Diet is such an important subject for your health that I’ve decided to discuss it in a four part series, beginning with a focus on how to read and understand the carbohydrate content on food labels, which carbs to eat, and which ones to avoid. Once you better understand food labels and as a fun sociological experiment, look into other people’s grocery cart at the grocery store. You’ll likely conclude that most people opt to purchase foods high in carbs above everything else. Why?
Most of the food we eat today is filled with the bad three: sugar, fat and salt. The reason for this is many foods have been processed and stripped of a great deal of their nutrients, removing their natural goodness and flavor. Food manufacturers know this so they supplement the food to enhance the taste. Over time, we become accustomed to this overabundance of energy and salt. You can easily eat a snack that contains 25 percent of your recommended daily intake (RDI) of salt and not even notice! Imagine if you were used to driving the speed limit on the highway. Imagine now that the car can only go half as fast. You would feel like you are crawling. The same goes for your taste buds.
Understanding food labels: carbohydrates
A carbohydrate is a sugar and comes in many forms. Sugar is a form of energy especially important for the brain and nervous system – they only consume sugar, and cannot process fat or protein well. When your blood sugar is too low, your brain panics and you get cravings. Women should consume about 180 grams/day a day and men 250 grams/days.
At normal sugar levels, your blood system has less than one teaspoon of sugar floating around, about 5 grams. One slice of bread has between 25 and 35 grams of carbohydrate, or 5 to 7 teaspoons of sugar. We most often eat two slices – add in a soft drink (48 grams) and fries (who knows how much), and you’ve just consumed 15 teaspoons of sugar! This amount of sugar is at least 15 times your blood sugar level, too much for your body to handle all at once, which causes a spike in your blood sugar.
Sugar used to be divided into two broad categories: simple and complex. We now catergorize sugar into glycemic index (GI), a scale used to indicate how fast and how high a particular food can raise our blood sugar level. It was developed to help diabetics figure out what types of food to eat. They can be divided into low GI (unprocessed grains, vegetables, nuts, fruits), medium range GI (whole wheat products, starchy vegetables such as sweet potatoes, basmati and brown rice) and high GI ( processed grains, flour, baked goods, pastries, most breakfast cereals).
Another measure to be aware of is glycemic load, calculated by multiplying the glycemic index by the amount of carbohydrate in grams provided by a food and dividing the total by 100. If a food contains a sugar with a high GI but contains a great deal of water, like watermelon, the glycemic load is decreased because you consume less sugar overall.1
Processed vs. unprocessed carbs
When you eat processed foods like flour, white rice, bread, pastries, cereal, and pasta or foods that contain easily-digested sugar such as fruits, potatoes, and honey, your body processes the sugar too quickly, causing a temporary spike in blood sugar followed by a “crash”. Whole foods that have been unaltered and still contain all of their nutrients and minerals provide sugar that digests more slowly, giving you more sustained energy.
Oatmeal is a better choice than cereal – but consider the type of oatmeal. Minute oats are convenient, but if they only take a minute to soften the grain, consider how quickly your body will digest it. The more quickly it’s digested, the less sustained energy you’ll have. Cereal is a breakfast staple in many homes, but remember that the gains are processed. This processing (milling, heating, stiring) destroys vital nutrients and renders the sugar in a too-simple form.
Bread is another common staple. Bread is a grain that has been milled into a powder and bleached. This is mixed into a dough with water and yeast and baked at a high temperature. Does this sound processed to you?
Good carbs include unprocessed grains like: quinoa, brown rice, yams, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, millet, kamut and steel cut oats.
Understanding carbs in fruit
Dr. Weil advocates fruit in his anti-inflammatory diet. Fruits do have a great deal of antioxidants, water and fiber. Having said that, fruits also have fructose. Fructose is the worst offender from the sugar family because it doesn’t need to be transported through your intestinal barrier. It just burns right through into your blood stream. Fructose has been used as a universal sweetener because it’s cheap and readily available. Avoid foods that contain fructose, corn syrup or liquid sugar in the ingredients.
Fruit juice is the same since it has a great deal of fructose and is packed with sugar. A glass of orange juice can easily have the same amount of sugar as four or five oranges. This is the same amount of sugar as a soft drink.
But aren’t fruits natural sugar? While this might be true, sugar, regardless of its source, has the same effect on the body. The only difference is the length of time it takes to digest it and the effects on your blood sugar level. Even if fruit juice is ”sugar-free”, it will contain fructose and it will spike you blood sugar level.
In his book The pH Miracle, Dr. Robert O. Young says that we should eat fruit between meals. I agree. The less sugar spike we get the better. He also advocates avocados, tomatoes, lemons and limes as the only fruits you should eat. In his slow carb diet, Tim Ferriss advocates no fruit and suggests consuming your sugars from legumes (beans).
Why do I think of sugar as the enemy?
Consider an uncontrolled diabetic. A person suffering from diabetes runs a blood sugar level higher than normal. If this blood sugar goes too high for too long, it creates disease. A diabetic with poorly controlled blood sugar will get age-related diseases on average 15 to 20 years younger than someone with normal blood sugar levels. High blood sugar is in fact premature aging…
When blood sugar spikes too high above normal range, it leaves the blood stream and attaches itself to our proteins, forming Advanced Glycation End products (AGEs). As mentioned previously, AGEs have been linked to inflammation and are most likely responsible for some age-related disease. Even if you are not diabetic, a diet high in refined and processed carbohydrates, will spike your blood sugar level too high and spill over into body tissues. Studies are starting to show that people with diets high in refined carbs are at greater risk for developing inflammatory diseases.
Having said all of that, I should go on record as saying you do need sugar, just the right
of sugar. The right types of unprocessed grains and complex low GI foods provide you with fiber, minerals, vitamins. They will make you feel full and satisfied for longer, activating the brain messenger serotonin to tell you you’re full, happy and calm.
In summary, read labels and look at the carbohydrate content. Remember that 5 grams is equal to one teaspoon of sugar or normal blood sugar level. Eat unprocessed whole grains as much as possible and try to eat at least half (maybe even 75 percent) of your meal in vegetables. Remember that high glycemic index foods will spike you blood sugar and make you feel good temporarily, but will cause you to crash and burn later.
1 – Liu S, Willett WC. Dietary glycemic load and atherothrombotic risk. Curr Atheroscler Rep. 2002;4(6):454-461