THE CARBOHYDRATE STORY
by David Nathan
Carbohydrates can be found in a variety of foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables and dairy products. They are basically found in everything we eat but not all carbohydrates are created equal. All carbohydrates are essentially sugars or polymers of sugars. There are over 200 forms of sugar found in nature all differing in their chemical make-up thus ultimately affecting how our bodies utilize them. On a molecular scale they all have in common a 5-carbon ring and all contain carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. All sugars are composed of one-carbon ring, monosaccharides, or two carbon rings, disaccharides, or multiple carbon rings called polysaccharides. The simplest of all carbohydrates of course is glucose. Other monosaccharides include fructose and galactose. Common disaccharides include maltose, sucrose, and lactose. Polysaccharides come from starch found in plants and glycogen found in animals. Starch is composed of glucose molecules that are linked together to form long chains. When we eat starch, such as potatoes and rice, our bodies can easily break the bonds between the glucose molecules and use the glucose as an immediate energy source. Our bodies make use of glucose on a cellular scale to fuel muscles and a variety of other cellular functions. The glycemic index ranks sugars on a scale of 1 to 100 according to how fast the sugar is broken down in our bodies and is affected by the physical and chemical properties of the sugar. When we eat any form of carbohydrate our bodies convert the sugar into glucose through a complex biochemical pathway. This in turn causes insulin to be released into our blood stream. Insulin is a hormone released by the pancreas and acts on cells, mainly the liver and muscle, to take glucose into the cell. Once there it is stored as glycogen for future energy source. Any excess glucose is then turned into fat. Thus if one eats a carbohydrate that is low on the glycemic chart then the body will have a lower concentration over time of glucose in the blood thus the release of insulin is more controlled.
In today's world of weight loss products many foods are labeled as sugar-free. On closer inspection of the ingredients one can sometimes find sugar alcohols under the carbohydrate listing. These are not actually alcohols but very complex sugars that the body can barely absorb. Those sugar alcohols that are absorbed into the bloodstream produce little or no insulin production. They commonly come from plant and berry products and the carbohydrate is further altered in the laboratory. Some examples are mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and isomalt. Although these sugars are able to sweeten many foods without contributing to calorie counts they also have a tendency to cause bloating and diarrhea because the intestines cannot absorb them properly. Bodybuilders beware! All those free protein bars you get at the shows that are touted as low carbohydrate most likely have these sugar alcohols in them. I can attest to eating them during the morning show and becoming bloated by the afternoon.
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