand maple syrup, to name a few.

Unquestionably, all refined sugars and carbohydrates contribute to disease, because they are not in a whole-food form. Even though one can reasonably argue that sugars and refined flour products consumed infrequently and in small amounts are not inherently dangerous like a drug could be, there are much healthier alternatives.

The body can make energy from these simple sugars, and what is not used quickly is either stored or eliminated, depending on one’s inherent metabolic rate. For heavy people, the body stores this excess of potential energy as carbohydrate chains in fat cells. For the thin-framed high metabolizer, on the other hand, more of this excess potential energy from refined sugar either gets eliminated via the kidney or stool, is moved to the brain and other organs for quick utilization, feeds yeast throughout the digestive tract and skin or contributes to mineral depletion and immune-system irritation.

Simple Sugars, Serious Problems

Refined sugars slowly wear down mucus membrane linings (stomach and bowel), deregulate metabolic hormone balance (insulin, glucagon, cortisol, growth hormone and others), acidify body fluids and tissues and contribute to many other destructive processes that we could easily do without. There is no question today that refined carbohydrates slowly and insidiously create “disease” in the body, after the energy “high” they give.

The fact that most donuts are loaded with 12 grams of fake fat and plenty of refined sugar wasn’t known three years ago by my 42-year-old neighbor, who almost died of a massive myocardial infarction (heart attack)  just two hours after consuming six of these donuts. The donuts’ combination of high sugar and high saturated fat was the perfect trigger for endothelial inflammation (the endothelium is the thin layer of cells that lines blood and lymph vessels) and vasoconstriction (narrowing of the blood vessels). I believe this is what happened to my neighbor.

What first seemed like bad acid indigestion turned into increasing, squeezing chest pain. I believe there was also emotional stress for him that night, independent of the pain. By midnight he was in an ambulance en route to the hospital, where within minutes his squeezing chest pain turned into ventricular fibrillation (a condition in which the heart’s electrical activity becomes disordered and death can occur within minutes if the heart is not electrically shocked or “defibrillated”). He was extremely fortunate to have been on the emergency room exam bed with the doctor and nurses at his side when this occurred.

What my neighbor didn’t understand, and many Americans still don’t understand,  is that being a victim to the seductive taste of refined sugar, combined with trans-fatty acids, is an extremely deadly combination.

Carbohydrates, Sugar And Aging

In addition to heart difficulties, a small proportion of your blood sugar can cause completely different problems. Carbohydrates, either simple or complex, are absorbed by your body to affect your blood sugar levels. The little amount that isn’t used goes through a process called “glycation,” and forms  non-functioning structures known as advanced glycation end products, or AGEs. Diabetics have faced the challenge of AGEs because of their chronically elevated blood-sugar levels, but most of us have never heard of them.

The problem starts as we age and our structural proteins are damaged by AGEs. Research over the past 20 years has implicated AGEs in most of the diseases associated with aging, like Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

You can help avoid the aging effects of AGEs by using the glycemic index (the simple-sugar absorption rate) to choose carbohydrate foods that will help keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range. There are also nutrients available, such as the specific amino acids N-acetyl cysteine and L-arginine, that are beneficial in blocking the formation of AGEs. Vitamin B1, guava and yerba mate (a South American tea) also have positive effects against AGEs.

Carbohydrates Further Defined

Complex carbohydrates are long chains of linked, simple-sugar molecules. They are also intertwined with dietary fibers (starch, cellulose, lignin, etc.), which have been linked to lower cancer and other disease rates. A single starch molecule may contain from 300 to 1,000 or more sugar units. Interestingly, these fibers and complex sugar molecules are made by nature, NOT by man’s industry. Therefore, the closer to whole foods (rather than refined or processed foods) we eat, the more complex carbohydrates we take in.

Beyond reading the “nutritional facts” on a product label, you should know this: The complex carbohydrate that is measurable by a machine and the complex carbohydrate that is utilized by the body for building cellular and tissue health are very different. In other words, whole foods come with their dietary fiber, enzymes, micronutrients and phytochemicals intact. But by the time the food gets to us in a box, can, bag or frozen container, these complexes have lost their true state and health benefit.

Simple carbohydrates are extracted from whole foods, but in the body they act very differently than complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates include refined white and powdered sugar, honey, high fructose corn syrup, milk sugars, white flour products (cookies, cakes, candies, breads and pastries), bottled and canned juices, added fruit sugar (fructose), added milk sugar (lactose), alcohol sugars and so forth.

Then there are the even-worse artificial sweeteners that the food industry claims to be great alternatives to the sugars listed above. They sell extremely well, and they are found in many commercial snack foods. The fact is, these are synthetic chemicals that fake the brain into feeling satisfied from sugar. They include acesulfame K (Sunette®), aspartame (NutraSweet®), saccharin (Sweet’N Low®), sucralose (Splenda®) and Equal® (combination of aspartame, dextrose and maltodextrin).

Carbohydrates In Vegetables And Fruits

Before reading and concerning yourself with which vegetables or fruits have high carbohydrate amounts (since I have been hammering the concept that excessive sugars are harmful to health), please remember this: complex carbohydrates come from whole-food sources. Whole food sources are complexed with dietary fibers (starch, cellulose, lignans, etc.), which create health in the body. Even more importantly, they have micronutrients in them. In other words, high nutrient density can occur even with high amounts of complex carbohydrates.

All fruits contain carbohydrates. Are these bad for us because of their sugar? The answer is no, unless you are diabetic or pursuing weight loss. In these two scenarios, just avoid eating large amounts of fruits that are highest in simple sugars, such as dried dates, raisins, bananas and pineapples (ranked highest to lowest in simple sugar levels).

Remember that fruits in general all have a much lower glycemic index than all of the simple sugars listed here: carob powder, dextrin, ducitol, fructose, high fructose corn syrup, glucose syrup (corn, sorghum, starch and sugar-cane syrups), honey, lactose, maltose, maple syrup, molasses, milk chocolate, sorbitol, sucrose (table, brown, cane and powdered sugars), sweetened condensed milk and xylitol.

And, according to the Blood Glucose Response chart (a guide for diabetics), white potatoes, bread, beans and brown rice break down to glucose in the blood more quickly than fruits. The take-home message is that because fruits have sugars that are complexed with fiber and enzymes, fruits are properly assimilated and utilized by the body. Especially good for you is juicing plus fruits, as long as you drink the pulpy juice within about five minutes of juicing or squeezing it.

This is very different than consuming glucose or fructose, which are isolated as a molecule and added into some food as an ingredient. The body just does not handle these simple carbs like it does a whole food.

High-GI foods have a glycemic index of more than 70. Low-GI foods have a glycemic index of less than 55. Medium-GI foods are in-between. And just remember, the difference between carbohydrates that harm us and carbohydrates that heal us is their fiber content.

Below is some information on the glycemic index of fruits and vegetables:

Glycemic Index of Fruit

Apple 38
Banana 55
Cantaloupe 65
Cherries 22
Grapefruit 25
Grapes 46
Kiwi 52
Mango 55
Orange 44
Papaya 58
Pear 38
Pineapple 66
Plum 39
Watermelon 103

Glycemic Index of Vegetables

Beets 69
Broccoli 10
Cabbage 10
Carrots 49
Corn 55
Green Peas 48
Lettuce 10
Mushrooms 10
Onions 10
Parsnips 97
Potato (baked) 93
Potato (mashed, instant) 86
Potato (new) 62
Potato (French fries) 75
Red Peppers 10
Pumpkin 75
Sweet Potato 54

Dr. Michael Cutler

By Dr. Michael Cutler

Dr. Michael Cutler is a graduate of Tulane University School of Medicine and is a board-certified family physician with more than 20 years of experience. He serves as a medical liaison to alternative and traditional practicing physicians. His practice focuses on an integrative solution to health problems. Dr. Cutler is a sought-after speaker and lecturer on experiencing optimum health through natural medicines and founder of the original Easy Health Options™ newsletter — an advisory on natural healing therapies and nutrients. His current practice is San Diego Integrative Medicine, near San Diego, California.