How Do Carbs fit in The Zone?

Everywhere you turn these days, carbs are the buzz word. What exactly are carbs and what role do they play in nutrition? How do they factor into Zone nutrition? This article will help demystify carbs and explain how they fit into the Zone.

Carbohydrates are a macronutrient the body uses for fuel. Not too far back they were classified as complex and simple. Complex carbs are those that supply vitamins, minerals and fiber, like grains, pastas and breads. They were thought to break down slower into glucose. Simple carbs include refined sugars, often eaten in the form of candy, soda, cookies and other “junk” foods. These were reported to break down rapidly into glucose and enter the bloodstream quickly.

As nutrition knowledge advances, we have become aware that just classifying a carbohydrate as simple or complex is not sufficient in respect to how it affects the insulin response.

Many foods now have had their glycemic index measured. This index measures how rapidly a given food raises blood glucose. The higher the GI, the faster the food is broken down, allowing glucose to enter the bloodstream.

To understand the impact of the glycemic index, it is important to understand the process of fueling the body.

We put food into our mouth. The food is immediately acted upon by saliva. It is chewed, swallowed and enters the stomach where it combines with digestive enzymes, continues on through the small intestines, then through the large intestines, and finally the unused portions are eliminated as waste.

We eat in response to signals from our body. When we feel hungry, we are responding to a need to fuel our body with energy. This comes in the form of glucose, which is provided by eating carbohydrates.

When a carbohydrate is eaten and glucose is released into the blood stream, the body also triggers an insulin response. Insulin is the hormone that permits glucose to enter the cells. If too much glucose is produced at once, too much insulin is released in response. This causes the blood sugar to fall rapidly. Excess glucose is converted into glycogen and stored for a reserve.

The body reacts to the drop in blood glucose (hypoglycemia) by wanting more food. This cycle of eating too much glucose at once by either eating too many calories or foods with a high glycemic index and triggering excessive insulin response, which in turn causes the drop in blood glucose leads to poor glucose:insulin control. Excessive insulin also has been linked to cardiovascular disease, obesity and Type II diabetes.

If one looks at just the glycemic index of a specific food, it has limitations as to how it will affect blood glucose levels because many times the food is not eaten in isolation, but rather in combination with other foods. This is defined as the glycemic load of a meal. Proteins and fats help slow digestion and slow absorption of glucose. An ideal meal should always consist of those foods which produce a slow, steady release of glucose into the bloodstream, thus allowing for a slow release of insulin response.

Many “diets” out there today are attempting to achieve a glucose:insulin balance by manipulating and adjusting carbohydrates. A few are eliminating carbs totally, “cold turkey”, and gradually allowing them back into the diet. Some are eliminating refined carbs and only supporting grains. The Zone looks specifically at the glycemic index of the carb as well as the glycemic load of the meal.

In response to the “low carb revolution”, new products have been emerging onto the diet scene. A new category of sugar substitutes have been introduced. Mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, lactitol, isomalt, maltitol and hydrogenated starch hydrolysates (HSH) are some of the more recognized ones. These are classified as sugar alcohols or polyols. They are not broken down by saliva and are absorbed mainly in the large intestine. Proponents of “net carbs” are advising to factor their values as 1 to 2 grams/calorie instead of 4 grams/calorie for traditional carbs.

Another issue is that proponents of “net carbs” are promoting is to subtract the dietary fiber values from the total carb value. The reasoning behind this is that fiber slows down digestion and breakdown into glucose.

However promising these two methods might seem to reduce the total carbs in a given meal, the danger still might lay in consuming too many or the wrong type of carbs.

How does all this fit into Zone nutrition principles?

  • The Zone advocates the use of low glycemic foods, best eaten in their natural state. Overcooking or overprocessing can alter the glycemic index of a given food. For example look at the GI differences for these foods:
    • whole orange=medium, orange juice=high
    • wheat berries=medium, wheat flour=high
    • pineapple chunks=medium, crushed pineapple=high
  • The lower the glycemic load of a meal, the longer it sustains you by releasing nutrients over a longer time, giving you good blood glucose:insulin control.
  • Many low glycemic foods are naturally high in fiber. Why deduct this fiber from the balance?
  • Sugar alcohols can cause bloating, intestinal problems and diarrhea in sensitive individuals.

In the Zone, EVERY meal is balanced with the proper amount of good carbs to supply energy (40%), lean proteins to supply amino acids to build and repair muscles (30%), and good fats in the form of Omega-9, Omega-6 and Omega-3 oils to provide essential fatty acids which are the building blocks for eicosanoids, the “super hormones” which control cell function. Essential fatty acids also nourish the brain.

Wouldn’t it be better to provide your body with a formula for success by eating natural foods in the right ratio/formula, account for their true values and benefits, and allow it to regulate itself, than to adjust criteria to fit the current fads?

I can attest to the power of the Zone. It is more than a diet, it is a prescription for life.

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