Foods with Carbohydrates Can Lead to Health or to Disease
Has ever occurred to you that the real health-food nuts were our ancestors in the Stone Age? Think about: they only ate fresh, organic foods. They ate fresh meat, fresh fish and seafood, and they gathered edible plants.
They rarely ate grains and they never consumed hydrogenated oils, refined carbohydrates, or alcohol. Not a bad diet, indeed!
What are Carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates, starches and sugars, are the main source of energy for our bodies. During digestion, the body breaks carbohydrates down and converts them into glucose, the main food for our cells. Cells can produce energy by burning glucose.
There are two main types of carbohydrates:
- Refined carbohydrates, foods that have had their fiber removed and lead to a rapid increase of glucose and insulin in the in the blood. In this group we find white bread, white rice, pastries loaded with sugar, sodas, etc.
- Unrefined carbohydrates, foods that contain substantial amounts of fiber, leading to a slow digestion and moderate increase of glucose and insulin in the body. In this group we find vegetables, beans and other legumes, and some types of fruit.
Carbohydrates in the Stone Age
Our ancestors in the Stone Age obtained half of their calories from carbohydrates, about the same percentage generally recommended nowadays by health authorities. However, there is a big difference between the carbohydrates our ancestors ate at that time and the ones we eat in modern times. Let’s see some of the differences.
Most vegetables that Stone Age people ate came from uncultivated vegetables. Those plants looked more like kale, a vegetable that most of us consider unappetizing. On the other hand, the vegetables we eat nowadays are highly cultivated and devoid of many vitamins and minerals, given the cultivation methods of the last decades.
Fruit was not a major staple food in the Stone Age. They were basically non-existent in cold areas and not available in winter time in temperate zones. The existing fruits at that time were small and wild. Today’s fruit are big, I’ll say sometimes humongous, with high sugar content.
The plant foods that our ancestors ate had more fiber than modern foods. Foods with a high content of fiber have many benefits:
- You have to do more chewing so it takes you longer to eat them. This in turn creates a feeling of fullness.
- Plants with fiber prevent sharp increases in blood sugar and insulin.
- Plants with a good amount of fiber cause a slow release of glucose and insulin into the blood.
Our ancestors in the Stone Age rarely ate cereal grains such as wheat and corn and they never cultivated grains. On the other hand, most carbohydrates we eat today are in the form of products made with highly refined grains.
The Agricultural Revolution
About 10,000 years ago, people developed agriculture and switched their diet to one that contained more grains. This happened as the population was increasing and the meat was in short supply. Grains allowed humans to obtain the calories they needed in order to survive the meat shortage. However, this change had health implications, especially with the “invention” of refining the grains.
About 2,000 years ago, people began using grinding stones to make whole-grain flours. Before the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s, however, only royalty and the rich ate white flour because the process required a lot of labor and was very expensive to produce. As a result, heart disease and type 2 diabetes only afflicted the royals and the wealthy.
As the processing of grains became fairly easy and less costly with the introduction of new machines, these two diseases started affecting large numbers of people, a factor that was not recognized until relatively recent.
The “Rule of 20 Years”
Although societies around the world do not exhibit immediate health problems from eating white flour and white sugar, they developed them slowly but surely.
Thomas L. Cleave, a surgeon captain who researched the negative health effects of consuming refined carbohydrates, mainly white flour and sugar, traced the development of heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes to the increase consumption of refined carbohydrates.
Cleave studied primitive cultures and noticed that they were free of these diseases until about 20 years after white sugar and white flour were introduced. This pattern was so consistent that Cleave named the phenomenon the “Rule of 20 Years”.
As food manufacturers started to realize that white rice and white flour where so devoid of nutrients that insects could not survive eating them, they increased their production of products containing these two ingredients because it meant a longer shelf life. This meant more profits for them and the food markets that sold the products. Very soon, white flour and sugar became staples.
The government response
In the 1930s, health professionals noticed that people who ate white bread had health problems caused by a deficiency of vitamins B1, B2, B3 and iron. What was the government solution? They passed the Enrichment Act of 1942, which required manufacturers to enrich white flour with the four missing nutrients. However, white flour is still missing many more nutrients, including chromium, magnesium, zinc, and of course, fiber.
White sugar, a highly refine product, is nothing but empty calories, being stripped of minerals and vitamins. It used to be a treat for children, now the average consumption of sugar per person is about 150 pounds a year.
Other processed foods
White flour and white sugar are not the only two foods that cause us health problems. Foods like canned vegetables, canned fruits, canned beans, and the like, raise our blood sugar more than the fresh version. They have been highly cooked, are bleached, contain a lot of sodium and sugar, not to mention preservatives, colorings, flavor enhances, and so on.
The bottom line
The main thing to do is to be selective with your carbohydrates; emphasize those that promote health and discard the ones that promote disease. Here are some guidelines to that effect:
- Eat more vegetables, especially the leafy green kind. Give preference to organic vegetables when available.
- Eat fruit, about 3 pieces a day. Buy organic fruit; it is smaller and has less pesticides.
- Eat whole grain products in moderation: 100% whole grain bread, brown rice, whole oats, etc.
- Do not eat industrial bakery.
- Do not eat products that contain hydrogenated oils.
- Do not eat products that contain too much sugar (more than 5 grams is a lot).
- Buy organic as much as you can.
- Read food labels.
As you can see, carbohydrates can be good or can be bad; they can lead to health or they can lead to disease. Become an informed consumer and say “NO” to refined products loaded with fat and sugar, two ingredients that together taste quite good, but that can be detrimental to your health.
To your good health!