What are the differences between complex and refined carbohydrates? Why is it important to understand these?
A carbohydrate is an organic compound that consists of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen (CH2O). Carbohydrate is the scientific name for sugar.
Human bodies are designed to run on carbohydrates, which are the ideal source of our energy. This is because they can easily be converted into glucose that can be used by the body for energy. However, they are not necessary building blocks as the body can also obtain its energy from protein and fats.
A balanced diet consisting of carbohydrate, protein, essential fatty acids and fiber is recommended. Problems arise when the balance is tipped and we eat more of the WRONG kind of carbohydrates.
Most plant foods that are sweet are harmless. Fruits generally contain fructose which is a simple sugar that doesn’t need digesting. However, as our cells only run on glucose, fructose needs to first be converted into glucose, which makes it a slow releasing sugar (low glycemic index).
Very few fruits contain glucose—the fast-releasing sugar—like grapes, bananas, and dried fruits like dried apricots and apples.
Whole grains, vegetables or legumes contain complex carbohydrates whereas fruits contain simpler carbohydrates. When consumed, all these get digested together with all the nutrients and vitamins that the body needs. And it gradually releases the needed energy.
With technology, man has processed whole foods and stripped them of their fiber, phytochemical, nutrients and trace element contents, rendering it ’empty’ and devoid of life. It is this refined carbohydrates that we should be wary of because of the damages it can cause to our body.
The process of refining and cooking in white bread, white rice and refined cereals break down complex carbohydrates into simple carbohydrates called malt (or maltose). When you eat these foods, your blood sugar level increases rapidly, providing you with a surge of energy. However, a drop in this surge follows soon after as your body struggles to balance your blood sugar level, causing a vicious cycle.
These rise and falls in the insulin level reduces the body’s ability to respond to insulin (a hormone that helps regulate the level of blood sugar), causing the development of a condition called insulin resistance.
When we eat refined carbohydrates from foods that are high in sugar and refined flour, the body uses the sugar thus:
- 30% for immediate energy requirements
- 30% stored in our liver or muscles to be used during sleep
- 40% stored as long-term body fat
So you see, unlike complex carbohydrates that get digested, refined carbohydrates are not fully utilized. And as we keep eating refined sugar everyday, the stored fats just never get used, but instead kept piling on, while causing an imbalance in blood sugar levels.
When this happens, we most often will experience symptoms like fatigue, nervousness, irritability, poor concentration, sweating, headaches, other digestive problems and accelerated aging. In more serious cases, your poor choices of food can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer of breast, colon and prostate, and many more diseases.
How to Know if You Have Sugar Imbalance
Take a quick check to see if your body is having difficulty keeping your blood sugar level even. These are some signals:
- You have difficulty waking up in the morning even after seven hours of sleep
- You need a cup of coffee or tea to get you going
- You often feel sleepy during the day, especially after meals
- You fall asleep or need to nap during the day
- You don’t have the energy to exercise and gets breathless
- You crave food all the time and would binge
- You get night sweats or frequent headaches
So What Do We Do Now?
There is no quick and easy fix. There is a simple answer but it requires a lot of will power in the beginning. It is mostly about your choice, you can choose to live healthy by choosing the right foods.
By now, you would have an idea about foods that you should consume more—whole foods from the four main food groups—fruits, vegetables, whole grain, legumes.
Foods to avoid: Refined and processed ‘foods’ (if you can call them foods), anything that contain refined sugars like artificial sweeteners, table sugar, brown sugar, processed honey, syrup. Products of refined flour like white bread, cakes, doughnuts, cookies, pastas, etc. You get the idea.
Another advice is to graze your food, eating little and often, rather than gorge like a glutton. This reduces the amount of sugar released into your blood at any one time.