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Alternative Approaches: Confused About Carbohydrates?

Alternative Approaches
Confused About Carbohydrates?

Questions abound about carbohydrates these days. The best approach to the "lots of carbs, low carb, no carb" question is to understand the importance of including ample carbohydrates in your diet and learn to make good carbohydrate choices.

Understanding Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are needed for a healthy brain and body. Your body uses carbohydrates to maintain a minimum level of glucose in the blood. The brain uses the most energy of any system in the body - and the only source of energy for the brain is glucose.
If you are not eating sufficient amounts of carbohydrates, the brain has to pull fuel from other stores in the body that quickly get depleted. If your brain and body don't get enough fuel in the form of glucose from carbohydrate metabolism, it negatively affects your mood, energy, and metabolism. You get tired, crabby, dizzy, incoherent, lack coordination, attention and focus, and slow your metabolism and thus your weight loss - generally, you'll feel bad.
To maintain optimal energy requirements, an average person of average weight and height with average appetite and energy requirements will need to eat 225-275 grams of carbohydrates per day.
Bad Carbohydrates
However, eating the wrong kind of carbohydrates can result in out of control glucose and insulin levels in the body. Insulin and /or glucose levels that are too high are related to several chronic disease conditions such as increased heart disease, hypertension, and obesity.
The Glycemic Index is a comparative guide to the rise in insulin levels that occurs after eating carbohydrates. Low (55 and under) to moderate (56 to 70) glycemic index carbs produce a small but steady rise in insulin levels (healthy) as opposed to high glycemic index carbs (over 70) which produce a large and rapid rise in insulin levels (unhealthy).
Helpful guidelines for choosing the lower glycemic index variety.
Breads, Cereals, Crackers, Chips, and Baked Goods
Limit your intake of finely ground, soft, puffed, and flaky flour products. Finely ground flour products - both 100% whole wheat and white flour- such as soft whole wheat or white flour bread, crackers, breakfast cereals will have a high glycemic index.
Finely milled flours and grains have fast rates of digestion and a higher glycemic index. The lighter, flakier, softer the baked product the more likely it is to be made from more finely milled flour and have a higher glycemic index. If you can mush it together in your hand and form a ball out of it- the glycemic index is higher.
Anything "puffed" such as puffed wheat, rice, or corn cereals - even whole wheat ones - will usually have a high glycemic index. If something has been processed into small fine particles that can be crushed into crunchy crackers and cereals - the glycemic index is probably going to be high -even those made out of good whole grains. Most crackers, packaged cold cereals and chips have a glycemic index in the 70s, 80s and 90s.
Instead, choose dense, grainy, chewy products. Foods with intact fiber will be more "dense" and chewy and less flaky and light. If the fiber is intact the product will have a lower glycemic index. Grainy, dense breads are more likely to have a lower glycemic index.
Look for additions such as barley flakes, rye flour, barley flour, oat flour, various nuts, seeds and dried fruits, oat bran, ground flaxseed, cracked grains, stone-ground grains (stone grinding produces a coarser flour with a denser and larger particle size- thus slower digestion), rice bran, rolled oats, muesli, other unprocessed brans. Choose coarse breads with at least 50 % intact kernels.
Sourdough breads, because of the acids produced by the fermentation of their yeast starter culture, have much slower rates of digestion and absorption. Not only does this lower its glycemic index significantly (GI 48-57), it also increases it satiety.
Any carbohydrate product that has been "instantized" - such as instant oatmeal - is probably going to have a higher glycemic index.
Fruits and Vegetables
Choose barely ripe fruits and vegetables for a lower glycemic index. Overly ripe fruits and vegetables have higher sugar content and a higher glycemic effect.
Almost all vegetables are low to moderate glycemic index and are great to eat. The poor carrot that has been greatly maligned as having "too much sugar" actually has an average glycemic index of only 47.
Most potato varieties have a high glycemic index due to the presence of high amounts of amyl pectin, which is a kind of starch that is quickly digested.
Tiny new white and red bliss potatoes have a lower GI value than normal varieties. Russet baked potatoes have a high glycemic index (an average of 85) and mashed potatoes an average of 92.
The glycemic impact of potatoes can be lessened by eating smaller portions and varying your diet with alternatives such as sweet potato (GI- average 61) - the starch in sweet potatoes is amylose - more slowly digested and absorbed- or yams (GI average 37).
Pasta gets a bad rap. They say to cut out the pasta and eat rice - it's healthier for you.
Well, it just so happens that pasta has a low to moderate glycemic index (30-55) that results in a slow, steady release of energy in your body.
Pasta made with semolina is made from cracked wheat and not finely ground flour so it would be likely to have a low to moderate glycemic index. Furthermore, pasta is unique in its physical make up. The reason for its slow digestion and steady release of energy is "the physical entrapment of ungelatinized starch granules in a sponge-like network of protein molecules in the pasta dough." You don't need to understand that to get the good news that pasta is a "good" carb.
But always serve pasta al dente. If you overcook pasta, it gets soft and swollen and you have fully "gelatinized" those starch granules and turned pasta into a bad carbohydrate.
Almost all kinds of pasta have a lower glycemic index than most varieties of rice - even brown rice. Remember though - a serving is just 1/2 cup.
Rice varieties such as Jasmine and short grain varieties (even short grain brown rice) that have a lot of amylopectin tend to have higher glycemic index GI (high 70s to 139). You will know these higher amylopectin rice varieties because they tend to stick together after cooking (an example of the "if you can mush it into a ball and it sticks test" for higher glycemic index).
High amylose content rice varieties such as Basmati, Uncle Ben's converted rice and long grain brown rice have a lower glycemic index. If the rice grains stay separate after cooking it is more likely to have a lower glycemic index (GI 50s and 60s)
Rice breads tend to be in the higher glycemic index ranges in the 60s and 70s.
The glycemic index is only one of many markers you can use to choose nutritious foods. But using these guidelines and learning more is a great step in the right direction.
The Food and Drug Administration has a program called MEDWATCH for people to report adverse reactions to untested substances, such as herbal remedies and vitamins (800-332-1088).
A licensed physician should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any medical conditions.

Mary Ann Copson, a Certified Licensed Nutritionist and a Wellness and Life Coach is the founder of the Evenstar Mood & Energy Wellness Center for Women. You can visit her online at or reach her by phone at 434-263-4996.

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