Is it wise to eat carbs?

Low GI- lentils& chick peas or any kind of legume

Low GI- lentils& chick peas or any kind of legume

Carb bashing by various self-styled experts continues unabated – despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary. With the popularity of books such as Wheat Belly and Grain Brain, many are being persuaded to once again opt for low-carb diets rather than selecting healthier carbs.

Are you among those starting to again question the wisdom of eating carbs?

Forget about it.

Smart carbs definitely offer a host of health perks.  Yet sorting through the fact and fiction about these foods is not an easy task.

It is true that not  all carbohydrate-rich foods are  created equal and they  can have a very different impact on your well-being. But choosing smart carbs isn’t just about booting sugar out of your life. It’s about opting for the carb-rich options with a maximum of nutritional goodies – vitamins, minerals, fibre and antioxidants – and the optimal impact on your health.

Enter glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load (GL).  The GI is a measure that ranks  a food on how quickly the carbohydrate enters the bloodstream  compared to a rapidly absorbed one – either sugar or white bread. Those foods  with a high GI can raise blood glucose levels rapidly – much  in the same way that granulated sugar might.

Foods that fit into the high GI  category include refined grain products such as bagels and pretzels along with white potatoes and watermelon, not to mention sugary confections.

While it has been 30 years since University of Toronto researchers, Dr. David Jenkins   M.D., Ph.D., D.Sc. and Dr. Thomas Wolever,  D.M., Ph.D. developed the concept, it’s still very much a hotbed of research.

I was very fortunate to attend the  recent International Scientific Consensus Summit on Glycemic Index, Glycemic Load and Glycemic Response ,  organized by the Boston think- tank Oldways and the Nutrition Foundation of Italy.  Leading scientists from around  the world presented  the latest research on carbohydrates to form a consensus statement on the topic. Not only were many of the names on the roster  those  I recognized from  cutting edge research but I was also lucky as the conference took place in Stresa, Italy – a perfect venue to showcase the best of the Mediterranean diet, an example of a low GI eating pattern.

Study after study showed that eating plenty of  quickly digested carbs, or what’s termed  a high GI  diet, is linked to assorted health problems  including obesity, diabetes, coronary heart disease,   certain cancers and even eye conditions such as macular degeneration.  A low  GI diet plays a major role in promoting satiety and consequently,   if you feel more satisfied at a meal, you’re less likely to overeat. The result is fewer calories and  easier weight control     On the diabetes front, this eating style not only helps to  prevent the development of the disease but for those with diabetes, it promotes better blood sugar regulation.

Going for low  GI foods certainly offers a wide assortment of health benefits. But cutting out all  high GI choices isn’t necessary. You don’t need to banish nutrient-rich choices such as watermelon.

Instead you want to lessen your glycemic load (GL) The GL takes into account how much of a high GI food you consume. A food’s glycemic load is calculated by multiplying its glycemic index by the amount of carbohydrate it contains. So for example, if you eat a small piece of a bagel, it will have a lower glycemic load than   a large portion of it.

So how does the concept of a low GI/GL diet fit into your everyday living?

It’s all about balance – trying to have more low GI choices instead of those with high ratings. At meals with high GI selections, keep portions in check and add some low GI offerings. That’s how to lessen the glycemic load.  For example, if  you’re serving mashed potatoes  at dinner, instead of a large scoop,  dish up a smaller one and add some chick peas to a salad.

Here’s a list from Harvard University of the GI and GL values for 100 foods.  Be aware that there are many sites which appear to show GI  figures but some are completely inaccurate.  While there are plenty of numbers on this list, check them out not to memorize them, but to get an idea of the highs and lows.  You don’t need to have a calculator at the table for low GI eating.

The University of Sydney also has a fabulous search engine for GI values. Down under in Australia, food products carry a GI symbol to help consumers navigate the choices.
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Up next: Simple tips to make a low GI eating style a reality.

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Categories: Food Trends, Research Roundup

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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