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Diabetes And Heart Disease: Carbohydrates

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The fuel that powers our bodies is glucose. This sugar molecule can be absorbed into the blood stream and transported around the body, by the heart, to the muscles and organs. Carbs are one of the sources of glucose in our diet.

Carbs come in three categories: sugars, starches, and fibres. Sugars and starches are broken down in the body into glucose molecules that enter the blood stream. Fibre is not broken down by the digestive system and provides no nutritional value. It does help lower cholesterol levels and keeps your bowels working properly.

Carbs range in complexity. Simple carbs are broken down and absorbed by the body very quickly whilst more complex carbohydrates take longer to digest. This means that some foods can give you a rapid energy boost whilst others drip-feed energy into your body over a longer period of time.

How does sugar make me fat?

Your body is a machine – it requires fuel to function. We provide that fuel by eating food. Our food gets broken down in our digestive system into glucose molecules that are absorbed into the bloodstream and moved around the body to fuel our organs and muscle. This is what we call blood sugar.

The problem with the human body is that we don’t really have a proper fuel tank to store excess glucose. If we don’t have enough blood sugar we begin to feel tired, weak and hungry. Eating some food raises our blood sugar levels and makes us feel better. However, if we eat food that makes blood sugar levels go too high there is no place to store that extra energy. Our body produces insulin in the pancreas to lower the blood sugar levels. This glucose is converted into fat molecules – the most efficient way for our body to store the excess energy.

A slow release of glucose into the blood stream is much better than a super-charged hit. Your body is designed to function best with a constant supply of glucose. Taking a big hit of glucose, which is then turned into fat, and then trying to burn off the fat (i.e. turn the fat back into glucose) is far less efficient.

Glycaemic Scores

The glycaemic load and glycaemic index are tools that scientists use to calculate how much glucose a food releases and how fast it gets released.

The Glycaemic Index (GI) tells us the speed of sugar release in comparison to eating pure glucose. A watermelon has a GI of 70. That means that the sugars in watermelon are absorbed into your blood at 70% of the speed as pure glucose.

What GI doesn’t tell you, is how much glucose watermelon actually contains. For that we need to use the Glycaemic Load (GL). This score tells us how much carbohydrate is present in the food. For example, 150 grams of carrot contain just 8 grams of carbohydrate. The same weight of sweet potato contains 25 grams. That means you’d haver to eat three times as much carrot to get the same energy boost.

The glycaemic scores are useful tools when choosing a healthy diet. Foods that release large amounts of energy very quickly should be avoided in favour of slow release foods.


10705 Revised November 2012

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