Almost everyday a patient tells me they believe eating 5 times a day is important. They remember hearing that eating multiple times a day helps keep their blood sugar up. To make matters worse, patients believe they are suppose to specifically eat carbohydrates throughout the day.
I understand why they believe this. I hear and read about needing to eat to keep one’s blood sugar up and quite frankly, I’d like to clobber the person who started this myth. The only thing this kind of advice leads to is people eating too many calories and an even more excessive amount of carbohydrates than they had already been eating.
Although I believe that most of the individuals providing this advice do so with the best of intentions, they are greatly mistaken and need to brush up on some basic biochemistry and physiology.
We Don’t Need To Eat To Keep Our Blood Sugar Up
Our Stone Age ancestors were constantly exposed to the risk of an inconsistent food supply and might go several days or weeks without having anything to eat. We were designed over millions of years to survive without food for many days and weeks at a time. Because of this evolutionary process, you have an internal regulatory system that is able to produce all the glucose and energy necessary to fuel your body without continually eating.
I say this because it is a common misperception that your blood sugar may decline if you don’t consistently consume nutrients, especially carbohydrates. Your body can produce all the blood sugar it needs from tissue sources such as the amino acids stored in your muscle or the fatty acids stored in your body fat. I tell patients that if I locked them away for a week without only water to drink, they may experience a wide variety of symptoms but their blood sugar levels will be normal the entire time.
A simple example that reinforces this fact is that all over the world, there are countless millions of unfortunate individuals who do not have enough to eat on a regular basis. If these individuals needed a constant intake of food to maintain their blood sugar, they would quickly be in severe medical trouble. But in fact, as limited as the nutritional resources are for many people of the world, they do not experience symptoms of low blood sugar because of their minimal food intake.
Another bit of evidence that we don’t need carbohydrates all the time is the wide variety of religions that incorporate a fasting ritual in their services or holidays. The rituals wouldn’t have been maintained over many centuries if humans needed to maintain their food intake to maintain a constant blood sugar level. Religious leaders would of prohibited the fasting rituals if people seemed to suffer from them.
What Are Carbohydrates and What Are They Used For
Carbohydrate is the term for a wide range of molecules that are often categorized as starch, sugar or fiber. They usually are derived from plant leaves, roots, seeds or fruit. A few exceptions to this rule are honey and the sugar found in milk.
Sugar is a small molecule that comes in many forms (glucose, fructose, sucrose, lactose) and all types of sugars can eventually be stored as fat or burned as a source of fuel for our cells. Starch is a term for a molecule that is a long chain of smaller sugar molecules hooked together to form a single long molecule.
Starches are digested in our intestinal tract into individual sugar molecules and then absorbed into our blood stream. These long chains of sugar molecules are more slowly digested and released into the blood stream. Because of their slow digestion, they often result in a slower and less intense rise in our insulin levels.
Complex carbohydrates are simply another term often used to describe starches. Think of starches and complex carbohydrates as a time-release form of sugar or energy for the body. Fiber is the term for carbohydrates that we can not digest nor absorb.
See my Science of Hunger Guide for more information about carbohydrates and protein.
Your Body May Not Even Need Any Carbohydrates What-So-Ever
Over the last several years, researchers have been investigating whether we need any carbohydrates in our diet at all and it seems the answer is no. Our body is able to convert fatty acids and amino acids into all the glucose we require. Even the often-touted ‘carb loading’ that many athletes engage in before an endurance event has been shown not to have anything to do with the body’s need for sugar (glucose) as energy.
Many years ago researchers demonstrated that endurance athletes seemed to perform better when they ingested carbohydrates before and during an event such as a long distance race. While it is true that consuming sugar helps the body perform better but it has nothing to do with the sugar acting as an energy source.
Various studies have shown that activation of sweet receptors in the mouth by sugar causes stimulation of the brain to push the body harder. The improved athletic performance is from brain stimulation and not from more sugar (glucose) being available to the body.
As a matter of fact, athletes who rinse and spit about every 10 minutes generally perform better than athletes who rinse and swallow the sugar containing drink. Research hasn’t figured out the reason for this exactly but some research suggests sugary drinks during endurance events seem to cause some gastrointestinal distress for some athletes. This might be why they don’t perform as well.
Why You Feel Better When You Eating Frequently
Many patients mistakenly assume they need to continue eating through the day because if they don’t, they feel shaky, nauseated, weak or have a grumbling stomach. And likewise, the symptoms seem to be improved after eating food.
These symptoms are generally due to a mild build-up of stomach acid caused by long term excessive carbohydrate ingestion. Fortunately, this problem often resolves after reducing carbohydrate intakes to less than 100 grams per day for a month or two.
Ingesting food simply stimulates the stomach to empty the acid thereby causing a reduction of the symptoms. The next time you feel as if your blood sugar is low, try eating a rapid antacid such as Tums or Rolaids and you’ll find your symptoms will go away just as easily.
For more information, read my article entitled Stomach Acid and Hunger at DrNemechek.com