Today’s Solutions: June 15, 2024

On carbohydrates, fats and proteins.

Andrew Weil | June 2003 issue
Carbohydrates are the most fundamental nutrients. They consist of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The most simple carbohydrates are sugars: glucose and dextrose, fructose (sugar from fruit) and sucrose (table sugar, cane or beet sugar). Sugar is instant energy, the basis of our body’s system. All other food is first converted to sugars and then transported to our cells. When we eat carbohydrates, our body burns them and they are broken down into water and carbonic acid. This process releases energy.
Starch (rice, potatoes, pasta, wheat, corn, beans, bread and the like) is a more complex carbohydrate, which our bodies break down into sugar. Starch is the ideal food: it satisfies us, is easily digested and is a clean, fast, efficient source of energy. The primary difference between sugar and starch is that our body tends to burn sugar immediately, whereby no energy is stored. This often leads to a fast jolt of energy after which we tumbled into a feeling of fatigue and apathy. Starch is easily stored by the body and converted into sugar as needed. It is a myth that carbohydrates make us fat. This only happens if you combine them with fat (pasta with cheese, for instance) or if you don’t exercise.
As is the case with carbohydrates, fats consist only of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. The molecules – fatty acids – take more energy to build and supply more energy when they are broken down. They are the most calorie-dense nutrients; they supply around twice the calories as carbohydrates and proteins. Eating too much fat poses a serious risk to your health. Too much fat makes us susceptible to heart disease, cancer and other serious diseases. Fatty foods include: seeds, nuts, a variety of meats, poultry, certain types of fish, chocolate, butter, full-fat cream and cheese. For many people, 40-50% of daily calories come from fat. That’s not healthy.
An important determinant of health is not only how much fat you eat, but the type of fat and how it is prepared. There are saturated and unsaturated fats. Saturated fatty acids can be recognised by the fact that they get hard and opaque in the refrigerator. Animal fats are the greatest source of saturated fats. Certain types of vegetable fats (coconut and palm oil) are also saturated. On the other end of the spectrum are the polyunsaturated fats, such as most vegetable oils. They remain fluid and transparent when cooled. In the middle of the spectrum there are the monounsaturated fats (olive oil, for instance).
Eating too many saturated fats (meats, whole milk and its derivatives, food prepared with butter, pork and beef fat, coconut oil or palm oil) leads to arteriosclerosis, which in turn, can lead to heart disease. Eating too many unsaturated fats is just as bad because the fatty acid chains are unstable and vulnerable to oxidation that can lead to cell damage. This speeds up ageing and degenerative processes, disrupts the immune system and increases the risk of cancer. When fats oxidise, they go rancid, which has a particular smell. So don’t eat food that smells even slightly rancid!
Polyunsaturated fats that are heated or chemically altered can pose another risk. The molecule structure can shift from a natural to an unnatural configuration (transfatty acids). We don’t know exactly how our bodies process these acids, but they thought to cause an imbalance in the structure and functioning of cells, which makes us more susceptible to disease. Transfatty acids are primarily found in margarine and solid vegetable fats for frying.
My general advice is to eat less fat and avoid the extremes on the saturated-unsaturated fat spectrum. The easiest way to do this is to become a vegetarian or semi-vegetarian. Check the packaging for the fat content of food. The total number of fat calories should not exceed 20-30% of your daily intake. All solid or semi-solid fats (margarine, for instance) should be avoided at all costs. Try to avoid products containing partially solid fats such as biscuits, crackers, crisps, bakery goods and the like. Unsaturated fats are the safest. Olive oil is high in unsaturated fat. But be sure to buy natural ‘virgin’ olive oil (extra virgin or virgin – the first or second cold pressing).
Never heat oil to the point that it smokes; the smoke is carcinogenic. Never eat deep-fried foods in fast food restaurants, and preferably not at all. To save money, restaurants usually use the oil several times over. If you’re lucky, the fat is brown, but it’s usually nearly black – a carcinogenic quagmire.
Proteins are an important source of energy. They are also a leading component of our tissue (muscles, skin, bones), the building blocks of our cells and regulators of a variety of bodily functions. They are macromolecules, composed of long chains of amino acids that primarily consist of carbon, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen. The body can produce an unlimited amount of proteins from just 20 amino acids. And it can make all those elements itself, with the exception of eight, the essential amino acids crucial to our diets.
Children and pregnant women need a lot of protein to create tissue or heal damaged tissue. But as a normal healthy adult, you don’t need a lot of protein; 60 grams of protein-rich food is usually sufficient, and twice that amount is definitely enough – in other words, 120 grams of meat, chicken, fish or tofu. A lot of people eat more than 120 grams a day. A breakfast of eggs, bacon, milk and cornflakes is an overdose. Because the molecule structure is so complex, the body has to make more of an effort to break it down. It is not an efficient fuel and leads to fatigue and weakness. When the body burns proteins, toxic nitrogen remnants are released, which must be eliminated, forcing the liver and kidneys to work overtime.
A lot of people are worried they eat too little protein, particularly if they are vegetarian. But there’s no need for concern. Vegetables contain enough protein to sustain the average adult. I have recommended a low-protein diet to a lot of my patients. A protein shortage is easy to spot: your nails and hair stop growing. It makes more sense to consider whether you might be eating too much protein than too little. The average serving of milk and milk products, meat, fish, chicken, eggs or cheese supplies more than enough protein for the entire day. And in addition to carbohydrates, bread and grains also contain a lot of protein.

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