Navigating the Carbohydrate Maze

Which Carbohydrates do I choose??

Refined carbohydrate consumption has skyrocketed and saturated fat consumption has decreased, but Americans are still battling the bulge. If you are confused as to which carbohydrates are good for you (complex carbohydrates) and which are not (refined carbohydrates), it’s time to clear the confusion. All carbohydrates (both refined and complex) are energy foods because they metabolize into blood sugar called glucose. Glucose circulates in our blood and provides energy to all our cells. Carbohydrates differ in their nutritional value and in how quickly they convert into blood sugar. This conversion of carbohydrate to blood glucose is measured by the glycemic index.

Refined carbohydrate sources include the more commonly eaten breads, pastas, cereals, crackers, cookies, desserts, sodas, sugars, candies, etc. Complex carbohydrates include whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, milk and natural sweeteners. When excess glucose is eaten in the form of refined carbohydrates, it is stored as glycogen (fat) in the body.

At rest, our brain requires two-thirds of our body’s total glucose needs! The brain cannot store fuel so it requires a constant supply of glucose. When glucose blood levels fall too low in the brain, some people may experience temporary mental fatigue or dizziness. During exercise, our muscles use glucose for quick energy.

Once limited glucose reserves are gone, the body will break down muscle to provide our brain and muscles with glucose. To meet our energy needs while preventing muscle loss, complex carbohydrates can be included in our diets to provide needed glucose.

The Glycemic Index and Carbohydrates

Before we can understand the value of complex carbohydrates over refined, we need to understand the glycemic index. Basically, the quicker a carbohydrate is converted into usable blood glucose, the higher its glycemic index. The slower a carbohydrate is digested and converted into blood glucose, the lower the glycemic index which is desirable.

A sudden rise in blood glucose (high glycemic reaction) from eating candy, for example, causes the pancreas to release insulin. Insulin is a storage hormone directly responsible for removing excess glucose from the bloodstream and storing it as glycogen and then later as fat. Eating only refined carbohydrates (see below) will cause insulin levels to rise and stimulate fat storage. When insulin levels in our blood rise, they block the release of fat-burning glucagon. Simply put, eating an excess of even fat-free carbohydrates will prevent your body from burning stored fat. This is not a formula for weight loss!

Refined Carbohydrates

Refined processed carbohydrates, the “bad” carbs, contribute to weight gain, obesity, insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, food addictions, overeating, and many diet related diseases.

Refined processed carbohydrates are the worse part of the S.A.D. diet (Standard American Diet). White flour products like breads, cookies, crackers, cereals, pastas, bagels, pastries and donuts are downright addictive. These are all high glycemic carbs and will cause the undesirable blood sugar spike. Fiber and protein both slow down the digestion of these carbohydrates, lessening the glycemic blood sugar in our blood. However, there is usually little to no fiber and very little protein in these refined carbohydrates.

So, for example, having a serving of white pasta with marinara sauce would be a high glycemic meal. Instead, choose whole grain pasta with at least 6 grams of fiber and 7 grams of protein per serving. For added protein and fat, serve with a meat sauce, or if you are a vegetarian, add chopped walnuts and sunflower seeds to your pasta sauce.

Complex Carbohydrates

Complex carbohydrates, the “good” carbs, will digest more slowly because they still contain their fiber and protein. Brown rice, a whole grain, contains carbohydrate starch, protein, fat and fiber, all of which helps to slow down a blood sugar rise. Perhaps an excess of brown rice could raise the blood sugar but it depends on what else is eaten in the meal.  Did you ever try to overeat brown rice? It’s so filling and delicious we are usually satisfied with a ½ cup of it with our meals. White rice will cause a sudden blood sugar rise because it has been stripped of its fiber, fat and protein (germ and bran). Sudden elevations of blood sugar can lead to fat storage.

Eliminating all carbohydrates from our diet is radical and unhealthy, but you can make smarter choices. I suggest you limit your consumption of refined carbohydrates and experiment with complex. Make whole grains an essential part of your healthy meal planning.  You will find more than fifty recipes for whole grain cooking, plus a cooking chart, in both my Amber Waves of Grain and Salads that Satisfy chapters in my upcoming cookbook, The Passionate Vegetable.



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