Carbohydrates: The Good, the Bad and the Glycemic Index

Carbohydrates can be misunderstood. Trendy diets malign them and for most people, trying to figure out which carbs are ‘good’ and which carbs are ‘bad’ and how many to eat can be a challenge when trying to lose weight, manage a chronic disease condition like diabetes or heart disease or even when you are trying to just eat healthy as a preventative measure. What’s important to understand is that not all carbohydrates are created equally, and some can have very deleterious affects on our bodies.

What is a Carb?

The nutrients that our bodies need fall into 3 categories: Proteins, Fats and Carbohydrate. Carbohydrates can either be Simple or Complex and what those terms really refer to is how the molecules in the food are put together. All Carbs are made up of either fiber, starch or sugar or some of each. How much of any of these components a carb has is what makes it either Simple or Complex. Complex carbs are made up of fiber and starch which result in longer chains of different molecules, while simple carbs are primarily one or 2 sugar molecules.

How Carbohydrates react in the body:

When you eat a carbohydrate (either Simple or Complex), your digestive system begins to immediately break down that carbohydrate into glucose. Simple carbs, because they only contain one or two forms of sugar molecules are quickly broken down and can be rapidly and easily absorbed into the bloodstream. Complex carbohydrates, because of the length and variety of the fiber and starch, take longer for the body to break down into glucose so it creates a lag of absorption into the blood stream. Once the carb is broken down into tiny glucose molecules it is then able to enter the blood stream (that’s called “Blood Sugar”). As your blood sugar starts to rise from the glucose, your pancreas begins to produce insulin. Think of insulin as your blood sugar (glucose) ‘escort service’. Glucose needs insulin in order to go to the appropriate places in your body to be used for energy. First and foremost, your brain gets its fair share (about 20%) and then your organs and tissues get the glucose they need to do their jobs and function. Once the brain and organs have their needs met, insulin will carry that glucose molecule to your muscle tissues. Your muscles can store that glucose as glycogen and use it for energy when you move your body and exercise. However, if your muscles aren’t being used much (from sitting all day, not exercising etc) they might be ‘full’ and refuse to take that glucose when insulin comes knocking at the door. This is called “Insulin Resistance” and is a pre-curser to diabetes. Being turned down by the muscles, Insulin has no choice but to take that glucose molecule and take it over to your fat cells. Fat cells are always ready to receive more glucose and happily store that excess sugar in the form of a nice full fat cell. When simple carbs are eaten, this whole process happens quite quickly because the Simple Carb doesn’t require a whole lot of processing to break down into glucose. It’s quickly broken down and your blood sugar rises fast. Your pancreas sees this as sort of an emergency situation, and it must crank out a lot of insulin to cope with that overload and deliver it to where it is needed. Your blood sugar rises to a very high point and then, in response to all that insulin; it crashes. As you may imagine, this roller coaster of high blood sugar and high insulin levels going up and down quickly can have some damaging effects on the body and organs. Not only do you store that excess sugar as fat, the fast rise and fall affects your body and your mood as well. Your pancreas can get worn out over time, and your insulin levels are not able to keep up which means the glucose in your blood stream remains high. And simple carbs usually contain very little nutrients like vitamins or minerals to nourish the body. Complex carbs, on the other hand, because they contain those longer molecules of fiber and starches take longer to break down and absorb, don’t create a high blood sugar response. It is a steady even flow and release of the glucose into your bloodstream which keeps your body and mind running smoothly and evenly. Complex carbs are also likely to be nutrient dense, providing vitamins, minerals and antioxidants to nourish the body and keep you strong and healthy.

Glycemic Index:

There is a measure that is used when carbs are eaten that looks precisely at this. This measure is called the “Glycemic Index” of a food and it is a measure of how rapidly a food affects your blood sugar. With the Glycemic Index, carbohydrates are ranked by how they affect your blood sugar on a scale of 0 -100. Low GI foods rank 0-55, Medium GI foods 56-69 and High GI foods are 69-100. A high glycemic index means that the food is quickly and rapidly broken down into glucose and absorbed High Glycemic foods are Simple Carbs. Eating foods on the low end of the glycemic index means that you are eating food that is not going to spike your blood sugar as quickly. Low Glycemic foods are Complex Carbs.

It’s important to understand that Proteins (like lean unprocessed poultry, meat, fish and eggs) and Healthy Fats (olive oil, avocados, cold pressed vegetables oils, unsaturated fats, nuts, seeds) do not require insulin to be delivered to your cells therefore they are neutral on glycemic rating because they will not spike your blood sugar levels at all.

All foods can be assigned a certain Glycemic Index ranking depending on how quickly your blood sugar rises in response to the food. This is very important for those who need to watch their blood sugar (pre-diabetes) or those with both type 1 and type 2 diabetes as well as those with cardiovascular disease. That excess blood sugar in your veins is very damaging to your blood vessels and circulatory system as well as your organs and tissues. Research links a low glycemic diet to helping people manage diabetes ( type 1, 2 and gestational diabetes), weight loss, improved cardiovascular health and cholesterol levels, eye health and preventing macular degeneration, reducing breast cancer risk, sustaining good energy levels throughout the day and clear, helping with focused mental and cognitive function and performance, improved athletic performance, and even acne.

Glycemic Index may seem a bit complicated at first, but the best rule of thumb when you are choosing your foods is to choose Complex carbohydrates. The more fiber the better because fiber slows down how rapidly a carb is absorbed into your system.

The American Diabetic Association lists:

“Low GI foods”: All leafy green veggies, most fruits, some whole grains such as barley, oats bulger, buckwheat. Muesli and beans, peas, lentils.

“Medium GI foods”: Include brown rice, whole wheat products

“High GI foods”: Include anything made with white flour- breads, bagels, dough, crackers, pretzels, baked goods, white pastas, white rice, sweets, and candy.

Tips for eating your carbohydrates:

  • Choose Complex Carbs:
  • All vegetables and root vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Whole Grains- Barley, Buckwheat, Oats, Quinoa, Brown Rice, Corn
  • Legumes- Beans and Peas
  • Don’t eat or limit Simple Carbs:
  • Raw Sugar, Regular Table Sugar, Brown Sugar, Honey
  • Corn syrups and High Fructose Corn Syrups
  • Fruit juices
  • Candy, Cakes
  • Breads, Pastas, All Baked Goods made with White Flour
  • White rice
  • Most boxed cereals
  • Add a Fat and/or a Protein when you eat a carb:

Fats and proteins do not spike blood sugar and take longer for your digestive system to break down.
When you eat a carbohydrate, you can slow down the absorption of that carb into your bloodstream by eating it with a little healthy fat or alongside a protein source.

By: Cindy Luisi WHE, WHC, CCP, CDL Wellness Coach