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Nutrition Section

Storing Glucose

Why does my doctor say I can't have sugar in my coffee any more, but tells me to eat pasta, rice and starchy foods. Isn't starch another form of sugar?

That's the question I asked my doctor and when he just kept repeating "You need carbohydrate in your diet" over and over, I realised he really didn't have an answer at all. Since then I have discussed this with two dieticians as well as other doctors and received the same response. While they agreed that carbohydrate was a stored form of glucose and was digested (broken down) into glucose. They even agreed that it should be more effective to reduce starchy foods rather than sugar but no-one could explain why the medical profession did not teach this.

Foods high in carbohydrates

High carbohydrate foods

There are many different types of starch molecules, all made up of glucose molecules packed tightly in a spring or helix formation. The simplest starch molecule breaks down into 22 glucose molecules, whereas one sugar (sucrose) molecule breaks down into only 6 glucose molecules and it's glucose that our bodies store as fat, so doesn't it make more sense to reduce starch, than sugar?

Here, in simple terms, I will take you through the basic role of glucose, how it is created, stored, consumed and how the excess is processed in our metabolism.

1. Glucose - the energy source.

Both plants and animals use glucose as an energy source, however only plants have the ability to manufacture glucose from air and water. Using sunlight in a process called photosynthesis they break the water up into hydrogen and oxygen, the carbon dioxide in the air into carbon and oxygen. They then recombine these elements to form glucose and the left over oxygen is released into their environment.

We won't get into the complex chemistry here but below is a glucose molecule. Notice how it only contains hydrogen (H), oxygen (O) and carbon (C), the elements of found in both air and water.

Glucose molecule

Glucose molecule - notice how it is only made of Carbon (C), Oxygen (O)) and hydrogen (H)

2. Creating Starch

Plants make an excess of glucose on sunny days which they need to store for night time and winter, when there is less sunlight. They do this by chaining glucose molecules together either in long strings or complex networks. This more complex molecule is very compact so it's an ideal energy store for plants, packing lots of glucose molecules into a small space. It's called starch. There are many different types of starch, depending how the glucose molecules are linked to each other. Below is a simple section of a starch molecule, showing 4 glucose molecules linked end to end.

Section of a starch molecule showing 4 glucose

When the plant runs low on glucose, special enzymes, (called amylase), split off glucose molecules from the starch molecule.Mouse over the picture below to see how this is done.

Notice how the glucose molecules form a semicircle? As more glucose molecules are added, the starch molecule forms a spiral. It becomes like a tightly wound spring. The simplest starch molecule contains only 22 glucose molecules but more complex starch molecules can contain thousands.

3. Digesting starch into Glucose

We eat the plant cells as fruits, nuts, grains or vegetables and digest the starch. In our saliva is the enzyme alpha-amylase, which we mix with the food when we chew it. It starts breaking down the starches in our food, into glucose or other more complex sugars which will be broken down into glucose later in the gut, where the pancreas adds more amylase enzymes to the food.

Digesting starch

4. Storing Glucose

Unlike plants, animals cannot make starch to store glucose. When there is an excess of glucose they use a different method. They convert glucose into fats.


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Perhaps the comparison intentional?


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So isn't it common sense?

So if excessive glucose is stored as fat, which is consumed in times of a glucose shortage, doesn't it make sense, in the war on obesity, to target the largest source of glucose - the starches, rather than the sugars?

Obese bathers at the beach

Obesity is a worldwide problem now.

Lets use one of the smallest starch molecules - a chain of only 22 glucose molecules - for our example.

If I went to a doctor here in Australia and said which should I cut out of my diet, a teaspoon of sugar in my coffee or a teaspoon of cornflour to thicken my gravy, most doctors would recommend I cut out the sugar. I suppose it's tempting when we talk about "blood sugar" levels, to target the teaspoon of sugar. The truth is by cutting out the teaspoon of cornflour to thicken my gravy, I have cut out the equivalent of over 22 teaspoons of sugar!

(Remember I said we'd choose a simple starch which breaks up into only 22 sugars? Well cornflour is not the simplest starch. We're talking about 42 teaspoons of sugar here!)

It's not rocket science - so for all the diabetic sufferers out there, cutting back on starch rich foods is far more effective in reducing blood glucose levels (blood sugar) than cutting back on sugar - at least three times more effective. Since excess glucose is stored as fat - it will also be more effective for weight loss too.

What are the high starch foods?

Flour is the most concentrated form of starch we usually eat, so cut back all flour based foods like breads, cakes, biscuits, pies, pancakes, scones etc. These are the worst because the starch is highly processed and readily digestible - in other words we use little energy converting it into glucose. Complex starch foods like rye and oats, require more energy to convert to glucose, so switching to whole grain breads and reducing your bread intake is a good start. When you look at all the dietary information that shows your ideal dietary intake, there at the base of the dietary pyramid are the foods we are told to eat most, is all the starch rich foods!

Dietry Food Pyramid

The food pyramid according to the medical profession today.

Notice the high starch foods at the bottom - the foods we are told to eat most of. Not much has changed! And here's one from a 1950's Health Education Poster.

1950's Food Pyramid

...and a 1950's food pyramid - nothing has changed.

Isn't it strange that in over 60 years of dietary research, with a huge increase worldwide in diabetes and obesity, nothing has changed? If the information is correct then how come we have an obesity and diabetes epidemic today?

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