Well, we’re here. This is the last macro, and it’s a biggie. You know from a previous post that carbs don’t make me feel full and they’re not great nutritionally. I’m going to make a few points about carbohydrates today, including what they are (and aren’t), how to count them, and addiction. Sit down, folks, because I’m calling class to order.
Simply: carbohydrates are sugar. Just like proteins are made of amino acids, sugar building blocks (simple carbs) are called monosaccharides. Glucose, fructose, and galactose are monosaccharides. If you have diabetes, you check the glucose concentration in your blood on a regular basis (or you’re supposed to, ya naughty). If you watch mass media, you know fructose has been demonized. There will likely be a whole post on high fructose corn syrup in the future, but it’s out of the scope of today’s soapbox. In case you’re more of a visual person:
When these guys get together, scientists start adding latin number prefixes to the word saccharide, like this:
di-saccharide = 2 subunits
oligo-saccharide = 3 subunits
poly-saccharide = 4 or more subunits
I know, using oligo instead of tri seems a little silly, but it sounds more sciency, right? Use it on your friends. Also, win scrabble.
There are at least 25 disaccharides out there, probably more undiscovered ones, but we’re really interested in 3 of them for nutritional purposes:
sucrose (table sugar), made of glucose and fructose
lactose (milk sugar), made of glucose and galactose
maltose (malt sugar), made of glucose..and more glucose
These sugars are easily broken down into their subunits for energy, and your body will prefer to use them over things (like fat and protein) it has to work harder to break down. Foods that are high in carbohydrate dissolve quickly in the stomach and slide right through without making you feel full. This is why some people call them slider foods. Additionally, the more you eat, the more it takes in the future to satisfy you, not unlike drugs.
Oligosaccharides are used for cool things, like cell recognition (hi, are you an immune cell??) and cell adhesion (lemme stick to you forever!).
Polysaccharides are cool, because they’re dietary fiber. Cue the chorus of elderly folks talking about needing their Metamucil! Polysaccharides are the complex carbohydrates that your body can’t break down for energy, like cellulose, that give your..you know…the bulk it needs to travel easily through your system. This will greatly affect your carb counting (because I know you’re tracking your macros, now).
Holy cow, four lines for one macro?! Yep! Don’t worry, it’s easy. There are two ways to count carbs. Method 1 is simple and best for diabetics: look at the total carbs in a food and compare to your daily limit to decide whether to eat it or not.
Method 2 is a little more complex, but increases the variety of things you can eat: Subtract dietary fiber and sugar alcohols from the total carb content and use that at the number of carbs. The principle behind this is that fiber and sugar alcohols (think stevia, splenda, aspartame (the pink packet), and whatever comes in the blue packet) are not used for energy by the body. The nutrition label above, then, would contain 37 total carbs, but 33 net carbs. This is the same idea as gross and net income, so I know you’ve got this.
How many carbs should you eat? Again, there are myriad recommendations out there, and I have anecdotal advice. I’ve limited myself to no more than 60 grams of net carbs per day for over 2 years, and I have to say it’s been great. I’ve lost weight, put on muscle in the gym, feel better about myself, retain less water (yes ladies, less bloating!), and other good things. There are a couple different paths you can go on: low carb or keto.
Low carb is just that, you still have some carbs (hopefully mostly from veggies), just not a lot (which to me is over 100 grams per day). A con of this lifestyle is continually tracking your macros and calories, unless you eat the same thing every day and thus memorize them. A pro is that you can typically work in treats, like a banana or piece of pizza sometimes. Note: you cannot save carbs from one day to another, only on that day.
Keto is eating so few carbs your body goes into ketosis, where it makes ketones from the fat you eat. Those living the keto lifestyle typically eat 20 grams or less of carbs per day, and whether it’s total or net depends on their bodies and what it takes to get into ketosis. A con of this lifestyle is that when you go cold turkey from carbs, you might go through a thing called keto flu. A pro is that you don’t have to count calories as religiously, and you get to eat more bacon.
Why haven’t I gone keto? There are several reasons, but a big part probably has to do with addiction. There’s a cool picture online showing that sugar and cocaine (yes, the drug) exposure show up the same on a brain scan. I couldn’t find a scholarly source for that image, though, so I’m not including it for a scientific explanation. Instead, I present you with a quote from a scientific article:
What this review demonstrates is that rats with intermittent access to a sugar solution can show both a constellation of behaviors and parallel brain changes that are characteristic of rats that voluntarily self-administer addictive drugs. In conclusion, this is evidence that under some circumstances sugar can be addictive.
Unfortunately, I don’t think this article is free to access, so you’ll have to take my word for it. If you’re super interested, I’ll give you the doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2007.04.019
What are the implications of sugar addiction? Well, imagine trying to give an alcoholic a shot of their preferred alcohol every day and expecting them to not drink any more than that. Give an ex-smoker one cigarette a day and see how they fare. If you quit alcohol, cigarettes, meth, cocaine, etc, you know logically that you can live without them. You can change the people you’re around and possibly not be exposed to them again. Sugar addiction means you encounter your substance of choice every single day, and you must eat food every day to live.
I’ve never heard of anyone curing a sugar addiction. You manage it each and every day for the rest of your life. When you offer me something sugary, you are literally offering me my drug of choice. It makes me love and hate you at the same time. Whether or not I accept it has to do with social pressures (please stop doing this to people), how many carbs I’ve had that day (was I planning to splurge a bit?), and decision fatigue, which is where your brain has made so many decisions that day that it’s tired and can’t be bothered to give you the willpower to resist this one thing in the moment. If I’ve been really strict with myself for a good long while and then I have more carbs than expected, I feel like crap for about three days, so I know it’s better to stay away from them.
Staying low carb instead of keto gives me a sense of control. I track my macros and calories, I often eat the same thing every day of the week for lunch, and I eat around the same times every day. These are all methods to overcome addiction (and make sure I eat enough calories to support going to the gym). I do, sometimes, take a weekend off of tracking because I tend to have an obsessive personality and will drive myself bonkers tracking every morsel of food. Know something I don’t track? Gluten.
For all those sensitive to gluten, I’m sorry. For waitstaff, I have a public service announcement: something being gluten free does NOT mean that it is low carb. I usually try to look up the nutritional information when I plan to go to a restaurant, but sometimes I need to ask for low carb options. Low carb is also not the same as low fat, low calorie, or low sugar. Something can have very little sugar but plenty of carbs, because in that context, sugar is usually referring to added sugar. So, you didn’t sprinkle sugar on the potato, cool. That thing is still full of carbs. I naturally avoid most processed sugars, though, because most processed foods to which sugar have been added are loaded with carbs (especially when they’ve removed the fat) and salt. Foods I avoid to avoid carbs:
starchy vegetables like potatoes
pasta (aka wet bread)
most fruits (sometimes I work in some strawberries, blueberries, tomatoes, or melon because they’re mostly water and fiber)
“foods” that come in boxes or bags
corn (this has no nutrition, it’s just carbs)
This post is already a novel, but there’s so much more to tell. Later, I’ll talk about salt intake, how to eat low carb on a budget (because meat is expensive), meal planning, and why you should use the term lifestyle change instead of diet.
tl;dr Carbs are the preferred energy source for your body, but it can use ketones instead, which are made from fats. Sugar is addictive, just like a drug, except you have to consume food every single day to stay alive. You can go low carb or keto and achieve weight loss, depending on your personal needs. Avoid starchy veggies, most fruits, bread, and processed foods to avoid the majority of commercially available carbs.