If you had to pick one thing, it would be processed sugars, carbohydrates, sweeteners, etc.
The trouble with carbohydrates over the last century or so has been the increased intake of refined carbohydrates. If we take a look through human history up until about one hundred years ago, our ancestors consumed vegetables, fruits, and grains in their unrefined, or whole, state.
In their natural state, carbohydrates are linked together with proteins, fats, mineral, vitamins, enzymes, and fiber- all needed for a balanced healthy diet. Whole carbohydrates are paired with essential nutrients necessary for building a healthy body devoid of nutritional deficiencies. Refined carbohydrates do not provide us with any of these. Furthermore, in order to properly digest these refined carbohydrates, the body must use its own stores of vitamins, minerals, and enzymes, depleting them further. So, if we do not have enough B vitamins in our bodies, proper digestion of carbohydrates cannot take place. Interestingly, B vitamins are removed from many carbohydrates during the refining process.
So what does the refining process actually do? It strips vegetables, fruits, and grains of their vitamin and mineral contents in an effort to look more appealing into the public. Think of white rice and white bread. Bright, lively colors are more appealing to consumers, and the food industry is well aware of this. Refined carbohydrates are usually referred to as “empty calories.”
However, one can argue they have a negative effect because the body needs to use nutritional reserves to properly digest them. Think of it as constantly withdrawing money from your savings account, but not depositing the same or more money to replace the withdrawn funds. Over time, you are going to run out of money! It can lead to nutrient deficiency over time, either clinically or sub-clinically.
The more overt matter in today’s society, however, is the diabetes epidemic running rampant all throughout the United States. Blood glucose levels are finely monitored in the body by a multitude of mechanisms. Insulin secreted by the pancreas, along with hormones from the adrenal gland and thyroid, all of which play a role in this process.
When whole, complex carbohydrates are consumed, they are digested slowly over hours. Blood sugar levels do rise, but they will eventually be brought back down to normal levels. The pancreas is able to produce insulin at the proper rate. When insulin is released into the bloodstream, it allows glucose to go into cells to be used for energy, thus lowering the blood glucose level over time.
This gives the body a slow, steady supply of glucose, able to supply enough energy needs over time. If there is extra glucose, it is stored in the liver as glycogen and used as reserves if you go for a long time without eating.
When we eat refined sugars however, they enter the bloodstream rapidly because they are already broken down into simpler forms. They cause rapid spikes in blood glucose levels soon after eating them. The body senses this rapid increase, and employs the same mechanisms used to assimilate complex carbohydrates, but in a more frantic manner.
Insulin is rapidly released by the pancreas, as the body tries its hardest to reach homeostasis and bring blood sugar levels back to normal. While this may not be an issue if it happens once, constant onslaughts of refined sugars begin to take their toll. An increased intake of these refined sugars leads to insulin resistance. In this state, insulin is released at lower-than-normal levels with normal sugar intake.
The finely tuned releases of insulin will begin to deteriorate- the correct amount of insulin is not released, which means glucose is unable to enter cells, thus raising blood sugar levels. This increases stress on the pancreas, in an effort to make enough insulin. Eventually, the pancreas is unable to create enough insulin to keep up with the barrage of glucose, leading to diabetes
Sugar, particularly in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, is omnipresent in our grocery stores, gas stations, bodegas, and fast food chains. The food industry has been adding refined sugars to foods for so long, they have ended up somewhere on almost every food shelf in the country because people like sweet foods!
This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. When humans were still hunter-gatherers, unsure of where their next meal would come from, our ancestors would stock up on whatever sweet treats they would find. They came in the form of whatever fruits and vegetables were available to them. People would eat them not only because they were hungry, but also because they were pleasing to eat. Genetically, we are drawn to these sweet foods.
The food industry has taken advantage of our genetic hard wiring, making massive profits off our desire for sweet treats. Processing sugar is cheap, allowing companies to generate massive profits. Sugar provides a taste humans desire to synthetically concocted, otherwise flavorless products.
Along with the sugar, other chemicals are added increase the shelf life of these products almost indefinitely. Sugars actually act a preservative in many of these products, as they protect against many forms of spoiling bacteria by attaching to water molecules.
When choosing carbohydrates to eat, it is extremely important to eat an abundance of vegetables, fruits, and whole grains. Variety is key as well; have you ever heard the term “eat the rainbow?” The reason for this is because it incorporates all important micronutrients and phytochemicals in high enough amounts to give us a variety of health benefits, and feed out gut bacteria the fuel they need to thrive.
Refined sweets and carbohydrates may be difficult to replace because our food industry is based around marketing the products to us.
When choosing carbohydrates to eat, it is extremely important to eat an abundance of
- Whole grains
Organically raised fruits, vegetables, and grains are safer, have a greater nutrient content, and are not destructive to our guts. Choose organically raised produce as often as possible! Check out the Environmental Working Group’s Website: EWGand look for their Clean 15 & Dirty Dozen lists.
Avoid products that have been treated with pesticides or other sprays to detract predators like vermin or bugs. Avoid genetically modified grains (whether whole or refined), as they contain exotic proteins, not found naturally. These can cause harm to the digestive tract, leading to IBS, food sensitivities, chronic inflammation, and many more. Avoid processed or refined carbohydrates/sugars such as:
- Fast food
- Energy drinks
- Junk food
- Anything you cannot pronounce in the ingredient list
Hope this helps!