There is a lot of confusion about “carbs”...aka carbohydrates. We often hear negative information regarding carbs, and there seems to be a general idea in the culture at large that carbs are bad. However, this is too simplistic because carbs are an essential nutrient. The key is an understanding of the difference in good and bad carbs.
One tool created to help understand carbohydrates is the Glycemic Index. This term is gaining recognition in the public but may be misleading. What is the Glycemic Index? It is simply a tool to measure a foods impact on one’s blood sugar, rate of digestion and absorption. Foods that fall below 55 on the GI scale are considered low, 56-69 medium, and 70+ are high. Foods that are high on the GI scale will cause a large release of insulin. This results in another essential fat burning hormone, glucagon, to not be released. Those who consume a lot of high GI foods are in danger of gaining weight due to this response and putting themselves at risk for diabetes. The GI is a good tool, especially in the clinical setting and for diabetics, but for the majority of the population it creates some confusion.
Why is the GI confusing? When we eat we tend to have a variety of foods on our plate. Some of the foods will be high glycemic, some medium and others will be low. Therefore, when we eat foods in combination as we do in normal meals there is a combined glycemic load. The glycemic load for an entire meal may be appropriate; although, some foods may be individually high on the GI scale. Another problem is that high GI does not mean unhealthy and low GI does not mean healthy. For example, a banana is high GI and bologna is low. But which is better for you? Clearly - the banana!
To further confuse the issue carbohydrates are often divided into groups. One method separates carbohydrates as sugars, starches and fibers. Another method groups them as simple or complex. Although there is some use to these terms, they tend to create more confusion. Most people would say we should not consume sugars or starches. Others would say we need to consume complex carbohydrates, not simple carbohydrates. There is some truth in this, but the reality is that most foods are a combo.
So, how should we think about carbs? It is very simple. Is the food refined or whole?
Refined foods are stripped of fiber, nutrients and water. They are altered from their original form and do not really perform as a food. It is like taking a tire off a car, removing the gasket from your oil filter and still expecting it to get you from point A to point B. It is no longer a whole car and no longer functions as a whole car.
Whole plant foods such as veggies, fruits, beans, and whole grains are typically high in carbohydrates; however, because they have not been deconstructed and are in their whole form, they work delivering health, wellness and nutrients to our 3 billion cells. All whole plant foods always contain fiber, and this is a key to whole foods keeping the glycemic index in check, protecting our pancreas and ultimately saving us from diabetes and heart related diseases.
The key is not understanding glycemic index, simple vs. complex, sugars vs. starches. The key is simply consuming carbohydrates that are whole foods. Whole foods are self-correcting for both calories, the glycemic index and hunger. So, eat your veggies, fruits, beans and whole grains!
Those who are hypoglycemic, diabetic or who have other food related issues should consult their physician regarding their food choices.