The truth about carbs

By: Primacy Dietitians, Nov 23, 2009
  Article
carbohydrates, low-carb, low-carb diets

Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap, but they may be healthier than you think

With the explosion of low-carb diets like Atkins and South Beach earlier this decade, carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap. The truth, however, is that carbohydrates are important fuel for our brains and our bodies, and they don’t necessarily deserve all the negative attention they’ve gotten.

Carbohydrates are found in grains, breads, cereals, rice, pasta, vegetables, fruits, dairy products and in foods with added sugar. Foods containing carbohydrates are often high in fibre and good sources of vitamins and minerals which are important parts of a healthful diet.

But not all carbohydrates are created equal. Some carbohydrates will raise blood glucose much higher than others, which is part of the reason some diets cut out the carbs. According to the Canadian Diabetes Association, the glycemic index (GI) is a scale that ranks carbohydrate-rich foods by how much they raise blood glucose levels compared to a standard food such as glucose or white bread. Raised blood glucose levels are a measure of how quickly your body digests foods. This is influenced by many factors such as amount of processing and cooking, and the amount of fibre found in the foods. Research has shown that eating foods with a low GI may help you to control blood glucose levels, an important factor for people with diabetes.

What is the glycemic index?

The GI is a scale that measures how much and how quickly a carbohydrate food raises blood glucose levels. Your goal is to stabilize your blood sugar level throughout the day and to prevent large “spikes” in your blood sugar levels. High GI foods tend to raise your blood glucose levels quickly and to a higher level than low GI foods.

Why focus on the GI?

Lower GI foods can help:

  • Lower and stabilize blood glucose levels
  • Lower the risk of developing Type II Diabetes
  • Lower cholesterol
  • Control appetite and promote weight loss

But why are diets that cut all carbohydrates from your diet? For one thing, carbs are essential for a healthy diet. They are the main source of energy for your body and the only nutrient that keeps your brain active. They’re often rich in fibre and anti-oxidants to help prevent disease. And, many carbohydrate foods, such as whole grains, fruits and vegetables, are low in calories and help to promote weight loss.

Choosing the right carbs

To eat the right kind of carbohydrates, try to eat those foods with a low GI most often, limiting the amount of foods with a high GI to the occasional treat.

LOW GI FOODS (Choose most often)

  • Most non-starchy vegetables and fruit 
  • Beans and lentils 
  • Whole grains like unprocessed oats, bran cereals and grain breads
  • Pumpernickel breads
  • Milk, cheese and plain yogurt
  • Nuts and seeds 
  • Sweet potatoes

MEDIUM GI FOODS (Choose occasionally)

  • Tropical fruits
  • Basmati and brown rice
  • Whole wheat bread
  • Rye bread or crackers
  • New potatoes

HIGH GI FOODS (Choose less often)

  • Most desserts and processed snacks
  • Many cold flaky cereals
  • Instant oatmeal
  • White breads, bagels
  • Instant rice
  • Most baking potatoes
  • French fries 
  • Most crackers and rice cakes

How do I use the GI in my diet?

  • At each meal time, choose low or medium GI foods more often than high GI foods.
  • Instead of instant oatmeal, try steel-cut oats or large flake oats.
  • Choose a bean salad instead of a potato salad as a side dish.
  • Enjoy whole grain breads rather than white bread.
  • Do not overcook your pasta, rice or vegetables as the more something is cooked, the higher the GI.
  • educe your intake of processed foods as they tend to have a high GI.
  • Sprinkle lemon juice or vinegar over your meals as acid helps to lower the GI.
  • Consume healthy fats & protein with meals as this helps lower the GI of a mixed meal.
  • Remember, portion size is just as important! For all starchy foods, aim for one to two servings per snack, or two to three servings per meal.

Primacy Dietitians is a panel of dietitians who are all members of the Dietitians of Canada.