Today feels like a day for a little discussion about what fuels our bodies, doesn’t it? No? Just me? Well…if you just came for the smoothie recipe and you don’t care about why they are so awesome…click here to skip ahead to the recipe for the refreshing, delicious sunrise mango smoothie.
If you’re game for a little brush up on your nutrition smarts, thanks for humoring me…
If I were to ask a room full of people for a definition of healthy eating, I would likely get as many different answers as there were seats filled. I might even get different answers from the same person from one day to the next. How is it that our knowledge of this basic requirement for human survival and thriving has gotten so complicated? No one questions what fuel to give a vehicle. If it has a diesel engine, you fill it with diesel – no questions asked. You know that doing otherwise will damage the engine. But somehow in all of our wisdom and attempts to influence each other, we have created a system of confusion where fueling our own bodies is concerned. Convenience appeals to us, so those with a vision and knack for entrepreneurship have spent millions “creating” foods that can be easily prepared, stored for long periods of time, and marketed as something special to maximize profit. And we as consumers have spent millions more buying into these so-called benefits. Others of us have adopted over-complicated systems of rules and regulations for what, how, or when to eat. Making exceptions to these rules instills guilt and regret and so we live in either servitude to our plan or constant self-condemnation. Some of us have an obsession with preparing gourmet, Pinterest feasts and indulge with reckless abandon because life’s too short to not enjoy every bite, right? No matter the method, the consumption of food often becomes the master of our time and attention.
It’s time to learn what it really means to fuel our bodies at a cellular level with the real, whole foods God gave us. Generally speaking, one of the easiest ways to ensure you’re eating good food is to start with foods that don’t have an ingredient label – whole foods. Food as it occurs in nature is not full of preservatives, flavor enhancers, chemical flavorings, and mold inhibitors. An apple contains…an apple. A head of broccoli contains…a head of broccoli. You don’t need an expiration label to tell when real food is no longer edible…you can see mold with your own eyes. When you look at the nutritional facts for any food, what you see first is the number of calories in the food, followed by the breakdown of the macro- and micronutrients – the substances needed in large and small quantities, respectively, in order to sustain life.
Calories are a measurement of the potential energy given by a food’s macronutrients. In theory, in terms of fulfilling our daily needs, we could stop there. If all other factors were equal, we could determine whether we would lose, gain, or maintain our current weight simply by finding the difference between calories consumed and calories needed. However, all other factors are in fact not equal. Consuming 2,000 calories worth of ice cream for the day (7.5 cups) would mean almost half of your calories were from fats and your micronutrient needs were sorely lacking (and you’d probably have quite a stomachache). Consuming 2,000 calories worth of carrots for the day (80 carrots) would mean that only about 5% of your calories were from fats and your micronutrient needs were pretty well satisfied (and your skin seems to be turning strangely orange-ish). It’s just not the same. In addition to differences in macronutrient composition of various foods, the way each individual body handles those calories varies. Metabolisms vary. Food reactions vary. Varying fitness and activity levels cause bodies to burn calories faster/slower. But at the core, God made us all as one kind. He designed a fueling system that works perfectly in spite of our minor differences. We’re really not all that different. So to better understand what we’re getting out of those calories, let’s take another step backward and look at the macro- and micronutrients more closely.
The macronutrients are proteins, fats, and carbohydrates. Every part of your body is made of different kinds of cells which need proteins, carbohydrates, and fats to function. Proteins are responsible for building, repairing, and maintaining those cells. Fats serve to maintain cell membranes and act as a waterproof barrier to prevent water and nutrient loss from the cells. Carbohydrates are the fuel our cells use to perform their different jobs, in other words, they give us energy.
Today, let’s focus on carbohydrates, our body’s fuel. Because your body is made up of cells that all have a job to do, every part of your body requires fuel from carbohydrates to get things done. Carbohydrates are the most efficient source of fuel for our bodies as they are quickly and easily converted into glucose in the digestive system. By design, this glucose goes out through the bloodstream and into the cells to fuel them for their specific jobs. Unfortunately, carbohydrates have suffered a lot of bad press in our modern culture. Because of our tendency towards high-fat, high-protein diets, carbohydrates can seem like the problem when it comes to weight gain and/or blood-sugar related issues such as diabetes and candida. But if we stop to consider why and how those carbohydrates can cause problems, we find that by eliminating or significantly reducing carbohydrates we are making the problem much more serious as the balance of macronutrient composition typically moves toward higher fat percentages.
Our bodies are fueled by glucose. High blood-sugar, and the problems that result occurs not because of an excess of glucose in terms of intake, but an excess of fat and/or protein which is slowing down or blocking the movement of that glucose through the bloodstream and preventing absorption into cell walls. If our cells are not getting the energy they need, we feel tired, foggy, and often physically hungry. The body is an amazing machine and can take whatever you feed it and convert it to glucose for energy, but converting protein or fat into energy is a much less efficient process (meaning it takes energy to produce energy). In addition, it takes carbohydrates around 12 hours to make it through the bloodstream while it takes proteins and fats around 24 hours. So while the bloodstream is jammed up with an overage of slow moving proteins and fats, the cells are crying out for some fuel.
Insulin, produced by the pancreas, is the catalyst that drives glucose through cell walls. So to make up for lost time, excess insulin is released to assist cells with glucose absorption. When that’s not sufficient, the adrenal glands kick in a shot of adrenaline to speed things up further. Eventually our cells get what they need, but at the high cost of overworking our pancreas and adrenals. Because glucose is left stagnating in the bloodstream instead of getting promptly delivered to the cells for fuel, a high concentration of glucose builds up in the bloodstream, leading to blood-sugar disorders such as diabetes and candida. The pancreas is worn out, also contributing to the development of type-2 diabetes, and the adrenals are overworked, leading to adrenal fatigue and hormone imbalances. So you might say that what has become known as a blood-sugar problem is really a blood-lipid problem. If the bloodstream were full of glucose quickly passing through to its destination as fuel, uninhibited by excess fats and proteins, there would be no blood-sugar problem at all.
In addition to being our best source of fuel, whole foods high in carbohydrates are the foods that contain the bulk of, best quality of, and proper balance of micronutrients (a.k.a. vitamins and minerals). If you eat a diet low in carbohydrates, you are eating a diet low in micronutrients and will likely need to supplement with a plethora of little pills that promise amazing health benefits. In reality, those supplements are incomplete at best and detrimental at worse. Plant foods are our natural, God-given source of micro-nutrients. I’ve never read any reports of consumption of fruits and vegetables leading to health problems (with the exception of course of any allergies/food intolerances). The nutrients they offer are perfectly balanced with safe, absorbable quantities and proper ratios of the nutrients provided. Proper absorption and bio-availability of vitamins/minerals naturally available from whole foods is unsurpassed by any scientific approach to recreate the nutrients in a pill. Supplements designed to mimic the “special factors” of whole food can cause problems as a result of the way they are made, from over-consumption, particularly minerals and fat-soluble vitamins, and from consumption in unbalanced quantities. The invention of supplementation was a valiant effort by the scientific pharmaceutical world to simplify nutrition, but a diet rich in pop-tarts and fast food hamburgers will never be fixed by popping a pill.
So how much and what kind of carbohydrates should you consume? The WHO recommends that between 55-75% of calories come from carbohydrates. But not all carbohydrates are created equal. For discussion sake, let’s break carbohydrates into three groups: 1) processed simple carbs, 2) whole-food simple carbs, and 3) complex carbs. Processed simple carbs are basically the refined sugars and refined flours that result from extracting and processing foods like fruits, grains, and sugar cane to make them into convenient “foods.” Whole-food simple carbs are the naturally occurring sugars found in whole plant foods, especially sweet fruits. The major difference between these two types of simple carbs is that the processed simple carbs deplete the body of nutrients as they require nutrients for processing and metabolism (especially B vitamins and chromium) while the whole-food simple carbs come perfectly packaged with the nutrients needed to metabolize and utilize the energy they provide. Complex carbs are found in grains and starchy foods. They are more difficult, and therefore slower, to digest and so are often thought to be the “better” carbs because they move through an already slow moving bloodstream more slowly, resulting in a more even flow of sugars through the blood, but again, in the absence of a high-lipid blood concentration, slower moving carbs aren’t as necessary – we’re just looking for real, whole-food carbs, simple or otherwise.
That brings me at last to this delicious smoothie – a family favorite. When someone asks me what I had for breakfast and I answer with “2 bananas, a mango, an orange, and some coconut water,” they often look at me dumb-founded. How can you eat that much fruit? Isn’t that too much sugar? Well, no. It’s an amazing burst of pure energy, full of hydrating, pure water perfectly filtered by nature through the infrastructure of the plants the fruits came from. It is a wonderful way to start the day and leaves me feeling energized and satisfied until lunch time. The bananas give the smoothie the perfect, silky smooth consistency. The mangos and oranges offer a delicious shot of vitamin C rich energy and fresh, citrus flavor. If your diet is heavy in fats, starting the day with a smoothie like this will likely be difficult for you as the energy that the fruit offers will be held up in the sluggish traffic of your bloodstream, so I suggest starting small and moving towards an all fruit breakfast or lunch in increments, not all at once. If you already follow a low-fat, whole-foods, plant-based lifestyle, bottoms up!
- 2 frozen bananas
- 1 large mango, without skin/seed
- 1 navel orange, peeled
- 1-2 cups coconut water
- ½-1 tsp. cinnamon (optional)
- Place all ingredients in the blender and process until smooth.
- Pour into glass and enjoy!