Carbohydrates: The Simple and Complex Truth

Written by: Natalie Tilluckdharry

According to Health Canada, ‘carbohydrates are the body’s most important source of energy’. However, it is one of the most widely criticized nutrients in food. Following the influx of popularized ‘low carb’ diets in the 1990’s, carbohydrates have taken the blame for obesity and have since held a negative connotation in the minds of many. In addiction and recovery, carbohydrates play a role in energy levels, anxiety, fatigue and cravings. Certain carbohydrates can help to improve these symptoms in those recovering from drugs, alcohol and food addiction.

The Basics of Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients our body relies on to produce energy. It is our body’s primary source of energy, as carbohydrates are broken down into glucose. Our body runs on glucose, which is converted in the mitochondria to usable energy called ATP.

However, not all carbohydrates are created equally. They are comprised of two groups: simple and complex carbohydrates.

Simple Carbohydrates

  • Sugar
  • Honey
  • Syrup
  • Juice
  • Milk
  • Chocolate, candy, soda etc.

 

Simple carbohydrates are broken down and absorbed quickly. Most of these products are refined, and limited in vitamins, minerals or fibre. The enzymes in our body easily digest them, and can trigger a spike in insulin, creating a ‘sugar crash’. Simple carbohydrates begin to break down into smaller components as they enter our mouth, with the help of enzymes in our saliva. Some of the glucose from these simple carbohydrates is absorbed sublingually (beneath the tongue) and our blood glucose levels begin to rise. The body further breaks down the simple carbohydrates in the stomach, and the remaining glucose is absorbed within the small intestines into the bloodstream, raising blood glucose levels. This creates a burst in energy levels, which is short lived. The body reacts to this sudden rise in blood glucose by signalling the pancreas to secrete insulin – a hormone that regulates the concentration of glucose in the bloodstream. As insulin is released, it initiates glucose uptake, creating a sudden drop in blood glucose. This ‘sugar crash’ has a major effect on our physical and mental state.

Effects of Simple Carbohydrates

The swift changes in blood glucose cause feelings of highs and lows from jitteriness and excitability to anxiety, fatigue and mood swings. This is a concern for those in recovery from drugs and alcohol. In early recovery, when symptoms of low mood and anxiety are prevalent, foods rich in simple carbohydrates can amplify these feelings. Also, many people afflicted with addiction also suffer with concurrent mental health disorders including depression, anxiety and sleep disorders. While foods high in simple carbohydrates are often sought out for comfort or to satisfy sugar cravings, too much can create negative consequences in ones’ recovery by altering mood and emotions. So should addicts avoid simple carbohydrates altogether? Not at all. Indulging in these foods is part of healthy eating when used in moderation as part of a balanced diet.

Complex Carbohydrates

  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Breads
  • Cereals (bran, oats, etc.)
  • Starches (i.e. potatoes)
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables

 

Complex carbohydrates are rich in vitamins, minerals and fibre. Fibre, which is not digested or absorbed by our body, slows down the rate of absorption of glucose and does not create the highs and lows as mentioned above. As glucose is slowly absorbed in the small intestines, the demand on the pancreas to secrete large amounts of insulin is less significant. This creates a slow and steady rise in blood glucose without the ‘crash’, and provides long lasting energy. Fibre also helps reduce risk of heart disease, elevated cholesterol, and improves gastrointestinal health, which is often compromised in many addicts. Grain products that are refined during the manufacturing process such as white rice and pasta lose the outer layer of the grain, which contains much of its nutritional value. However most products are now fortified, meaning foods are enriched with extra micronutrients. Although there is a difference in quality of white versus whole grain products, they both offer various health benefits and importance in our diet. Health Canada recommends making half of daily grain products as ‘whole grain’.

Effects of Complex Carbohydrates

Various vitamins and minerals are found in complex carbohydrates. For example, B vitamins are found in grain products, fruits and vegetables. B vitamins function in the production of energy, the central nervous system and synthesis of neurotransmitters. We require certain amounts of these vitamins in order for our body to carry out these essential roles. During the addiction, when drugs and alcohol are abused, healthy eating is often not practised. Many addicts consume a diet low in complex carbohydrates such as fruits and vegetables, creating inadequate levels of these vitamins – also known as insufficiencies. This affects the numerous roles that these vitamins perform, causing serious damage affecting the nervous system and cognition. In recovery from addiction, complex carbohydrates help to stabilize energy levels, restore vitamin and mineral functions within the body and reverse the damage incurred from the effects of the addictive substance.

Carbohydrates, like all foods have a place in healthy eating. The simple negative association that has been developed with this entire group of food means we deprive ourselves of the many health benefits they offer. Canada’s Food Guide for Healthy Eating recommends that adults consume 7-10 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, in addition to 6-8 servings of grains a day. These amounts help us meet our needs for vitamins, minerals and nutrients and contribute to your overall health and vitality (Health Canada, 2011). In recovery, choosing the right foods can help our bodies heal and continue to live a sober life.

For more information on recommendations for grains, fruits and vegetables, go to Health Canada’s Healthy Food Guide for Eating:
http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/fn-an/food-guide-aliment/index-eng.php

In the next article, we will explore how carbohydrates influence emotional eating and why food can become an addiction.

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