‘As always, we are what we eat and what we sow is what we reap. Our health is, to a great extent, in our hands.’
THERE is a confusing controversy, at least in the public arena, whether carbohydrates are healthy or bad for us. This will, of course, depend on what type of carbohydrates we are talking about. There are carbo foods that are better for us than others. And then, there is the quantity factor. How much is too much?
What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are one of the three main classes of food and sources of energy. The other two are protein and fats. Carbs are organic compounds of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen, which include sugars and starches found in rice, bread, cookies, candies, ice cream, cakes, potatoes, popcorn, corn, milk, beans, cereals, fruits, All these are eventually broken down to simple sugars, called glucose. This is what is measured when we have blood sugar level tested.
What types are there?
The old classification categorized them into simple and complex. This was modified into carbo with high glycemic index and those with low glycemic index. The latest measure is the so-called glycemic load, since glycemic index alone did not tell us how much carbo is contained in the food item. The glycemic load tells us both the amount of carbohydrates in the food, how fast they are absorbed and its impact on the blood sugar levels. Low glycemic index foods, in general, are the healthier ones, because they are absorbed more slowly and increase the glucose level more steadily, not rapidly and abruptly like the high glycemic foods are.
How do we calculate the glycemic load?
To get the glycemic load of the food item, multiply the glycemic index by the amount of carbo calories the food contains. This may seem complicated, but the important caveat to remember is: Minimally processed whole-grain foods are healthier than highly processed grains, cereals, and sugars. An example is brown rice, which is less processed, and therefore healthier, compared to white rice which has been thoroughly processed, from cleaning, husking, paddy separating, and milling (which strips off the bran layer, which is actually good for us), leaving only the starchy endosperm we call white rice. The more processed the food items are, the less healthier they are, even in processed, canned, or packaged meats, vegetables and fruits, with preservatives. Rice, and all other carbs are inflammatory foods.
Which are these food items?
Low-glycemic load (LGL) food items are high-fiber fruits and vegetables, bran cereals, and legumes, like chick peas, pinto beans, kidney beans, black beans. The medium glycemic load (MGL) ones include brown rice, oatmeal, bulgur, pearled barley, whole grain pasta, whole grain bread, and fruit juice without added sugar. The high glycemic load (HGL) foods include white rice, potatoes, French fries, potato chips, refined cereals, white flour, non-diet pop drinks, candies, jelly beans, couscous, cranberry juice. Potatoes, for one, in any form, are both a high glycemic index and high glycemic load item.
Does our body need carbohydrates at all?
Yes, most definitely. To stay healthy, we need all the three types of food items: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. But there are food items in each of these 3 classes which are healthier than others. The healthiest carbohydrates are the low glycemic load foods and some medium glycemic load items. The best sources of proteins are fish, legumes, some sea foods, instead of red meats, especially not processed meat products. As for fats, we do not have to eat fat per se, since most of the other food items we eat as listed above already have fats in them. While our digestive system breaks down all other food items into glucose, the fiber foods cannot be broken down and pass through our GI tract undigested, helping us have more regular bowel movements and also in lowering the incidence of cancer of the colon.
Why are high glycemic index foods unhealthy?
In general, our body system is adversely affected by anything abrupt and drastic. It prefers more gradual and smoother fluctuations in the chemistry that is constantly occurring in our body. When we eat high glycemic foods, especially non-diet soft drinks, candies, rice, potatoes, desserts, our glucose (blood sugar) level shoots up abruptly. This has been linked to an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease. Lower glycemic foods help control type 2 diabetes. The amount of rice we eat appears to be a major reason why the Philippines has the highest incidence of type 2 diabetes, by population ratio.
What are nightshades?
Nightshades are a group of highly inflammatory vegetables (Latin name: Solanaceae) which are bad for arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and autoimmune conditions. They contain the chemical solanine, which is inflammatory and aggravates all those medical conditions. They include tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, chili, paprika, and eggplants. Tobacco also belongs to this group. Lettuce, radishes, spinach, celery, mushroom, and many other green leafy veggies, are vegetables that do NOT contain carbohydrates.
How much is too much?
The best gauge for our daily food (calories) intake is our body mass index, which, simply stated, is our expected weight according to our height. A person 5 feet four inches tall should normally weigh around 110 to 140. Weighing once a week (preferably the same day and time) will help guide us as to our daily calorie requirement. But as a rule, cutting down our rice consumption will help not only in maintaining a normal weight, but in preventing diseases, such as metabolic syndrome, which includes diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease. All soft drinks, with no exception, are unhealthy “liquid candies” and toxic to the body, especially to children.
So what’s the healthier choice?
Choosing healthier sources of proteins and carbohydrates as listed above and, of course, controlling the calories to achieve your normal weight, is the key. A two-decade prospective study of 82,802 women revealed that those “who ate low-carbohydrate diets that were high in vegetable sources of fat or protein had a 30 percent lower risk of heart disease, compared to women who ate high carbohydrate, low-fat diets…and women who ate low-carbohydrate diets that were high in animal fats or proteins did not have a reduced risk of heart disease.” Eating fish, chicken, minimal red meat, a lot of green leafy vegetables and fruits in moderation, some nuts and oats, minimal carbs (sugar, rice, bread, sweets) is healthier. This low-carb diet will also protect us from a host of chronic illness, metabolic diseases, and cancer.
As always, we are what we eat and what we sow is what we reap. Our health is, to a great extent, in our hands.
The main objective of this column is to educate and inspire people to live a healthier lifestyle to prevent illnesses and disabilities and achieve a happier and more productive life. Any diagnosis, recommendation or treatment in our article are general medical information and not intended to be applicable or appropriate for anyone. This column is not a substitute for your physician, who knows your condition well and who is your best ally when it comes to your health.
Philip S. Chua, MD, FACS, FPCS, a Cardiac Surgeon Emeritus based in Northwest Indiana and Las Vegas, Nevada, is an international medical lecturer/author, a Health Advocate, and Chairman of the Filipino United Network-USA, a 501(c)3 humanitarian foundation in the United States. Websites: philipSchua.com and FUN8888.com Email: [email protected]