The Case for Carbs
To be, or not to be…gluten-free. That seems to be the dietary question of the day. Going to a gluten-free diet is gaining ground fast, and for many, it’s a necessity. But some may be confused as to what gluten is and mistakenly try to eliminate carbs altogether. As the body needs carbohydrates, it’s important to differentiate between the various types and how the body processes these. Or, as in the case with gluten, how some bodies do not.
Gluten is the protein found in many whole grains with wheat containing the highest amount. And Wheat flour (refined) is the major ingredient in 99% of flour products from breads and pastas to crackers and cookies, etc.
Celiac disease sufferers are totally intolerant of any gluten products. Symptoms can range from mild to severe. Whole wheat, barley, rye, and oats all contain gluten. Rice, quinoa, corn, buckwheat, amaranth, and teff do not.
Some, like me, don’t suffer from Celiac but are gluten sensitive and feel best when avoiding these whole grain and grain products.
Then there are those who choose to avoid gluten products, or more specifically, flour products to help lose weight. It’s generally accepted that too many refined carbohydrates including refined flours can contribute to weight gain. But to fully understand this carbohydrate maze, we must first understand the differences between refined carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates and how our bodies use them.
Beginning with the Basics
All carbohydrates (both refined and complex) are energy foods that metabolize into a sugar called glucose. Glucose—often referred to as “blood sugar—circulates in our blood and provides energy to all our cells.
At rest, our brain requires two-thirds of our body’s total glucose needs! The brain cannot store fuel so it requires a constant supply of glucose. When brain glucose blood levels fall too low, symptoms can range from temporary mental fatigue or dizziness.
Complex CarbohydratesComplex carbohydrates, the “good” carbs, are unrefined and still contain fiber, protein, and small amounts of fat. Fiber, fat, and protein slow the digestion of carbohydrates, lessening the rush of sugar into our bloodstream.
Complex carbohydrates include whole grains, beans, vegetables, fruits, and some dairy and natural sweeteners. Adding these foods to our diet helps to provide a steady supply of glucose.
Refined, processed carbohydrates are mostly simple sugars and starches with little to no fiber and very little protein (or gluten) left behind. These include common white flour products, including breads, pastas, cereals, crackers, cookies, desserts, sodas, sugars, candies, pastries, donuts, bagels, and the like. These simple carbs quickly convert to glucose and can cause undesirable blood sugar spikes and weight gain. These treats can be okay on occasion, but are downright unhealthy if eaten too frequently. They also contribute to insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome, type two diabetes, food addictions, overeating, and many other diet-related diseases.
The Glycemic Index
Carbohydrates differ in their nutritional value and in how quickly they convert into glucose. Basically, the quicker a carbohydrate is converted into usable blood glucose, the higher its glycemic index. The slower a carbohydrate is digested and converted into blood glucose, the lower the glycemic index. A lower index is more desirable as it makes it easier for our bodies to regulate our blood sugar level.
Candy is an example of a high glycemic carbohydrate that causes a sudden rise in blood glucose. We have all felt this temporary “sugar rush”, but chronically high blood sugar levels can be detrimental to our health. When blood sugar rises suddenly, it triggers the pancreas to release insulin. Insulin is a storage hormone directly responsible for removing excess glucose from the bloodstream and storing it as glycogen in the muscles and then later as fat. During exercise, our muscles use this stored glycogen for quick energy and to help maintain a steady blood glucose level. In addition, when insulin levels in our blood rise, they block the release of fat-burning glucagon.
Simply put, eating too many refined carbohydrates can lead to weight gain and may prevent your body from burning already stored fat. This is not a formula for weight loss!
It is important to note that many gluten-free products are made from high glycemic flours such as tapioca, white rice, and potato. These products will trigger an insulin response in the blood just like other refined carbohydrates. In this regard, gluten-free pastries, cookies, and muffins for example, are no healthier than their white flour counterparts. Most commercially prepared gluten-free products contain little fiber or protein needed to slow the glycemic response down. Be sure to read the product labels – especially if you are diabetic!
Improving the Glycemic Index of Carbs
By combining foods that have protein, fat, and fiber in them you can slow the rate that carbs convert into glucose. For example:
A serving of white pasta with simple marinara sauce would be a high glycemic meal. Instead, choose whole grain pasta with at least 6 grams of fiber and 7 grams of protein per serving. This amount of fiber and protein is nearly impossible to get in gluten-free pasta. Add a little protein and fat by serving it with a meat sauce (or beans or nuts if you are a vegetarian) and you have slowed the conversion even further.
White rice will cause blood sugar to rise rather quickly because it has been stripped of its fiber, fat, and protein (germ and bran). Brown rice, a whole grain, contains carbohydrate starch, protein, fat, and fiber, all of which helps to slow down a blood sugar rise. Having brown rice with legumes or nuts adds even more of these crucial ingredients to slowing down the glycemic response.
Brown rice pasta, however, is not necessarily a good choice. Brown rice pasta is much lower in protein and fiber than whole wheat pasta resulting in a higher glycemic response. Quinoa pasta lists corn flour as the first ingredient, which is a high starch carb.
Making Carbs Count
Eliminating all carbohydrates from our diet is radical and dangerous, but you can make smarter choices. For temporary weight loss, limiting carbs to under 30 grams for the whole day (got to read labels) will help you burn excess fat. A less drastic choice, however, would be to limit your consumption of refined carbohydrates and experiment with complex ones such as whole grains.
You will find more than fifty recipes for whole grain cooking, plus a cooking chart, in the Amber Waves of Grain and Salads that Satisfy chapters of my cookbook, The Passionate Vegetable available at www.ThePassionateVegetable.com or Amazon, Whole Foods and several other local retailers in Santa Barbara.