There’s a lot of carb confusion out there. Are carbs evil? Do they make you fat? Do you need to go low-carb to be healthy? Should you eliminate carbs completely? Is such a thing even possible?
Truth is, we need carbs. In our bodies, carbohydrates get broken down to their building blocks–glucose–the essential fuel for our brains, our red blood cells, a growing fetus, and our muscles during exercise. So we need carbs. But some are better than others.
Carbs do us no favor if they get digested and absorbed too quickly. That spikes our blood sugar level, which releases insulin. And insulin has an inhibiting effect on fat burning. At the same time, switching out all our carbohydrates for a bunch of high-saturated fat protein is a bad plan, too. (Sorry, people, no bacon diets here). There’s nothing balanced about that, and we know that saturated fat leads to all manner of disease. So how do we get the life-supporting benefits of carbohydrate without the glucose spikes and the excess insulin?
The key is GI. Otherwise known as the Glycemic Index.
Granted, this is not as easy a concept to understand as the carbs = evil therefore must avoid at all costs model. But you’re smart cookies out there. You’ll catch on.
The Glycemic Index is list of foods containing carbohydrates, and the rate at which each food gets digested and absorbed into the bloodstream as glucose. A high GI value (to a max of approximately 100) means that particular food will cause a rapid increase in blood glucose. A low GI value means a food will break down nice and slowly, causing a gradual release of sugar into the bloodstream.
Guess which kind you’re interested in?
Yes, of course, you’re looking for carbs that have a low GI value.
So you need to start by familiarizing yourself with the GI values of different foods. And then, essentially, swap out the high-GI stuff you eat for healthier, low-GI stuff. There are books with GI lists, or you can check out an online GI index here. It takes a little effort and time, but once you get the hang of it, it’s easy and makes perfect sense. And you’ll be glad you invested in yourself.
To get you started, here are some examples of high GI food (ie. with a GI value of 70 or more):
- white bread
- white potatoes
- soft drinks
- corn flakes
What you want, instead, are foods with a low GI (55 or less). Low GI carbs, in general, are made with whole grains, and have lots of fiber. Many vegetables are low GI, too. A nice low GI food will take its sweet time getting absorbed and broken down, giving your system a nice steady level of glucose. No spikes. No insulin jolts.
Examples of low GI foods:
- 12 grain bread
- sweet potato
The other beautiful thing? Low GI carbs are toothsome and satisfying. They keep you feeling full longer, stave off the munchies, and keep your body running like the well-oiled machine it’s meant to be. Low GI carbs are also an important part of an anti-inflammatory diet. (link)
Now, what about pasta?
Regular pasta is okay, GI-wise, but not great. Tends to have a GI rating somewhere between 55 and 70. Make sure you have your pasta with lots of vegetables and lean protein to modify the glucose level. Or, even better: go for whole wheat pasta. Whole-wheat spaghetti has a GI of 42, for example.
Many fruits are relatively high GI, and this is where the Glycemic Index fails us a little, I think. Fruit is a crucial part of any healthy diet, in my mind. Rich in phytonutrients, fiber, and antioxidants. When it comes to fruit, I think you really can’t go wrong, and you shouldn’t let a high GI level deter you from enjoying the delights of berries, melon, grapes, mango…whatever your pleasure.
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