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Dear Carbohydrates,

What am I going to do with you? You are present in all vegetables, roots, tubers, grains, legumes, dairy, nuts, seeds and fruits. You are easily accessible, cheap and quick to prepare. You are so widespread and wallet-friendly that it almost seems wrong not to buy products that contain you. Somehow going to the store just to buy meat feels....wrong, so I get some wheat bread, sweetened Greek yogurt and gluten free cookies to compromise. Every single aisle contains you so it seems hard to escape. However, I have the sneaking suspicion that the worse you are for me, the cheaper you are and easier you are to find.

Sincerely,

Lucas

Dear Lucas,

I am slightly offended that you think of me as cheap, easy and bad for your health. If you have been paying attention you would see that ALL the healthy people you know eat grains, sweetened yogurt, low-fat snacks and lots of dairy; vegetables are negligible. The other people you know that eat those foods and are unhealthy must obviously be lying about their diets. I mean, why would I be on the Food Guide Pyramid at 6 servings a day if I was bad for you? Despite the fact that white rice was banned for sale in 1943 unless it was fortified, and despite the fact that two decades later it showed up on the Pyramid as essential, along with fortified breads and cereals, I am in so many people's diets that I simply cannot be bad for you. People have rumored that the government subsidizes corn production in the US because it is sold so cheaply that farmers do not make a profit on it and yes, that whole thing about saturated fat and eggs being bad for cholesterol was made made up, but I had to retaliate some way, right?

I was extremely embarrassed when researchers actually started looking into cholesterol and saturated fat intake and found that saturated fat actually has some protective mechanisms against free radical formation in the body and oops! I forgot to mention that the liver can turn me(carbohydrates) into cholesterol, no dietary cholesterol required.

But listen, it is wrong to go to the store just to buy meat. I mean how would you get dietary fiber? You can't argue that dietary fiber doesn't have protective mechanisms against coronary heart disease and improves glycemic response to foods, can you? Since you can't, you better make sure you head straight for the bread, gluten-free baked goods and grains next time you're at the store if you need fiber....just make sure not to walk through that whole vegetable section on your way in, those foods are expensive.

Sincerely,

Carbohydrates

Wow, looking back I guess I must have over-reacted to all those refined grains and sugars being shoved down my throat. Those guys were just looking out for me and I was so ungrateful! Nevertheless I did some research and found some interesting things regarding glycemic index, glycemic load and fiber. I'll summarize, but just read it knowing that some nasty fortified grains and cereals might be sending you hate mail.....

 Glycemic index (glucose = 100) Serving size (grams) Glycemic load per serving
All-Bran™, average 55 30 12
Coco Pops™, average 77 30 20
Cornflakes™, average 93 30 23
Cream of Wheat™ (Nabisco) 66 250 17
Cream of Wheat™, Instant (Nabisco) 74 250 22
Grapenuts™, average 75 30 16
Muesli, average 66 30 16
Oatmeal, average 55 250 13
Instant oatmeal, average 83 250 30
Puffed wheat, average 80 30 17
Raisin Bran™ (Kellogg's) 61 30 12
Special K™ (Kellogg's) 69 30 14

GLYCEMIC INDEX(GI)

Glycemic index is basically the old gold standard for measuring how “good” a carbohydrate is for you. The index of the food is always compared against white bread or glucose, which both measure in at 100. The food in question is measured for the blood glucose over a 2 hour period and then dividing it by the value of white bread. This is then multiplied by 100. So, with white bread being 100 and “high”, here are some other high GI foods that are 85 and up:

Bagels

Whole Wheat bread

Cornflakes

Cheerios

Carrots

Oatmeal

Potatoes

Brown Rice

Hard Candy

I would encourage you to look at that sampling and consider what is wrong with it. First, if high GI foods are bad for me, what the heck are all those healthy, fortified breads, cereals and grains doing up there? Also, carrots are high GI? Guess we can't eat those either, I guess eating vegetables really is a waste of time.....

…..unless you consider

GLYCEMIC LOAD(GL)

Glycemic load is the answer to the question no one asked about Glycemic Index, at least for a while. Glycemic load is how much of a serving food in question is composed of carbohydrates. This is found by dividing the glycemic index of a food by 100 and then multiplying it by the grams of carbohydrates per serving. Glycemic load is considered low if it is under 10, medium between 11 and 19 and high if it is 20+.

Even this is somewhat flawed because we can look at a fruit like banana which has a moderate to high GI and GL. So bananas cause you to release a decent amount of insulin and they are mostly carbohydrate. But the serving size is small and only has 25 grams of carbohydrates per medium banana, so this too is limited in its use.

I won't list the GI and GL of common foods as you can Google them easily enough but I encourage you to look at the grain, cereals and breads and see how well they score on both the GI and GL.

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SERVING SIZE

For serving size, lets compare two very different types of carbohydrate foods, Cheerios cereal and sweet potatoes. We have all seen the ads for Cheerios as a heart healthy food, helping to lower risk of heart disease and high cholesterol. I understand this claim too, taken in the context of replacing what people might have been eating earlier with a lower-calorie breakfast could help improve health markers. But we never hear if the people tested were eating pancakes, eggs and bacon, Toaster Strudels or maybe nothing at all before switching to Cheerios.

One serving of Cheerios is 1 cup. This contains:

103 calories

2 grams fat

21 grams carbohydrates

3 grams fiber

3 grams Protein

GL of 12 and GI of 74

913750_sweet_potatoes_isolated

One Medium Sweet Potato Contains:

103 Calories

0grams fat

24grams carbohydrates

4 grams fiber

2 grams protein

GL of 10 and GI of 74

If you look at both of these foods you will notice they are remarkably similar to one another in macronutrient content as well as GL and GI. So who cares whether you eat one or the other? I side with sweet potato for multiple reasons. One, a medium sweet potato is much more filling than a cup of dried cheerios. If you boil the potato, it absorbs water and increases volume, contributing to a greater feeling of fullness. Second, cereal usually needs to be eaten with milk which makes your carbohydrate portion increase even more. Lastly, the micronutrient content for these two foods is very different.

                            Cheerios         Sweet Potato

Vitamin A        16%                438%

Vitamin C        11%                 37%

Vitamin D        9%                  0%

Vitamin E        1%                  4%

Vitamin K        1%                 3%

Vitamin B6     25%              16%

Folate               68%              2%

Vitamin B12   29%              0%

Calcium           11%               4%

Iron                  49%              4%

Magnesium    8%                8%

Copper            3%                9%

If you look at this sampling, the only areas where the cereal outperforms the potato is in B vitamins and iron. This might seem like a crushing blow for the potato but when you consider it matches and/or beats the cereal in every other area listed WITHOUT artificial fortification, then you can see how the case for whole food is strengthened. In addition, if you ditched the protein from milk and grains/legumes and ate some lean animal products then all of your iron and B vitamins would be covered and then some, no fortification necessary.

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FIBER

In regards to fiber, we are looking at two types: soluble and insoluble. Soluble fiber forms a gel-like consistency in the small intestine and exert effects on the body like delaying gastric emptying, up-regulating CCK(tells you you're full), slows absorption of nutrients, diverts more cholesterol to forming bile rather than sending it to cells, increases short-chain fatty acid production which are the fuel for intestinal cells and beneficially increase gut bacteria.

Insoluble fiber, mainly cellulose in our diet, primarily acts to increase bulk and size of our stools so we can pass them more easily, bind to toxins and possibly reduce exposure to DNA-damaging chemicals in our food. Foods such as broccoli, cauliflower, squash and Brussels sprouts are all high-fiber but are significantly lower calorie than high-fiber grains, breads and cereals, allowing you to save your calories for lean meats and healthy fats.

I hope this gave you some insight into which carbohydrates to choose when building your diet, and why it is as important, if not more, to look at vitamin and nutrient content as well as calorie, fiber and carbohydrate content. In fact, ditching all grains, breads and cereals would be completely feasible if you replaced them with fibrous vegetables, with occasional starchy vegetables. If you are a hard working athlete or a very active person, then eating potatoes and rice makes sense to fuel your activity and enhance recovery. But for the sedentary or older population, especially those with blood-sugar issues, obtaining the bulk of your carbohydrates from non-starchy vegetables is a smart move.

References:

Mayo Clinic. (2012). Chart of High-fiber Foods

Mayo Clinic, May 2013. <http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/high-fiber-foods/NU00582>.

Nutrition Data. (2012).

Nutrition Data, May 2013. <http://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/breakfast-cereals/1522/2>.

Fan, J et al. (April 29 2013). Major Cereal Grain Fibers and Psyllium in Relation to Cardiovascular Health .

Pubmed, May 2013. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23284926>.

Mcgee, Harold. On Food and Cooking.

New York: Scribner, 2004.

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