I start to get tired, I start to get headaches; my liver basically starts to fill up with fat because there’s so much fat and sugar in this food. My blood sugar skyrockets, my cholesterol goes up off the charts, my blood pressure becomes completely unmanageable. The doctors were like, ‘You have to stop!’
These were the words of Morgan Spurlock, the man who had MacDonalds everyday for a month for an experiment on a fast food diet.
Most experts recommend that carbohydrates (Carbs) should be about 50 to 55 percent of your total daily calories for maintaining good health. However, according to a study by American Journal of Epidemiology 2013, carbs that have been stripped of their nutritional value are as good as consuming cholesterol-rich foods, leading to life-threatening conditions.
There are two basic types of carbohydrates, simple and complex carbohydrates. The way we get it now – there are refined carbs (artificially made) and unrefined carbs (available in natural form).
Metabolism of Carbohydrates
All carbs eventually break down into glucose to provide energy for the body. The only difference is the time taken by different carbs to break down into glucose.
- Simple and complex carbs (refined or unrefined). Both are broken down to glucose with a series of metabolic changes.
- As blood glucose level rises, your pancreas produces insulin. The hormone that helps your body cells (muscles, brain) to absorb blood sugar for energy and some of the glucose is stored as glycogen in the liver.
- As cells absorb blood sugar, glucose levels in the blood begin to fall. When this happens, the liver then starts releasing the already stored sugar.
- This interplay of insulin from the pancreas and stored glycogen from the liver ensures that cells throughout the body and especially in the brain, have a steady supply of blood sugar.
Carbohydrates – Refined vs Unrefined
“Refining” is a process applied to both simple and complex carbs. Refined carbs have a longer shelf life and enhanced taste. In exchange, you lose the fiber, nutrients, water and other benefits of the food as compared to its unrefined (natural) state. Unfortunately, this process also concentrates the sugar content causing a spike in blood glucose levels when consumed.
It is available in various forms of sugar like glucose, fructose and sucrose (table sugar, brown sugar, molasses, jams, jellies, processed honey, etc). These are all simple carbs. They are small molecules and are quickly absorbed as glucose in the bloodstream.
These are commonly used as refined flour to make processed foods like commercial breakfast cereals, bread, tortillas, and many junk foods that contains a lot of starch. When eaten, they are broken down into sugar by the digestive tract. They convert rapidly into simple sugars and have a similar or if not worse effect on your body as refined sugars.
Refined Carbs (both Simple and Complex Carbs)
The Health Promotion Board in Singapore recommends whole unrefined grains and to limit refined sugar intake to no more than 10%(8-11 tsp) of your daily dietary energy. Studies have also shown that processed carbohydrates may increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, brain and heart problems, more than fats, because of its growing ill-effects.
Bad Effects of Refined Carbs
Pro-inflammation – “Slow fire rising within you”
- Spiking blood glucose levels leads to increased pro-inflammatory free radicals. Excess glucose and insulin in the blood causes inflammation of the cells of the blood vessels. In response to this, your body uses fat to be deposited around the inflamed cells causing the formation of atherosclerosis, increasing the risk of heart disease.
- Excess glucose in your body is also stored in your liver by converting it into glycogen. Excessive sugar can fill your liver glycogen stores to its maximum capacity. To compensate for the overload of glucose in your blood, your liver converts all the stored glycogen into fats causing the inflammatory process in your body.
- Refined foods also elevate C-Reactive protein levels which will be identified by a blood test. It is an indication that there are high levels of inflammation in your body.
- Excessive gluten consumption on the other hand not only causes inflammation of the blood vessels but also inflames your gut.
High Insulin Levels – “Are you at risk of getting diabetes?”
Glucose in the blood stimulates the pancreas to secrete insulin. Excess glucose in the blood causes excess insulin secretion. As insulin’s role is to absorb and help store sugar in your blood, excess levels of insulin can drop blood sugar levels very quickly as it stores it rapidly. If blood sugar levels go down too fast, it can cause the body to crave for more sugar. But if you eat food that is too high in glucose again, it can create a vicious cycle as the blood sugar levels are never adequately balanced. If this glucose roller coaster ride goes on for months, it can have short term consequences on your mood and concentration. Long term exposure puts you at increased risk of type II diabetes. This form of diabetes means the body becomes insensitive to insulin and the excess sugar in the blood can lead to chronic inflammation of blood vessels, which in turn can lead to heart disease or other severe illnesses.
Your body needs essential nutrients from your food in order to metabolise sugar. Refined foods are of very low nutritional value so the body is unable to properly control and regulate sugar metabolism. Your body still has to obtain these nutrients from other sources, causing a depletion in your nutritional reserves making you feel tired.
Brain function – “Something’s not right”
Glucose rollercoaster rides puts the brain (mood, concentration, thinking) on a roller coaster ride as well. There has been studies showing links between refined sugar consumption to hyperactivity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, irritability, reduced performance in school, juvenile delinquency, mental illnesses like schizophrenia and even increased criminal behavior.
Gastro-intestinal disorders – “I feel bloated”
Fibre content is reduced in refined complex carbs, this affects the function of the gut causing unwanted side-effects like excessive production of gas. This gas causes discomfort, bloating and flatus in many people. Digestive disorders come from constipation – difficulty to have a normal bowel movement.
Obesity – “I eat when I’m hungry and I’m hungry all the time”
Fructose is associated with increased fat deposition, which results from bad effects on hormones associated with satiety. Insulin-induced low blood sugar will specifically increase appetite and hunger for more carbohydrates, especially those with sugar content. Diet high in sugar content may cause greater appetite and increased hunger leading to obesity. Sugar is effectively addictive for the brain.
Eating in moderation is key and always consult an expert about your nutritional concerns when in doubt.