Carbohydrates - Part 2

Paul Skinner, MS RD LD

In my last article, I indicated my intent in Part 2 of this series to analyze the Food Guide Pyramid. However, due to the second anniversary of Mike and Ray Mentzer's passing, I've decided to take a different approach to get my point across and to relate some of my family's history and the reasons I made the decision to learn as much as possible about carbohydrates.

On February 14, 1992, about eight months after the deaths of Mike and Ray, my father died of a cardiac arrest. My wife and I were celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary and, upon returning home, I received a frantic call from my brother that my dad was in the hospital, hooked up to a ventilator. In my mind, I knew he was not going to make it and accepted that fact intellectually, putting my grief aside for the time being. I arrived at the hospital and beheld what appeared to be a lifeless body kept alive by a machine. He was taken off the ventilator the following morning.

My father had suffered from Parkinson's Disease for the last 13 years of his life, which made it necessary for him to take many medications. His only pleasure came from eating, and the medications he took caused him to crave, and consume, copious amounts of simple carbohydrate foods. He continued to work out, but his limited mobility reduced the amount of exercise he was capable of doing. When I learned from the autopsy report that he had heart disease and hyperlipidemia, I was unwilling to accept it just because "that sort of thing did not run in our family."

After the Mentzers' and my father's deaths, I began to analyze my own health and physical condition. I was constantly hungry and ate even when I was satiated. In fact, a physician who was a friend of the family approached my brother at my father's funeral and commented on how obese I had become, questioning how a dietitian had let himself become so overweight. A similar observation was made by a patient in the hospital; when I told him that I was his dietitian, he said, "You look like you need a dietitian".

These tragic deaths rekindled my passion for bodybuilding, and maintaining excellent physical conditioning and good health. I was 226 pounds at 5'5" tall with a body-fat of 24%. Even though I was weight training, I was carrying far too much adipose tissue, and I indulged in all kinds of unhealthy carbohydrates as though it were an addiction. Therefore, I set a goal for myself to enter three bodybuilding contests and to become as lean as possible. My quest was to discover which carbohydrates are not compliant with good dietary practice, and in contrast, those that are well tolerated by the metabolic system.

I lost 61 pounds and entered the first the contest weighing 165 pounds. I was lean but needed about another month to peak. I placed 3rd in my Open class and 4th overall in the Sub-masters (35-45 years of age) class. I feel better and have control over my eating - not because of will power, but because of behavior modification strategies that helped me cognitively, biochemically and socially.

If you are a bodybuilder, if you want to lose body-fat, or if you simply wish to remain as healthy as possible, you must recognize the necessity of carbohydrates and not "throw the baby out with the bath water" because someone has alleged that all carbohydrates are inimical to good health. When you perform squats, for example, the lungs gasp for air and the legs burn because the body is not able to get enough oxygen to the cells, making weight-training an anaerobic activity, during which the metabolism burns mostly blood glucose. For this reason, Mike advocated 60% of calories should come from carbohydrates for productive workouts. So let's talk about the healthy and unhealthy carbohydrates.

Unhealthy Carbohydrates

I use the term 'unhealthy' with reference to consumption of certain carbohydrates because of two possible results: (1) over-stimulation of insulin from the pancreas leading to over-consumption of calories and obesity, high fat levels in the bloodstream, and heightened levels of glucose if you are prone to diabetes; (2) many carbohydrates contain trans-fatty-acids (trans-fat), for example, the unnatural fat created by adding hydrogen to a liquid unsaturated fat like corn oil (a healthy natural fat) to convert it to margarine. You'll know something has trans-fat in it when one of its ingredients is listed as "partially hydrogenated oil".

There have been a lot of studies during the past decade confirming the correlation between trans-fat and elevated low-density lipid cholesterol (LDL-C), the "bad" cholesterol. The liver does not recognize trans-fat as a natural molecular structure; and though the claim for most of these fats is that they are made from vegetable oil and have no cholesterol, they actually not only raise the "bad" cholesterol level, but there are some findings that trans-fat may damage blood vessels. When a blood vessel is damaged, an LDL-C globule settles into the damaged area, other LDL-C attach on, and this can form a blockage in that particular vessel. You're probably wondering why I am talking about fat in an article about carbohydrate. Well, this dovetails to my next point: a lot of processed carbohydrate snacks (french fries, donuts, cookies, shortening, potato chips and crackers) contain trans-fat because it has a long shelf life and, therefore, is economical for use by the manufacturer.

Processed carbohydrates are typically white flour products that contain little or no fiber or juices, and fruit flavored drinks (simple sugars). In fact, approximately two years ago I was intellectually awakened by the discovery that in spite of the fact that our overall fat intake has dropped, heart disease and obesity are skyrocketing. I had attended many Continuing Education sessions and learned of new studies showed that foods like pasta, white rice, white bread, and all the other low-fiber foods that make up the grain group of the Food Guide Pyramid, rapidly broke down in the digestive system and caused spikes in blood glucose levels. The pancreas would then make insulin to over-compensate, and of course, this would lead to low glucose levels, or hypoglycemia. Naturally, more of these foods would be consumed as a result, causing roller-coaster rides of blood glucose leading to overeating.

Unfortunately, the public has not been well educated on what constitutes a healthy grain product. Donuts and Rice Krispies are not on par with bran cereals or whole grain breads. Apple juice is practically useless and is not the dietary equivalent of an apple. One professor stated that most "100% juice" is simply soda pop combined with a Vitamin C pill and a lot of unnecessary calories. When you note a juice drink label that says "contains 10% real fruit juice", it's not telling you anything significant; and the other 90% are ingredients such as corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, and sucrose (table sugar), which cause spikes in glucose. A person would be better off eating fruit-in fact, there are studies that show juice consumption is one of the major reasons for childhood obesity. Children are drinking fruit juice and fruit drinks as thirst quenchers.

Healthy Carbohydrates

Whenever I get into the discussion of choosing healthy carbohydrates with my patients, the first thing they do is read me a list of foods and ask me to name the ones they have permission to eat. What I do is give them a rule of thumb to follow:

  • Eat fresh fruits, vegetables and dried beans with a glycemic index of 50 or below. (The glycemic index is an indicator of how fast a carbohydrate causes your blood glucose to rise after consumption. You can find a glycemic index indicator on-line or at any book store.)

  • If you choose rice, instant cereal, pasta, or a bread product, make sure it has at least three grams of dietary fiber per serving; when choosing a cold cereal, make sure it has at least six grams of dietary fiber per serving. Make sure the cereal contains no added sugar or any of the other sweeteners mentioned. Add fruit or nuts for flavor instead.
  • I mention fiber, because fiber is not used as a carbohydrate "energy" source, but it is used for roughage. If you eat a food with 15 grams of carbohydrates and 8 grams of dietary fiber, you've actually only consumed 7 grams of carbohydrates (15-8 = 7).
  • I would also eliminate or limit caffeine, because it stimulates the appetite and affects blood sugar levels much like processed carbohydrates. Switch to decaf teas or coffees instead.
  • Milk is also a carbohydrate. Some of you are lactose-intolerant or may not tolerate other dairy products. You may want to substitute with soy milk or rice milk (lactose free).
  • Keep a Food Diary, using a book that contains Calories, Carbohydrates and Fat in combination with your glycemic index list.
    Take-Home Message

    I would recommend 3 meals, or 5- 6 small meals, daily. Do not let more than five hours pass by without a meal. Eat before you get hungry and combine foods from each food group. Avoid processed foods, read labels for high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sugar, and partially hydrogenated oils. Eat natural fats from meats, dairy, and butter (not margarine). I would rather you add half-n-half in your decaf coffee or use butter on your toast instead of margarine, but use it sparingly because saturated fat can raise your LDL-C. Always combine something from each food group with each meal for a slow breakdown of carbohydrate into the bloodstream, reduction in insulin production, and greater satiety to prevent you from over eating calories.

    We were not meant to handle a large influx of carbs. In nature, our carb sources typically have a lot of fiber, reducing the amount of carbs used for energy. Processed carbs are a product of the late 19th century - and the cause of many of our dietary health problems.

    This article is only the tip of the iceberg, and everyone is different in the way he or she responds to exercise and diet, even though the premise of energy balance concerning calories is basically universal. Eating the way I described will lead to steady energy levels and more productive workouts. You will not suffer from frequent bouts of hunger or cloudy thinking.

    In my next article, I will discuss the subject of protein and its importance - as well as its overuse in bodybuilding and its possible underuse by the layperson or average athlete.

    We hope you have enjoyed Paul Skinner's Article. If you have not done so, you may read Part I by clicking here.

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