Regarding fat, protein and carbohydrates (or what you know about the Food Pyramid may be wrong)

Caster Sugar

Very often we hear catchphrases and slogans repeated everywhere: “Complex carbohydrates is better than simple carbohydrates”, “Fat is bad for you”, “Drink more milk”, “Follow the Food Pyramid” or “Eat less sugar” and “Eat more whole grains”. It is almost like a catechism drill.

However, if I remember anything from my secondary school (middle school, junior high equivalent) Organic Chemistry lessons, these catchphrases are confusing starting with the definition of “Carbohydrate”.

This is a cause for concern for me because I would have to ask if we’re not slowly poisoning ourselves because of poorly remembered or misunderstood scientific terms and processes?

Back to basics

If you remove water and indigestible items, foods can be classified into 4 major categories: protein, fat, carbohydrate and alcohol. But it can be tricky because protein can contain fat, and carbohydrate foods tend to contain fat and protein. Not many foods (other than oils) exist as a standalone, so it’s tricky to say “I eat only protein” etc.

When we eat, our digestive process breaks down the 4 food groups into their building blocks which are then absorbed into our blood stream and reassembled into the various products our bodies need to function.



Proteins are made of building blocks called amino acids. Dietary protein is broken down by enzymes in the digestive tract into amino acids to be reassembled into muscle, nerves, vital organs as well as hormones, other enzymes and neurochemicals. They can also be converted, very slowly and inefficiently, into glucose.

Foods richest in dietary protein are egg whites, cheese and meat which contain almost no carbohydrate. We can get dietary proteins to a lesser degree from vegetables like legumes (beans), seeds and nuts, all of which contain carbohydrates and some fat.

Protein and carbohydrate contribute to blood sugar levels however our bodies convert protein to sugar slowly and inefficiently.

Roast Beef Sandwich


If you look at current literature and marketing media, you’d think that Fat is the Great Satan of Diet, wrapped up in disease and despair. In fact, in most countries, you can increase sales of your food product by slapping a “Fat-free” label on it.

Governments and private corporations have spent loads of money educating the public on the dangers of fat consumption, so much so that most people avoid fat like a phobia. We have been transformed into a nation of “fearful eaters” as a food guru might say.

And yet, obesity and its associated diseases have steadily increased.

It is impossible to eliminate fat from your diet and it is dangerous to do so because other than an energy store, fats are an important source of fatty acids (much of our brain is made from fatty acids) and fat is required in maintaining healthy skin, hair, buffering against diseases and aiding nutrient-absorbtion (vitamin A, D, E and K can only be absorbed in conjunction with fat).

Besides, fats help transport flavor molecules, i.e. it makes food taste good.



Given the extensive and successful promotion and education regarding the Food Pyramid where we are recommended to eat less of protein, fat and sugar, what is there left to eat? That’s right: Carbohydrates.

So what are carbohydrates? They are basically chains of sugar molecules. That’s right, carbohydrates are basically sugar. Complex carbohydrates are simply longer chains of sugar molecules.

The shorter the sugar molecule chain, the sweeter the taste. This is why complex carbohydrates like pasta and rice taste slightly sweet after some mastication in the mouth. This is because, if you remember your organic chemistry lessons, enzymes in our saliva breakdown the long chains into shorter chains.

The belief that “complex carbohydrates are better because you digest them slowly” does not pan out because your saliva breaks them down fairly quickly to “simple carbohydrates” even before you swallow them. Besides, 100g of carbohydrates is still 100g of carbohydrates.

Yes, when you eat your 7-grain, coarse-ground super duper oatmeal wholemeal cereal bread, you’re basically eating sugar; at least after you digest it.

Side Note on Sugars

Basically anything that ends with an “-ose” is a sugar, e.g. Fructose (fruit sugar), Glucose, Sucrose (cane sugar), Maltose (malt sugar). Yes, there are “sugar alcohol” that end with “-ol” like Sorbitol, Methanol, Xylitol, Inositol and, because there are always exceptions: Isomalt.

This is because when the body breaks down food products, the basic element of most carbohydrate foods is Glucose. This in turn raises your blood sugar levels.

This is where some people will use technical terms like “fast-acting” or “slow-acting” sugars. It is true that Fructose and Maltose is slower-acting than sucrose but they will still cause the same rise in blood sugar levels be it instantly or in 2-hours.

The term “Carbo-loading” refers to a precise method for athletes to time energy supplies before big games or competition and not simply going to a gym for a simple workout. It is not an excuse to eat large amounts of carbohydrates.

There are exceptions to this, for example, humans do not have the enzymes to break down Cellulose (a sugar) and so cellulose is known as “indigestible fiber”.



Alcohol can provide calories without raising blood sugar. The body does not convert it to glucose. In fact, alcohol can inhibit the conversion of protein to glucose. However before you go out and guzzle alcohol at every meal, there are adverse effects to consuming too much alcohol.

One Can Get Too Familiar With Vegetables You Know!

It’s all about Blood Sugar

The primary source of visceral fat or body fat is not dietary fat but from carbohydrates.

A key player in this transformation is insulin. Insulin is a hormone that regulates carbohydrate and fat metabolism. It helps our cells absorb glucose from our blood for energy.

In our liver and skeletal muscles, the glucose is stored as Glycogen (Diet Devotees take note) and in fat cells, it is stored as Triglycerides (Can you say “LDL/HDL”?)

If you remember your primary school health education, you will remember that (blood) sugar that’s not burned off immediately as energy (or stored as Glycogen) gets converted in to fat. Body fat, that is.

So technically speaking, you stand to accquire more body fat eating a “fat-free” high-carbohydrate dessert than from eating a highly-marbled beef steak.

2011Apr24-Yut Kee-2

So how?

Given that we’ve greatly reduced our intake of protein and fats to the point of a phobia and yet obesity and it’s associated illnesess like diabetes and heart diseases are on the rise, it does look like our relatively high consumption of carbohydrates is to blame.

Despite what militant vegetarians may say, our argicultural society is fairly recent in evolutionary terms, only around 10,000 years ago, our ancestors started out as hunters who ate mostly meat and fat which are readily available and they ate fruit and nuts only in warm weather. Our bodies have not really evolved to handle large amounts of carbohydrates.

Even today, when farmers and cattle raisers want to fatten their livestock, they do not feed them with fat or protein. They use grain (usually a corn product), a carbohydrate, because it’s cheap, plentiful and does the job very well.


Which brings me to my next point, given all this information, to completely remove carbohydrate from our diets is infeasible (vegetables contain a lot of nuitrients) and expensive.

It vexes me to hear that clarion call of a no-carbohydrate diet because a mostly protein diet is expensive and often more than what most families can afford: a bowl of fried noodles is much cheaper than a plate of stir-fried pork and more filling.

And I think it’s very unbecoming and not very gracious to sneer at people just because you can better afford a hi-protein/low-carb diet than them.

Michael Pollan has, in his book “Cooked”, has suggested cooking as a means of taking control of what you eat as a first step towards a healthier life.

But with all the advertorials, slogans and “Food Pyramid” advisories, there as cacophony of conflicting messages out there. We should gather more information. Question, learn and not take slogans and catchphrases for granted even if it’s from a celebrity or an authoritative body (anecdotal evidence like “success stories” are unreliable).

Perhaps this is the first step.


Moo Pad Krapow!

First Lunch Party 2013

Posted on 29th Apr 2013 in Food and Drink, Musings


There Are 9 Comments


Jan commented on May 3, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Oh, damn well written! Hope you don’t mind if I share this with friends on FB?


ivan commented on May 3, 2013 at 9:21 pm

Hi Jan, thanks, please feel free to link to this blog entry.


Jan commented on May 6, 2013 at 11:10 am

Thanks, Ivan!


Christine commented on May 10, 2013 at 10:13 am

Not enough people know about the misconceptions that have been proliferated by the food industry and marketing professionals. It pays to educate yourself. It’s amazing what Michael Pollan has done, and I’ve read almost all of his books. Yet it is oftentimes arduous to try to explain that all to the people you care about, especially if much of their lifestyle and diet is based on erroneous research and blind obedience to ‘experts’. So good job on trying to get the word out! I really admire your effort. =)


ivan commented on May 10, 2013 at 11:33 am

Thanks Christine. This article was written after I got a few annoying sales calls from people in the health food industry who were touting their products.

Do spread the word!


jun commented on May 13, 2013 at 10:27 pm

this is wonderful information! thank you for such attentive insights! i chance upon your blog while searching for good dining recommendations in singapore and found it very helpful.

what a great site!


ivan commented on May 14, 2013 at 12:45 pm

@jun: Thanks! I hope you can share it around.


jason commented on June 7, 2013 at 4:05 pm

I was recently on a high protein and low carb diet.
Guess what? I dropped 7kg (10% of my body weight) in less than half a year.


Caleb commented on July 28, 2013 at 3:22 pm

This is a great tip especially to those new to the
blogosphere. Short but very accurate info… Thanks for sharing this one.
A must read article!

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