Friday, April 10, 2015

Choose Your Carbohydrates Wisely

The popularity of the low-carbohydrate diets has probably led you to believe that all carbohydrates are “bad” for you.  Just reading the hype in the media would make you think that carbohydrates are the cause of the obesity epidemic throughout the United States. 

Eating a lot of easily- digested carbohydrates from white bread, white rice, pastries, sugared sodas, and other highly processed foods may contribute to your weight gain, and therefore, interfere with your efforts to lose weight.  On the contrary, consuming whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, and other intact carbohydrates promotes good health.  A healthy diet is about balance and moderation.  A basic knowledge of what carbohydrates are and how you body uses them is essential to understanding how to balance them in your diet.

Carbohydrates are essential nutrients that are excellent sources of energy (measured as calories) for your body; they are the preferred fuel for your brain and nervous system.  Carbohydrates are found in an array of foods such as bread, beans, milk, popcorn, potatoes, cookies, spaghetti, soft drinks, corn, and desserts. The most common and abundant forms are classified as sugars, fibers, and starches.

The basic building block of every carbohydrate is a sugar molecule, a simple union of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen.  Starches and fibers forms of carbohydrates are essentially chains of sugar molecules, some containing hundreds.

As mentioned above, most carbohydrates come from plant sources and are in the form of sugars, starches, and fibers.  Sugars, also called simple carbohydrates, include fruit sugar (fructose), corn or grape sugar (dextrose or glucose), and table sugar (sucrose).  Starches, also known as complex carbohydrates, include everything made of three or more linked sugars.  Starches include foods such as breads, cereals, grains, pasta, rice, and flour.  Fibers are technically classified as a starch because they are complex carbohydrates that your body cannot breakdown into sugar molecules.  Fibers are more abundant in whole grains, legumes, and vegetables.

Your body breaks down all carbohydrates, except for fibers, into single sugar molecules regardless of their source.  These simple sugars are further converted into glucose, also known as blood sugar.  Your body is designed to use blood sugar as a universal source of fuel for energy.

Fiber is the form of carbohydrate that your body cannot break down into simple sugar molecules.  It passes through your body undigested.  Fiber comes in two varieties: soluble, which dissolves in water, and insoluble, which does not.  Although neither type provides energy for your body, they both promote health in many ways.  Soluble fiber binds to fatty substances in your intestines and carries them out as waste, thus lowering your low-density lipoprotein (LDL, or bad cholesterol).  It also helps regulate your body’s use of sugars, helping you to keep your hunger and blood sugar in check.  Insoluble fiber helps push food through your intestinal tract, promoting regularity and helping to prevent constipation.

Here’s what happens when you eat a food containing carbohydrates.  Your digestive system breaks down the digestible ones into sugar, which then enters your blood.  As your blood sugar level rises, specials cells in your pancreas churn out insulin, a hormone that signals your cells to absorb the blood sugar for energy or for storage.  As your cells soak-up the blood sugar, its level in your bloodstream begins to fall.  Now, your pancreas starts making another hormone called glucagon, which signals your liver to start releasing stored blood sugar.  This interplay of insulin and glucagon ensures that cells throughout your body have a steady supply of blood sugar.

Maintaining a steady blood sugar level is a very important component of your diet.  While you’ve just seen that your body breaks down all digestible carbohydrates into blood sugar, some are converted into blood sugar faster than others.  Thus, some carbohydrates cause a spike in your blood sugar level causing you to feel hungry faster and to crave more sugary foods.  Other carbohydrates are converted into blood sugar more slowly, leveling out your blood sugar and resulting in less hunger and food cravings.

For this reason, the Glycemic Index (GI) was developed to classify how quickly your body converts carbohydrates into blood sugar as opposed to pure glucose.  Glucose has a GI of 100, and all other carbohydrate-based foods are ranked against it.  Foods with a score of 70 or more are considered to have a high GI, while those with a score of 55 or less are considered low.

Eating lots of food with a high GI causes spikes in your blood sugar level, which can lead to many health issues, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.  Eating low GI foods causes your blood sugar level to stay steady thus keeping your energy level balanced and causing you to feel fuller longer between meals. The following are some additional benefits of eating low GI carbohydrates.

·       Helps you to lose and manage weight your weight.
·       Increases your body's sensitivity to insulin.
·       Decreases your risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
·       Reduces your risk of heart disease.
·       Improves your blood cholesterol levels
·       Reduces hunger and keeps you fuller longer.
·       Helps you prolong physical activity.
·       Helps you to refuel your carbohydrate stores after exercise.

You can get the GI rating of hundreds of carbohydrate-based foods from the Glycemic Index Foundation, sponsored by the University of Sydney in Australia.  It maintains a searchable database of more than 1600 entries at

The GI is interesting because some of the foods that you think would have a high rating actually do not.  For instance, fructose, or fruit sugar has a minimal effect on blood sugar, while white bread and French-fried potatoes are converted to blood sugar nearly as fast as pure glucose.  In other words, you can’t classify foods as having a high or low GI based on the sweetness of taste.  Many factors affect a foods GI such as:

·       Processing: Grains that have been milled and refined have a higher GI
·       Type of starch:  Starches come in many different configurations.  Some are easier to break into sugar molecules than others.  For example, starch in potatoes is digested and absorbed into the bloodstream relatively quickly.
·       Fiber content: The sugars in fiber are linked in a way that is hard for your body to break down.  Thus, the more fiber a food has, the less digestible carbohydrate, and consequently, the less sugar it can deliver into your blood stream.
·       Fat and acid content:  The more fat or acid a food contains, the slower its carbohydrates are converted to sugar and absorbed into your bloodstream.
·       Physical form:  Finely ground grain is more rapidly digested, and so has a higher GI than more coarsely ground grain.

The basic technique for eating the low GI way is simply a "this-for-that" approach, swapping high GI carbohydrates for low GI carbohydrates. You don't need to count numbers or do any mental arithmetic to make sure you are eating a healthy, low GI diet.  Follow these easy to implement suggestions.

·       Use breakfast cereals based on oats, barley and bran
·       Use breads with whole-grains, stone-ground flour, or sour dough
·       Reduce the amount of potatoes you eat
·       Enjoy all types of fruit and vegetables
·       Use brown rice
·       Enjoy whole-wheat pasta and noodles
·       Eat plenty of salad vegetables with a vinaigrette dressing

The above information is from my book Forever Fit and Firm. In this book you will find many other fitness tips to help you get and stay fit.  You can purchase a copy of this book and my other publications by following this link: Forever Fit and Firm