As individuals with eating disorders, we all know our relationship with food is rather complicated. No matter if we are an anorexic, bulimic, binge eater, or disordered eater; in our eyes food is one of the few “effective” coping skills we possess. That is exactly why I decided to produce a set of nutrition posts that I shall dub the “Food as Medicine Series”. My goal in these posts is to educate each and every one of you on the basics of sound nutrition and to completely alter how you look at each of the different food groups. We’ll begin by looking at the macronutrient that has suffered quite a bit of criticism in the world of dieting – carbohydrates.
I know that carbohydrates can be a major fear food group for those with eating disorders. This is completely understandable considering the fact that over years carbohydrates have been accused of everything from our nation’s inability to wear skinny jeans and chronic weight-related illnesses like diabetes. But what if I were to tell you that these accusations were completely ludicrous and that there is no reason to be plagued with intense guilt when you consume a slice of bread or a serving of pasta? Well, that’s what I am about to do.
So let’s start off with answering a basic, but common question – what exactly are carbohydrates? No, they are not some malicious substance looking to sabotage your waistline. Actually they are an important type of biomolecule (any molecule produced by a living organism) comprised of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen in a ratio that is quite similar to water. The inclusion of carbohydrates in your diet is paramount due to the fact these molecules play a significant role in your body. They are your body’s main source of fuel, especially if you are talking about your central nervous system which requires a constant supply of glucose (an important simple sugar that is the primary fuel for in your body). Another important job of carbohydrates is to protect your body from turning to protein and/or fat for energy. When you do not ingest enough carbohydrates to meet your energy requirements, the body is forced to turn to fat and/or protein in order to continue to function. Unfortunately this is not good because first of all your body needs protein to carry out important roles like tissue growth. Second of all, if your body has no choice but to use fat for energy, it can result in the production of ketones. Ketones are strong acids and if they build up it can cause a condition known as ketosis. This condition upsets the natural balance of acids and bases in the body which can do quite a number on your cells. Ketosis is one of the key elements in the success the many low-carb diets, but it is also the reason why many people who go on low-carb diets experience symptoms like bad breath, nausea, fatigue, constipation, and headaches. Plus the long-term side effects of low-carb diets are not known and some health experts believe the high amounts of fat and animal-based proteins found on these diet regimes can result in an increased risk of heart problems and some types of cancer.
Now that we know the basic but crucial functions of carbs, it’s time to start digging a little deeper into the topic. You may have heard a lot about simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates and I bet you’d like to understand a little bit more about these two groups. Simple carbohydrates are sugars with a simple structure that contain only one or two monosaccharide (the building blocks for all carbohydrates) molecules. Due to the fact they are simple in structure, they are easily broken down by the body to use as energy or store as glycogen. Complex carbohydrates on the other hand, have a rather intricate structure composed of many units of sugar. Their involved built allows them to be metabolized slower, giving you a sustained amount of energy.
Dietary fiber is surprisingly classified as a complex carbohydrate, but what makes fiber different is the fact that it is actually not readily absorbed by the body. So why do we need fiber then if our body just doesn’t have the capability to digest it? Well, let’s start off with getting familiar with the two different kinds of fiber – soluble fiber and insoluble fiber. The soluble fiber team gots its name from the fact that these fibers dissolve or swell up in water. The star players include pectins (a fiber found between the cell walls of plants), gums (a fiber typically found in the exudates of plant stems), and mucilages (which are slimey fibers that are produced in the seeds of certain plants, such as flax seeds and okra). Once these guys make their way into your body they get right to work. Since they swell up in water, they actually slow the emptying of food in your stomach, bind to bile acids which helps decrease your cholesterol, and provide bulk in one’s diet in order to prevent spastic colon pressure. Insoluble fiber on the other hand (which is made up of cellulose, lignin, and hemicellulose) just could care less about the idea of swelling up in water. It likes itself just the way it is. Just because it doesn’t turn into a slimy gel though doesn’t mean its useless. Actually, it’s perfect for folks who are struggling with constipation (which a lot of people with eating disorder struggle with) because this type of fiber helps move food along your long digestive tract and adds some much needed bulk to one’s stool. Pretty cool, right?
All in all, carbohydrates are nothing to fear. This crucial biomolecule plays an essential role in the inner workings of our bodies and despite what those diet books and commercials claim, you need to eat them. You do though need to watch out for what type of carbohydrates you eat. You want to include complex carbs in your diet as much as possible and kick out sources of simple carbs since they lack the wondrous benefits of their intricate counterparts (like fiber!). So go ahead and grab a slice of 100% whole wheat bread and as you bite into its fluffy, nutty goodness remember not to feel guilty. All you are doing is providing your body with a source of energy that is jam-packed with fiber, vitamins, and minerals. So what is there to feel bad about? Absolutely nothing.