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A New Way of Looking at Proteins, Fats and Carbohydrates

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Introduction

Most traditional discussions of macronutrients - carbohydrates, fats, proteins - revolve around the issue of quantity, either as the gram amount of these molecules necessary per day, or as the percentage of the diet that they should each contribute. While this is an important issue to consider, when it comes to these essential nutrients, quantity should not be the only concern. These three classes of macronutrients are complex groups, each of which contains a variety of components. You can eat the same quantity of protein, carbohydrate and fat, but deliver very different nutriture to your body depending on the sources of these molecules. For example, both lard and olive oil are fats, but the information they provide to your cells is very different. Therefore, it is not just quantity, but quality that matters.

Following is an overview of macronutrients that will explore this topic, so you can get a clear picture of how the macronutrients in the World's Healthiest Foods promote health and wellness.

A New Way of Looking at Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are a varied combination of both very small and very large molecules that comprise about 40 to 45 percent of the energy supply for your body. In addition, certain types of carbohydrates, such as fiber and resistant starches don't get taken into your body for energy, but play important health-promoting roles in your gastrointestinal tract, supporting digestion and absorption, and helping you eliminate toxins and waste products.

Carbohydrates are are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, which are arranged into small units called sugars, or monosaccharides. Small carbohydrates, like glucose or sucrose (table sugar) are composed of one or two sugar units, respectively, and are the molecules that give food a sweet taste. These molecules are sometimes called "simple sugars" because they are small (only one or two units), and are quickly digested, providing immediate energy to the body.

Larger carbohydrate molecules, which include fibers and starches, are composed of at least 10 monosaccharides linked together. These large carbohydrates, called polysaccharides (poly=many) may contain up to several hundred monosaccharides linked together in different ways. Another term commonly used to describe carbohydrates is oligosaccharides, a type of carbohydrate molecule that is in-between polysaccharides and monosaccharides in size, and features two to ten monosaccharides bonded together.

Let's look at each of these types of carbohydrates and how the food you eat influences the quality of these important nutrients you receive.

The Simple Sugars: Monosaccharides and Disaccharides

Monosaccharides

Monosaccharides are true simple sugars since, as one sugar unit only, they exist in the form in which they can be directly absorbed into your body upon ingestion. Unlike the other carbohydrates, they don't require being broken down during digestion, so when you eat a food containing monosaccharides, these sugars quickly get into your bloodstream, increasing your blood sugar and providing immediate energy. Examples of monosaccharides include glucose, fructose and galactose.

Monosaccharides are present in most foods in at least some amount, but are particularly high in foods such as ripe fruit, and honey. Monosaccharides are an important energy source, but when too much of these simple sugars are consumed at once--especially when they are not balanced by complex carbohydrates like oligosaccharides or polysaccharides that take longer to digest and thus help maintain longer-term energy production--monosaccharides can cause a large increase in blood sugar, followed by an abrupt drop. The result is a jolt of energy quickly followed by a feeling of being tired, shaky, or run-down soon afterward. This type of fluctuation in blood sugar, if it occurs frequently, can lead to blood sugar dysregulation conditions such as hypoglycemia and diabetes mellitus. Proceesed foods often add high amounts of monosaccharides such as fructose and glucose to promote a sweet taste, which sells more product, but does not sustain health.

Disaccharides

Disaccharides contain two monosaccharides (di=two) bonded together, and include sugars such as lactose (milk sugar), sucrose (table sugar), maltose and isomaltose (sugars formed from the breakdown of starch). Disaccharides are similar to monosaccharides; that is, they provide sweet taste to food and quick energy, which is why they are considered "simple sugars" as well. As such, disaccharides also are highly represented in processed foods, and their frequent consumption can lead to blood-sugar disregulation, the same as monosaccharides.

Since these carbohydrates contain two sugars, disaccharides require some digestion to break them into two one-sugar units for absorption, and since each disaccharide is unique, each has its own digestive enzyme. For example, the enzyme sucrase can cut sucrose into its two individual sugar units; lactase cuts lactose into its two sugars. For most disaccharides, these enzymes area readily secreted into the intestines after consuming a meal, and digestion of the disacchrides proceeds rapidly. The exception appears to be with lactose (milk sugar).

Many people lack the enzyme lactase and are therefore unable to breakdown lactose, a condition called lactose intolerance, which makes the consumption of dairy products problematic for many people. Lactose intolerance, which occurs more frequently as we age, is quite common in adults. In lactose intolerance, the undigested lactose is not absorbed and can promote growth of unfriendly bacteria in the upper intestinal tract, a condition called small bowel overgrowth. These bacteria ferment the lactose, producing gas in the small intestine that causes great discomfort, along with acid, which can cause heartburn and nausea. Even more problematic, the acid produced by this bacterial fermentation can degrade the lining of the small intestine, injuring the intestinal tract cells. This damage compromises the ability of the intestinal cells to produce enzymes for digestion, so even less disaccharide digesting enzymes are produced, and a cycle of maldigestion is perpetuated. Diets that limit disaccharides may be of benefit for persons with these concerns, and a person with lactose intolerance should not consume lactose-containing foods without having a source of lactase either in the food or taken with the food. Some studies suggest that Lactobacillus supplements are beneficial in this respect as well.

The Polysaccharides: Starch, Fiber and Resistant Starch Starch

Plants store their energy by stringing together many glucose units into a long complex of several hundred to several thousand sugar (glucose) molecules. Plant foods that contain stored energy, for example seeds that must provide energy for the young plant when it starts growing, are high in starch. When the young plant starts growing, the starch is broken down into glucose for energy.

Starch

When you eat foods that contain starch, like corn or potatoes, your body uses this starch in much the same way. Since your body must breakdown this very large molecule to individual sugar units before they can be digested, the digestion of starch takes longer than that of disaccharides; therefore, starch provides an extended, or sustained source of energy. Because they do not lead to immediate bloodsugar spikes followed by a low, but instead a more moderate, longer-term elevation of blood sugar, starches are thought to be better for health and energy.

Starches are called complex carbohydrates because they are so large. Two main types of starches exist in food: amylose and amylopectin. These starches differ in how the individual sugars they contain are linked together. This difference results in differences in how easy it is for your body to cut the starches into their individual sugar units. Amylopectin is more quickly digested than is amylose; therefore, foods that contain higer amylose than amylopectin are often suggested as substitutions for people with bloodsugar control problems, like diabetes.

Starch digestion is also influenced by how the starch is packed in the food. When food is whole, or in its natural state, marcromolecules are folded together, and starch can be encased in protein or fiber or other large molecules that must be digested before the starch itself becomes available for digestion. The result of this packaging, again, is to slow down the absorption of the individual sugar units from the starch, and to provide extended, sustained energy for a longer-term, moderate rise in blood sugar after a meal. In contrast, processed foods have removed this complex interaction. In processing, the macromolecules are initially pulled apart from each other, then added back separately. The result is starch that is more accessible for quick digestion and absorption, and causes quicker, higher rises in blood sugar, looking more like a disaccharide than a starch. Therefore, people with blood sugar control concerns, such as hypoglycemia, insulin resistance or diabetes can benefit from eating whole foods and avoiding high-starch, processed foods.

Fiber
Dietary fibers are also polysaccharides and are, therefore, considered complex carbohydrates; however, the sugar units in fiber are linked (bonded) together in such a way that your body can't break the bonds and digest them. Instead, fibers transit through your small intestines and make it all the way to your large intestine intact. This ability to move through your system to your large intestine helps speed the transit times of wastes excreted from your body; for this reason, fiber helps to support your health by reducing constipation and promoting the excretion of toxins and wastes.

Fibers that promote overall healthy digestion and waste excretion are found in vegetables, grains, and legumes and are well represented in whole foods. Often, when processed, foods have these fibers removed. For example, bran contains high levels of fibers and is removed when grains are processed. Fruit skins are also high in fiber, but are often removed when the fruit is processed for a fruit-containing product.

Much has been written about the health-promoting benefits of fiber, and ample numbers of studies support an association between high-fiber diets and a decrease in risk of many types of cancers, including colon cancer and breast cancer. Some of this benefit comes from the ability of fiber to bind and remove toxins, and to promote healthy digestion. Recent research suggests, however, that fiber provides its health-protecting benefits in other ways as well, and one of the most important appears to be its ability to promote healthy intestinal tract bacteria.

Your large intestine contains a multitude of beneficial bacteria that are required for your body's health. They are called the "friendly flora," or the beneficial symbiotic microbes, and they support the health of your whole body by promoting healthy immune function and providing important molecules to your intestinal tract cells to promote their growth, thus sustaining overall intestinal tract integrity. These microbes use some of the fibers you eat as fuel for their own growth, and through their own metabolism produce molecules called short-chain fatty acids (SCFA). SCFA production by these friendly flora has been associated with a decrease in cancerous colonic cells, reduction of serum cholesterol, and maintenance of healthy blood sugar levels and healthy intestinal tract cell walls.

Not all fiber is fermented by the friendly flora in your intestinal tract. Some, as discussed above, goes through your entire system unchanged, binding toxins and waste products as it goes, and promoting healthy elimination. Some fibers can be fermented by microbes of all types, while other fibers are preferentially fermented by the "friendly flora," the bacteria that are most beneficial to your body, including Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus. When these friendly bacteria are given their favorite types of fibers, called "prebiotic fibers," they will flourish, significantly improving the health of your digestive tract. Excellent sources of these prebiotic fibers include foods such as Jerusalem artichoke, chicory, rice fiber, and soy fiber.

The classical way of talking about fiber to divide it into two types, soluble or insoluble fiber, a classification determined by how much water a type of fiber holds. New research, however, suggests that fiber has a multitude of activities besides holding water, and that this classical distinction is not adequate. Providing a full range of all types of fibers, including prebiotic fibers, will support your immune system, and enhance healthy digestion, absorption, and the removal of wastes and toxins. In fact, the health of your gastrointestinal tract is dependent upon your consumption of the variety of fibers well-represented in the World's Healthiest Foods.

Resistant Starch

A final category of polysaccharides, or complex carbohydrates, is that of resistant starch. Resistant starch gets its name because, although it is starch, it is resistant to digestion in the small intestine. The result of this resistance is that this type of starch acts more like fiber than starch, and travels through the intestinal tract until it reaches the large intestine where, like fiber, is may be fermented by the bacteria in the colon. Research has shown that resistant starch promotes the generation of SCFAs by the bacteria in the large intestine, and therefore has many of the same health-promoting abilities as fiber. Resistant starch is found in whole grains such as brown rice, barley, whole wheat, and buckwheat.

A New Way of Looking at Protein

Proteins are extremely important because they constitute the majority of the structural tissue in your body, such as bone and the connective tissues that provide the shape and form to which your cells attach. The eminent importance of protein to our life is reflected in the term itself: protein is derived from the Greek term protos, which means "taking first place." Proteins are involved in just about every function in your body, in particular, enzymes are proteins, and enzymes are the molecules in the body that do much of the work like building new tissue, breaking down old tissue, and even providing channels in your cells' membranes to let in necessary nutrients, plus removing wastes and toxins from the body by metabolizing, or breaking them down.

Your body is constantly making new proteins to replenish those lost from tissue damage, to fight invaders and protect your body, and to provide for growth. For example, the antibodies of your immune system, some hormones of your endocrine system, the enzymes in your digestive system, and the blood coagulating factors of your circulatory system are all made of proteins.

Amino Acids

Proteins are made up of smaller molecules called amino acids that are strung together by chemical bonds like beads on a chain. To become an active, functional protein, this string of amino acids folds in on itself forming a twisted and entwined, three-dimensional structure. Proteins come in many sizes. Some chains of amino acids are quite small, for example, the hormone insulin, a protein which is only 51 amino acids long. Most proteins, however, are larger. Most of proteins in your body contain between 200-400 amino acids, for example, many of the enzymes your body uses for digestion of food such as chymotrypsin, which is 245 amino acids, or pepsinogen, which is 362 amino acids. Some of the proteins in your body are very large. The protein hemoglobin, which carries oxygen in your blood to your cells, is made of 574 amino acids; the immunoglobulins that help protect your body from infectious invaders contain 1,320 amino acids, and the ATPase complex, the enzyme at the end of the electron transport chain in the mitochondria (the energy-production factories in our cells), is composed of 9 large protein chains containing around 3,000 amino acids in total.

Individual proteins also can join together to form large protein complexes. The largest protein complexes in your body are the proteins that make up the matrix of your bone, skin, nails, hair, tissue and teeth upon which all your cells attach. These include proteins like collagen, elastin (which gives your skin its elasticity), and keratin. Collagen, for example, is composed of three strings of 1,000 amino acids each that twist together into a long, cylindrical chain of 3000 amino acids. This chain then complexes with many other collagen chains to form a thicker, stronger cylinder, called a fibril. Fibrils can have 6 to 20 or more collagen chains per section, which means they can contain tens of thousands of amino acids in one protein structure. Fibrils provide the structure upon which your bone mineralizes, and they crisscross throughout your soft tissue to keep your cells in contact with each other.

The single amino acid is similar to a simple sugar, in that it is the single unit your body works with to build larger protein chains. And, in a manner similar to the digestion of carbohydrates, your body breaks proteins down to amino acids during the digestion process, taking in only the small single amino acid unit, or sometimes a two or three amino acid unit. Like carbohydrates, amino acids are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, but unlike carbohydrates, amino acids also contain nitrogen. In fact, amino acids are your body's way of getting this necessary component: nitrogen.

How Much Protein Do I Need and How Do I Get It?

A healthy adult is estimated to need around 40 to 65 grams of amino acids per day. If this is not provided in the food you eat, your body will begin to break down its own muscle to support its need for amino acids. Inadequate intake of amino acids from protein can lead to stunting, poor muscle formation, thin and fragile hair, skin lesions, a poorly funcitoning immune system, and many other symptoms. You get these amino acids primarily from the protein in plant and animal foods, which requires digestion. Free amino acids, which require no digestion, just absorption in the small intestines, are also present in whole foods, but are often removed during processing. Although vegetables and grains do provide some proteins, you get the majority of your protein from nuts, legumes, eggs, fish, meats and dairy products.

In processed foods, protein is sometimes provided as hydrolyzed proteins, which means it has been chemically cut into smaller chains of from two to 200 amino acids, which are called peptides. Some specially produced foods for hospital or healthcare use are made of elemental amino acids; these products provide the free amino acids themselves and require no digestion before absorption.

Peptides are short strings of amino acids bonded together. Since there are twenty different amino acids, a great number of different peptides can be created. When peptides link together, they undergo chemical processes that cause their molecules to fold in upon themselves, creating a complex structure classified as a protein.

The Essential Amino Acids: What Are They and Why Do I Need Them?

Amino acids are made into approximately 20 different versions, and proteins require all of these at some level, so for your body to make a protein, it must have all 20 amino acids available. Your body can synthesize many of these amino acids from other molecules; however, nine amino acids cannot be made in your body. These are called the "essential" amino acids, because your diet must supply them for your survival. Examples of essential amino acids include leucine, methionine, phenylalanine, and tryptophan.

All proteins have these essential amino acids, but your body requires them in certain amounts and ratios to each other. Animal foods contain these amino acids in ratios that are similar to those found in humans, while most plant-based foods do not. In the past, people were concerned that vegetarians and people whose diets consisted mostly of plant foods were at risk of protein deficiency since they were not eating "complete" proteins. More recently, this old theory has been rejected. Researchers and healthcare practitioners have suggested that since different plant-based foods provide different essential amino acids, eating a varied diet featuring whole grains, legumes, and vegetables does provide all of these important building blocks to sustain health and promote vitality. In addition, some plant-based foods, such as soy, actually feature an essential amino acid protein profile similar to animal-based foods.

A New Way of Looking at Fats

What are Fats?

Fats are probably the most complex of the macromolecules in foods because there are so many different types of fats. Unfortunately, fats have been given a bad reputation, in part because fat is the way we store excess calories, and in part because saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, and cholesterol have been asociated with health conditions like cardiovascular disease and obesity. The facts are, however, that not only are all fats not bad, but some fats have been shown to be health-promoting, and some fats are absolutely essential for your health. So, when you think about fats, the quality of the fat, and therefore the quality of the food from which you are getting the fat, really matters.

Fats, which are also referred to as lipids, are composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen like the other macromolecules, but fats are designed in a structure that makes them insoluble in water. We call this hydrophobic (hydro=water; phobic=hating). Fats are chemically described as either unsaturated, monounsaturated or polyunsaturated. The saturated fats are straight molecules that form solids at room temperature, such as butter and the fats found in meat. Monounsaturated fats, like olive oil, are liquids at room temperature but form solids in the refrigerator. Polyunsaturated fats, which are found in high amounts in oils from grains and seeds, such as flaxseed oil, are liquid at room temperature and remain liquid even when cooled.

This different physical property of fats is one reason your body uses so many different types. One extremely important role of fats is as a major component of all the membranes in your cells. You cell membranes contain all of these different kinds of fats -- unsaturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated -- however, they are needed in different amounts. Your cells primarily need polyunsaturated fats along with some monounsaturated fat to keep your membranes, and therefore your cells, flexible and moveable. When levels of saturated fat are too high, cell membranes become inflexible and don't function well, so they can't protect the internal parts of the cell, such as its DNA, as well.

Saturated Fats and the Controversy of the "Bad" Fat

More than 50 years ago, data linking consumption of saturated fats to elevated blood cholesterol levels, atherosclerosis, and then to a higher risk of heart disease first became apparent in the literature. As regulatory agencies and scientists continually found this association, food companies became prompted to come up with no-saturated fat alternatives. No-fat foods, low-fat foods, and foods with substituted fats have appeared in ample quantities on grocery store shelves. In fact, over 15,000 such products have been promoted over the past several decades.

Excessive consumption of saturated fats can negatively affect your health since the fat you eat in your diet gets directly into your cell membranes. This valid concern about saturated fats has been generalized to all fats, however, and your body needs other fats. Saturated fats are primarily found in high amounts in processed foods and meat products, in particular the meats that have white, solid fat on them. In addition, the fats found in meat fats also include cholesterol, so diets high in fatty meat are also high in cholesterol.

Minimizing the consumption of saturated fats is a good idea, but minimizing the consumption of all fats is not. Consider that your brain is approximately 70 percent fat. In addition, diets low in all types of fats have been associated with increased risk of hormone abnormalities, cardiovascular disease, and decreased brain and immune function. So, the real question is not how to indiscriminately avoid all fats, but which fats, in which amounts are good for you?

The Health Promoting Fats: Monounsaturated and Polyunsaturated Fats

Monounsaturated Fats

Monounsaturated fats caught the attention of research scientists after they first notcied that people who eat a traditional Mediterranean diet have a lower risk of developing cardiovascular disese, certain types of cancer, and rheumatoid arthritis. Traditional Mediterranean diets contain high amounts of olive oil, which is high in oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid. Other monounsaturated fats include myristoleic and palmitoleic acids. In addition to olive oil, other food sources for monounsaturated fatty acids include canola oil, avocadoes, almonds, and cashews.

Research continues to support the theory that diets high in monounsaturated fats are health-promoting; however, the most exciting latest research revolves around the polyunsaturated fats, in particular, the omega-3 fatty acids.

The Health Promoting Polyunsaturated Fats

The polyunsaturated fats (PUFA) are molecules that contain many unsaturated bonds, a characteristic which distinguishes them chemically from the other fats. In practical terms, this chemical structure is the reason these fats are liquid even when cold. Many different polyunsaturated fats exist, but the ones getting the most attention from research scientists are the essential fats, linolenic acid and alpha-linoleic acid, and the omega-3 fatty acids.

The Essential PUFA Fats

Your body can make all the different fats it needs from two starting molecules, the two essential fats: linoleic acid (an omega-6 fatty acid) and alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid). Because these are essential fats, meaning your body can't make them, you must get them from your diet. All other PUFAs can be made from these fats. The omega-6 PUFAs, such as arachidonic acid, one of the major fats in your cell membranes, are made from linoleic acid. The omega-3 fats, such as docosahexaenoic acid, the main fat in your brain, are made from alpha-linolenic acid.

Linoleic acid is an omega-6 fatty acid which is plentiful in the diet of most Americans. This fat is found in at high levels in oils from grains, nuts and legumes, and is often provided in your diet by sunflower, safflower, sesame, corn, soy, and peanut oils. In the body, linoleic acid is first converted to another omega-6 fat called gamma-linolenic acid, which is also found in evening primrose oil and borage oil.

As mentioned, few people are deficient in the omega-6 essential fat, linoleic acid; this is, in part, because arachidonic acid, which is made from linoleic acid, is found at high levels in animal tissue, such as beef and poultry. Since the average Western diet contains a lot of meat, most people get high quantities of arachionic acid.

The omega-3 fats, which are produced in your body from the essential omega-3 fat -- alpha linolenic acid -- have generated much interest since studies continue to show that diets low in omega-3 fats are associated with many health diseases including chronic inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and cardiovascular disease, and behavioral syndromes like ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). Alpha-linolenic acid is found in high quantities in flax oil, canola oil, and some leafy vegetables. Some of the most important omega-3 fats, which are synthesized from alpha-linolenic acid, are docosahaenoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and these can be obtained directly from the diet as well. Excellent sources for EPA and DHA are fish and algae.

Although omega-6 fats, like arachidonic acid, play important roles in your body, consuming too many of these in comparison to the amount of omega-3 fats you consume can cause problems. This is because the fluidity, or flexibility of cell membranes is so dependent on having a variety of fats present. Since omega-6 fats are in such high quantities in most people's diets, they occupy places where omega-3 fats should be. For good health, it is vital to consider the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fats in your diet.

The proper balance of omega-3 to omega-6 is extremely important not only for healthy cell membranes, but also because omega-6 fats are the precursors for pro-inflammatory molecules--the molecules that promote and maintain inflammatory reactions. Omega-3 fats, in contrast, are the precursors for anti-inflammatory molecules. Inflammatory reactions are an integral part of they way your body protects you against infections and promotes healing, but the body must be able to turn off its inflammatory defenses when their work is done. This is one of the primary roles of the omega-3 fats. When you lack a balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fats, your body can't turn off these inflammatory reactions, which promotes conditions of chronic inflammation. Current research continues to support that diseases such as atherosclerosis, arthritis, inflammatory bowel disese, and asthma are perpetuated by a heightened inflammatory state, and that in individuals with these conditions, the pro-inflammatory omega-6 essential fats are not balanced by adequate amounts of the anti-inflammatory omega-3s.

The ideal ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 is not known, but is estimated to be around 1:2; whereas, the current ratio in the typical American diet is more like 1:25. In order to achieve a more beneficial ratio, it is important to decrease the amount of omega-6 fatty acids in your diet, while increasing the amount of omega-3 fatty acids like EPA, DHA, and alpha-linolenic acid. This can be accomplished by reducing your comsumption of meats, dairy products, and refined foods, while increasing consumption of the omega-3 rich foods such as wild-caught cold-water fish like salmon, flaxseed oil, walnuts, and leafy green vegetables.

Conclusion

Macronutrients serve as building blocks for all the vital molecules in your body. Healthy fats, in particular, provide balance for inflammation reactions and keep your cell membranes healthy. The World's Healthiest Foods provide complex carbohydrates, essential fats, and proteins that feature not just a sufficient quantity of these macronutrients, but also the full spectrum of health-promoting compounds associated with these macronutrients, while minimizing those that appear to provide less benefit. Another important reason to choose the World's Healthiest Foods as your source of macronutrients is that in these foods, the macronutrient molecules are not alone, they are complexed with the full array of vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. It is the interplay among this full range of nutrients that orchestrates not merely the absence of disease, but optimal vitality and healthy aging.


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