People seem to conflate the terms “starch,” “carbs” and “sugars” quite frequently in today’s cacophony of nutritional advice. But this is an oversimplification. Remember your geometry lessons: All squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. Something similar happens here. All complex carbohydrates (starches) are composed of simple carbohydrates (sugars), but not all sugars combine to form starches. During the industrial processing of plant foods, often all that remains of a whole plant is its simple sugar. Let’s chat a little bit about understanding the differences in all these inappropriately consolidated terms.
Plants contain a very strong carbohydrate called cellulose. It is what gives plants their shape, and is what allows them to maintain a barrier between the outside world and their internal cells. It’s so tough, that it isn’t digestible by humans. Even grazing mammals require bacteria in their guts to break down the cellulose for them. In nutrition we call cellulose fiber. There are different kinds of it, but that isn’t the focus right now. (If you want to access more of the nutrition in raw plants, consider purchasing The Nutri Ninja. If you prefer to cook your vegetables to release their nutrients, the three-headed slow cooker on this page is awesome.)
What matters is that whole plant foods contain fiber, and many processed foods do not. Even stranger, processed foods often have the natural fiber stripped out, just to have some other source of fiber supplemented back in.
Cellulose and digestion
Fiber is important to this discussion, because it slows down digestion. It provides many other important benefits as well. Your body has to work harder to more gradually extract the energy and nutrition from whole plant foods. That sheath of cellulose is what causes the body to release less insulin, and to do it over a longer period of time. This process is what maintains energy levels. This in turn also makes you feel satiated, which encourages you to eat less. There really aren’t any downsides to eating whole foods. If you are gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive, there are plenty of plant foods that don’t contain it. Quinoa, so long as you aren’t allergic to it, is a fantastic gluten-free source of fiber, starch, and complete protein.
Complex Carbohydrates: Starches
I just used the term starch. Starches are comprised of three or more simple sugars that join together at the molecular level. This combination creates long chains and coils. When fiber accompanies starches, they require much more time to metabolize. Some people call these “good carbs,” because they have a lower glycemic index. They therefore won’t cause you to have insulin spikes and energy crashes. They also tend to be rich in vitamins and minerals, because the nutrients aren’t degraded by chemicals and heat. So then, starchy carbs aren’t bad for you unto themselves.
In normal circumstances, complex carbs/starches should comprise the largest portion of your calories, because they are the body’s most efficient source of energy. Starches also support muscle repair. Vegetables, whole fruits, tubers, nuts, seeds, quinoa and whole grains are all sources of complex carbohydrates.
What you don’t need much of is simple carbohydrates.
Simple Carbohydrates: Sugars
Simple carbohydrates are one or two sugars on their own. Many “foods” serve them to us without any fiber accompanying them. Thus they dissolve very quickly, are generally devoid of vitamins and minerals, and hit your blood stream almost immediately. Without cellulose/fiber encasing them, there is no barrier between them and your intestinal acids and enzymes. This sudden onset of a huge amount of energy elicits a panic response in your body. The pancreas releases a much larger amount of insulin to absorb all the sugar, most of the sugar gets stored quickly as fat, and then you have an energy crash. You’ll also become hungry again, because simple sugars have no real mass to them. A great example of making a nutritious whole food into a dangerous sugar is orange juice.
(Note: You can use ginger to help mitigate these spikes in blood sugar, which can be beneficial for diabetics. Also, natural sweeteners cause less inflammation from insulin surges.)
Whole fruit vs. drinking juice
When you eat an entire orange, you get its succulent juice along with all the fleshy cellulose. Although fruit is nature’s candy and you should limit it in your diet, a whole fruit will practically always be better than its juice alone.
Consider this: Even if you hand press an orange thoroughly, your glass will have hardly any juice in it. You’ll therefore need to squeeze anywhere from 6-12 oranges to fill the glass. Think about that: You’ve just vastly increased your number of calories in the form of sugar, and you haven’t gotten any of the fiber from those oranges. You won’t get full. You’ll have to eat other foods along with the juice to make a meal (increasing your calories even more). After, you’ll have an insulin spike to contend with all the food. The same is true of other juices: The skins and flesh contain fiber and minerals, which is nearly always greater than the nutrition of the juice alone. Note: Eat your potatoes with their skins!
Avoid fruit juices, limit whole fruits (especially dried fruits), and focus on whole vegetables. These are sources of complex carbohydrates that are accompanied with fiber. If you find you can’t control your urges for simple sugar, consider trying Crave Crush. It contains gymnema, and it blocks your ability to taste sweetness or derive pleasure/gratification from eating it. You can purchase it here.
If you have implemented all these strategies and have trouble losing body fat, you might consider building your own fat burning stack from the recipe I provided in another blog entry. You can find the component for it here. It has helped me as I contend with my own sugar addiction.