CARBOHYDRATES - the essential fuel ?

When carbohydrates are eaten they are digested and broken down into their simplest form – sugars. There are 3 different classes of sugar that are provided when carbohydrates are ingested; monosaccharides (also called simple sugars), disaccharides ( a combination of any 2 simple sugars ) and polysaccharides ( also called 'complex' carbohydrates ) which include starch, glycogen and fibre. During digestion ( with the exception of fibre ) the sugars are broken down into smaller and smaller units until eventually they are all monosaccharides, mainly glucose or fructose. These are then processed by the liver and ultimately converted into glucose, a simple sugar. Any circulating blood glucose in excess of immediate needs is stored in the cells as glycogen. If glucose intake or storage is insufficient (during fasting or starvation for instance) then fat and eventually protein are processed into fuel. Glucose is used in the production of energy and is transported around the body in the blood, lymph and cerebrospinal fluid reaching every cell in order for it to be used as a source of energy. For many years now most health experts have considered it as the essential source of fuel for our bodies.


Within the body, foods consisting of mainly mono and disaccharides are processed very fast and provide a rapid burst of energy which is used up quickly. These are called 'high glycaemic' foods and include things like alcohol, biscuits, cakes, pastries and potatoes ( including chips and crisps ), chocolate, sweets, pasta, refined grains, bread and other white flour products and also dairy foods like milk, cheese and cream and last but not least – refined sugar itself. Starchy foods(potatoes, yams, sweetcorn etc) should also be considered a simple sugar as they are broken down into simple glucose. Fruits also contain sugars, this time in the form of glucose and fructose. Fructose is often considered better for you because fructose does not trigger the release of insulin. This sounds positive but in fact fructose is sent straight to the liver to be broken down and the resulting chemicals are toxic to the liver, causing it to inflame over time. Sugar is also added to many other foods especially tinned, packet and ready made fresh or frozen meals. If the diet is based largely around the intake of simple 'quick burn' sugars then the blood glucose and insulin levels will fluctuate erratically. This will predispose to health problems ranging from mood swings to hypo or hyperglycaemia and places many organs and secretory glands in the body under severe stress. High glycaemic foods can have a purpose – they provide us with an almost instant boost of energy but with a cost to overall health. To sustain a busy human with a constant supply of energy throughout the day we are told to turn instead to the 'complex carbohydrates', the polysaccharides. The polysaccharides are more complex sugar molecules and take much longer to break down, meaning glucose (and therefore insulin) is introduced more slowly and steadily into the body, without the crash and burn effect on the pancreas and body cells


There is however a downside of using carbohydrates as the main source of energy and that is linked directly to the secretion of insulin. Insulin is secreted into the blood by the pancreas (and parts of the brain) in order to force the glucose into the cells, as high levels of circulating blood glucose are recognised by the body as dangerous and undesirable. Whenever glucose is detected in the blood, insulin is secreted. Insulin secretion is so efficient at forcing glucose into the cells that blood sugar drops rapidly in its presence. This sets off what is termed the 'blood sugar rollercoaster' where the resulting drop in blood sugar, stimulated by the insulin release, then encourages us to eat more carbohydrates or sugars increasing blood sugar rapidly, which then increases insulin secretion rapidly, which then causes a dramatic blood sugar drop and so on, and so on, and so on. Insulin also increases the rate of glucose breakdown and use within the cells.


High levels of both insulin and glucose are now being linked to many chronic disease processes including dementia, alzheimers (termed 'diabetes of the brain'), polycystic ovaries, crohns disease, thyroid imbalances, certain cancers, epilepsy, mental disorders, rheumatic disorders and the so called autoimmune disorders and many other metabolic disorders including, of course, diabetes in all its forms.


When the body is in overall good health and a truly balanced diet is eaten then the glucose/insulin drama may not pose a serious problem. However, with modern diets relying so heavily on carbohydrates at every meal we set up the conditions of the blood sugar roller coaster and our inbuilt finely tuned feedback regulation systems can gradually become exhausted. Over time this may well lead our body into developing the kind of chronic health conditions mentioned above. Bearing in mind that the body also requires a steady supply of energy whilst resting and asleep, and that any physical activity increases the energy requirements considerably we can begin to see how carbohydrate metabolism can take its toll on the body over time. In addition, stress, worry, anxiety and illness also raise energy requirements.


Fortunately the body is also capable of using fats as energy in times when carbohydrate consumption is inappropriate and harmful, such as during diabetes. Weight for weight, carbohydrates contain approximately half the calories of fats and oils.



WHOLE GRAINS/CEREALS can be detected by their subtle sweet taste. All the whole grains contain complex carbohydrates which release sugar slowly into the blood providing energy for several hours and more after a meal. They are also a good source of fibre and other nutrients including B vitamins. When the seeds or grains are soaked and sprouted they become magical power houses of nutrition, packed with vitamins and enzymes. They include wheat, rice, quinoa, rye, barley, buckwheat, spelt, amaranth, oats, corn, kamut and millet.

ROOT VEGETABLES their role in nature is to store sugars as food for the plant over winter so are bursting with goodness and their sweetness is quite prominent to the tastebuds. Most contain mainly complex carbohydrates in the form of starch and fibre, giving us a balance of nutrients and assisting the intestines. Beetroot, carrots, parsnips, yams, turnips, celeriac, sweet potatoes, jerusalem artichokes, radishes, potatoes (high glycaemic ) are some examples.

LEGUMES/PULSES are also a good source of complex carbohydrate, especially starch.

DRIED FRUIT are very high in disaccharides and contain up to 75% carbohydrates making them a highly concentrated source of energy. Easily obtainable dried fruits are sultanas, raisins, dates, prunes, currants, apricots, figs ( contain 3 times the carbohydrate of potatoes ), apples, mango, banana, pineapple etc.

PUMPKINS AND SQUASHES contain carbohydrates as do many other vegetables to varying degrees, particularly brussel sprouts, sweetcorn, cauliflower, aubergines and mushrooms.

FRUIT all contain sugars in varying quantities alongside water, fibre, vitamins and minerals. The sugars they contain are generally simple ‘quick burn’ which provide instant energy. Fruit is also a cleansing food as well as being deliciously sweet and colourful.

SYRUPS such as maple, black strap molasses, corn, barley, malt and brown rice syrups. These are all very concentrated liquid forms of generally complex carbohydrates that should be used sparingly so as not to get addicted!

SUGAR - the kind that comes in packets. Refined cane sugar is composed mainly of sucrose and is 98% carbohydrate. Although sugar in itself is not ‘bad’, the sheer amount of it that is added to every kind of food has lead to major health problems arising over the years. When consumed regularly it is addictive, fattening, decays teeth, lowers immunity in the body, causes fermentation in the intestines, creates greater acidity in the blood, creates dangerous conditions such as low and high blood sugar – when taken in excess in its refined state.

Finally, to outline the variety of foods containing carbohydrates here are some examples of plants each containing approximately 100 calories:

4 tomatoes 2 cups of strawberries
1 pear 1 cup of peas
2 lettuces 2 peaches
1 sweet potato 7 oz sprouted seeds
1 ½ tbs of sugar 1/3 plain bagel
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