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Good carbs vs. bad carbs

April 16, 2003|by Chris Copley

Your body is basically a machine, and sugar is its fuel. It works like this:

Imagine yourself driving to work. Your car needs gasoline, so you stop at the service station. The pump offers regular gas or high-test racing fuel. You say, "What the heck?" and put some racing fuel in the tank. Power surges into the engine and you roar down the road with a big grin on your face.

But five minutes later, your car slows down. You're just puttering along. Your burst of energy is over and you need more fuel.

This time you pump regular gasoline into your tank. Back on the road, your car purrs along with a steady supply of fuel for hours of driving.


In the same way that different fuels make a car race in short bursts or motor steadily for hours, so different foods provide different kinds of energy for your body.

In the face of fad regimens and the increasingly popular high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet promoted by Dr. Robert Atkins, nutritionists hold fast to a steady balance of foods as a key to long-term health.

Carbohydrates are sugars

Dana DeJarnett works with nutrition and diet at City Hospital in Martinsburg, W.Va., as program director for the Dean Ornish program to reverse heart disease. DeJarnett says the body's No. 1 source of fuel is a carbohydrate - a molecule of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen atoms found in bread, rice, vegetables, fruits and beans.

"Carbohydrates provide energy for the body," she says. "The key is to eat complex carbohydrates and stay away from simple carbs - cakes and cookies, white flour breads and those types. Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest. With simple sugars, you get a high and then a deep low."

Carbohydrates are basically sugar molecules linked together in short or long chains, according to Elisabeth Yuen, registered dietician with Washington County Hospital.

"Simple carbohydrates are usually what is referred to as simple unit sugars - one or two sugars linked together. They are quickly digested and get into the bloodstream real soon," she says. "A complex carbohydrate takes a lot more time to be digested. Fruit sugar, white table sugar - those are simple sugars. Complex sugars are found in grains."

Chain of fuels

To illustrate the difference between simple sugars and complex sugars, Yuen draws a picture. She draws a circle and a square linked with a line - that's sucrose, the simple sugar found in sugar cane and sugar beets. A circle linked to a triangle is lactose, the simple sugar found in milk and dairy products.

Then she draws a long chain of circles with branches of chains splitting off on both sides. This is a complex sugar, also called a starch by nutritionists. This is the best fuel for a human body, Yuen says, because it provides a steady source of fuel.

"Imagine thousands of bonds. They go off in chains. You have to break them down and that takes a while," she says. "Plus, starches are the cheapest way to fuel a body. Cultures throughout history have had a carbohydrate source - potatoes, corn, grain, rice - as the basis of their diet."

These foods not only contain carbohydrates but also fiber, vitamins, minerals, protein and fat to provide a wide spectrum of nutrients for the body.

Faster is not better

Which brings us to the modern American diet. Yuen says today's American food culture is based on highly processed foods. It's convenient and quick - important considerations for a fast-paced lifestyle - but lacking in nutrition.

"We're so far removed from how our ancestors ate," she says. "Take that potato. Today, it's chopped, flaked, frozen, soaked in water, fried in oil. But you want to eat the food as close as it came to the natural state, because every time you process it, you lose some of the nutritional value."

Yuen admits eating unrefined, whole foods means preparing meals at home. And that takes time.

"Homemade meals require planning, cooking, washing dishes," she says. "Say you've got two parents who work eight to 10 hours. They know they have to come home in the evening to make supper and then wash the dishes. If you could to do that or drive-through (at a fast-food restaurant) and for $1.99, get a meal, what would you do?"

Super-sized Americans

Fast-food diets combined with sedentary lifestyles lead to fat Americans. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention report that more than 60 percent of Americans are overweight or obese.

Responding to the surge in weight is a surge in diets, with mixed success. Lynn Freedman, a registered dietician from Highland Park, Ill., is associated with the Web site, which promotes healthy eating habits for children. She is familiar with the low-carbohydrate diet promoted by Atkins, although she doesn't promote it.

"The Atkins diet is primarily a protein-based diet," Freedman says. "It doesn't necessarily restrict fat. A person could eat bacon and cheese. But carbohydrates are drastically restricted to a few grams per day. Sometimes only one piece of fruit per day."

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