The Truth About Carbs, Glycemic Index, and Glycemic Load

I do hate those alarmist websites and blogs all over the internet, constantly fretting about new health “discoveries” that freak people out and scare them into trying radical diet plans, cutting out specific foods from their diet, consuming truckloads of other presumably healthy foods that have now been found to lower cholesterol or promote digestion or whatnot… this radical diet usually lasts a few weeks at most before it is abandoned for a new one, based on a new internet fad. Will acai berries solve all your problems? No, that was last month. Now it’s all about green tea. No wait, green coffee beans! High carb! Low carb! The whole big online mess of conflicting and ever-changing proclamations of what’s healthy can get to be overwhelming. After all, you don’t want to become afraid of every single food on the planet.

With that said, here I am adding yet another unprofessional piece of health advice to the already gigantic mass of health rants on the internet. But I will do my best to make this one accurate, and furthermore reasonable and realistic. I promise I won’t tell you your only chance at remaining healthy is to drink nothing but green coffee!

The subject of today’s post is a health issue I myself didn’t know much about until recently. But now that I’ve found out about it, I couldn’t resist sharing it with you. This much-discussed topic is that of carbohydrates. Some people say they’re horrible, some people say they’re vital. What’s the answer?

First off, let’s get this straight: You need carbohydrates. They aren’t evil. Carbs are necessary for your daily energy because they are converted by the body into glucose. Glucose is used by all of your cells for energy to carry out their cell processes.  If you didn’t consume any carbohydrates to get that needed glucose, you wouldn’t be able to function properly. So yes, you do need carbs. But some types of carbs are healthier than others.

pastries at whole foods market

When choosing your carbohydrates, it’s more complex than simple and complex. You have probably heard of the old system of categorizing carbohydrates into two groups: simple and complex. Simple carbs have only one or two sugar molecules, while complex carbs have three or more. Up until recently it was thought that simple carbs were unhealthy and complex carbs were healthy. But now it is known that things aren’t that definite. Some super-unhealthy foods, such as French fries and white bread, are classified as complex carbs. And fruits are considered to be simple carbs. Does this mean we should all load up on French fries and Wonderbread and give up eating fruit? NO! What it means is that we should look at carbs in a different way. A better way of choosing healthy carbs is the glycemic index system.

The Glycemic Index System compares how quickly and how high blood sugar spikes from eating a particular food in comparison to pure glucose. The higher the glycemic index of a food is, the higher and more rapid the resulting blood sugar spike will be. Since white bread causes a rapid blood sugar spike, it has a high glycemic index. Whole oats cause a lower and slower blood sugar spike, so they have a lower glycemic index. The longer a food takes to be digested, the lower the glycemic index of that food is. Slow digestion is considered better because it means the starches in the food take longer to be converted into blood sugar. Therefore, they don’t cause the unwanted sugar lows and crashes once all that sugar has been used up by the body. Here’s some perspective on how to interpret a food’s glycemic index: A glycemic index of 55- is low, and a score of 70+ is high.

Several factors affect a food’s glycemic index. I have listed some of them below:

  • One is processing: if a grain is not “whole,” it’s literally because the bran and the germ (two different parts of the grain) have been removed, making it easier for the body to break down those sugars.
  • The physical form of a grain: finely milled flour is quicker to break down than coarsely milled flour or other grains that are not ground.
  • Another factor is the amount of fiber a food contains. The higher in fiber a food is, the harder it is for the body to break down the sugars, so the longer it takes to digest. This is also why fiber helps you feel fuller longer.
  • On a chemical level, the type of starch a food contains is important. Starches come in different chemical configurations, and some are easier than others for the body to break down.

(For a more complete list of the factors that affect a food’s glycemic index, please see this site: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates-full-story/ . It does a much better explaining job than I ever could.)

bread aisle at whole foods

The thing about the glycemic index system is that it’s so new, researchers haven’t been able to indisputably prove its value. Some studies show that a low GI diet helps avoid type two diabetes and control weight, but others reveal no link between a low GI diet and such benefits. Still, many of the foods that have a low glycemic index are also healthy anyway, so we might as well keep eating whole grains and fruits and such regardless of the inconclusive GI research.

There is another system to classify foods called the glycemic load system. It is similar to the glycemic index system, but more complete of a classification of foods. Unlike the GI system, which only rates foods based on their affect on blood sugar levels, the glycemic load system is based on both the blood sugar level and the carbohydrates delivered by each food. The glycemic load of a food is found by multiplying the glycemic index of a food by how much carbohydrate it contains. For some perspective on glycemic load: a score of 10- is low, 11-19 is a moderate glycemic load, and a score of 20+ is high.

Here are some examples of foods with low, medium, and high glycemic loads per serving:

LOW: (10 or under)

beans such as black beans, pinto beans, chick peas, lentils, soybeans

high fiber bran cereal

many whole wheat breads

plain yogurt

eggs/egg substitutes

cottage cheese, and several other types of cheese such as cheddar, mozzarella, and ricotta

soy milk or dairy milk (any amount of fat)

peanuts

hummus

popcorn

high fiber fruits and vegetables (excluding potatoes)

agave nectar

dark chocolate, peanut m ‘n’ ms

ice cream

MEDIUM: (11-19)

brown rice, couscous, quinoa

corn tortilla

a white, plain baguette

Grape-Nuts brand cereal, most muesli cereals

Kellog’s brand Special K cereal

your average oven-baked pretzels or potato chips

Graham Crackers

banana, grapes, dried dates

unsweetened orange juice

honey

Snicker’s bar

HIGH: (20 or above)

pretty much any baked potato

white rice

instant oatmeal, instant cream of wheat

Kraft brand macaroni and cheese

raisins

unsweetened apple juice

most cakes

(See this list for more.)

In summary, carbohydrates are not all bad, but some of them are healthier than others. To help reduce blood sugar spikes and crashes, as well as possibly prevent obesity and type 2 diabetes, it’s best to choose whole grains and high fiber foods as often as possible. The glycemic index system and glycemic load system can both help aid us to make healthy choices in this area. The glycemic load system is more accurate because it takes into account not only blood sugar but also carbohydrates and fiber.

So don’t get terrified of carbs and purge them from your diet altogether. But do try to make healthy choices in the carb department. For example, eating a whole bag of potato chips would be considered unhealthy. And eating the actual bag is even worse! So stop it, Artemis!

Artemis chewing bag of chips

Since this is just a blog post and not the advice of a professional doctor, you don’t need to believe me. Go ahead and check out the sites below, which helped me get the facts for this blog post. Even better, talk to a registered dietician or nutritionist about it!

Sources: http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/carbohydrates-full-story/ http://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/carbs/simple-vs-complex-carbohydrates.html#b;  http://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/everyone/basics/carbs.html; http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/healthy-skin/AN01863 http://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/edible-innovations/food2.htmhttp://childrenshospital.org/clinicalservices/Site3080/Documents/LowGlycemicShoppingList.pdfhttp://www.livestrong.com/article/92919-foods-low-glycemic-load/http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/Glycemic_index_and_glycemic_load_for_100_foods.htm

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6 responses

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