Carbs
Carbs, The Good, the Bad, and the Glycemic Load
Author

Fact Checked By Jill Armijo, PTA, CHC

The Good

I saw an ad on my phone while playing Spider Solitaire, showing a nifty ‘nice cream’ maker. A hand put bananas and strawberries into a chute, and out came a delicious-looking pink dessert.

The sales copy said something like, “Do you like ice cream but don’t want all the sugar and carbs?

Are you kidding me? Do they think we don’t know that bananas and strawberries are FULL of sugar and carbs?

Of course, they’re also full of excellent nutrients, like vitamin C, manganese, folate (vitamin B9), potassium, vitamin B6, and magnesium (1) (2).

So, are they good or bad? And what do they have to do with glycemic load?

Woah, Nellie. We’ll get to all that. But first of all, strawberries and bananas are good for you, even if they’re sweet, and even though some ads list bananas as one of the five things you should never eat.

Don’t believe everything you read. Find a good healthcare provider who understands nutrition before adding or subtracting strawberries and bananas or anything else to your diet.

Carbs, short for carbohydrates, are good for you. Your body needs them—just not ALL of them.

There are three main types of carbs:

  • Fiber
  • Sugar
  • Starch

Carbs are either “simple” or “complex,” depending on their chemical structures, how easily they digest and nourish your body.

Foods often contain more than one type of carbohydrate, so it can be a little bit of a puzzle figuring out whether a food is “good” or “bad.”

Whole foods without labels and those with one ingredient on the label are usually excellent choices.

Some of the confusion occurs when labels claim the product contains a whole food, but they’ve pulverized it during processing. They used the entire thing but changed the structure of the food to a simpler carb.

There are complex carbohydrates in

  • whole grains
  • veggies and fruit
  • legumes (seeds from pods, like peas, beans, lentils, and peanuts).

The sugars in these foods are long chains of molecules, and the fiber in them allows the nutrients to digest and absorb slowly into the bloodstream.

This slow digestion feeds the natural flora in the gut and prevents blood glucose levels from spiking. The fiber itself doesn’t digest or absorb, helping you feel full and your bowels regular (3).

Whole grains are also beneficial in lowering your risk of diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, and other unpleasant conditions (4).

An example of whole grain is a wheat kernel. Some other whole grains are

  • Brown rice
  • Millet
  • Barley
  • Quinoa
  • Oats

Oats are whole grains before they’re cut (steel), smashed (rolled), or ground. Whole grain bread isn’t a whole grain. It’s made from whole grain, but it’s not the grain.

It’s much easier for your body to digest a piece of bread than a bowl of boiled oat groats. Therein lies one trick to getting the right carbs. Eat food in their natural state, like strawberries and bananas, and skip the simple carbs whenever possible.

The Bad

Fruits can be both good and bad. They contain simple and complex carbohydrates. It’s helpful to determine how many carbohydrates you want to include in your diet and weigh the cost and benefits of your food.

While eating some fruit is beneficial, eating a lot might provide too much sugar, despite the fiber content.

The same goes for dairy. There are simple and complex carbs in dairy products and various preferences, tolerances, and dietary needs from one person to another.

But some foods are blatantly poor choices. They contain an overabundance of simple sugars and little or no complex carbs. These are some examples:

  • Cookies
  • Cake
  • Candy
  • Ice cream
  • Potato chips
  • Soda pop
  • Orange juice

Wait, what? You thought o.j. was good for you? It does have lots of vitamin C, but so does a multivitamin. Or an orange.

A 12-ounce glass of orange juice contains all the sugar of several oranges without most of the fiber of even one orange. The sugar content is equal to a can of soda – about three tablespoons. Ewww. Eat an orange instead (5).

On a low-carb diet, like keto, you’ll want to include foods in your meal plans that contain the most bang for your carbs. For instance, instead of processed cereal, have a bowl of whole grains. Whole grains have carbs, but they also have other nutrients that might make them worth it.

Processed wheat is often enriched. Unless white flour has nutrients added to it after milling, it’s about as healthy as a bag of sawdust—only with less fiber (6).

Dairy substitutes like almond milk may contain fewer carbs (only the unsweetened ones), but they also have less protein. It’s a balancing act (7).

The Glycemic Load

Measuring carbohydrates in your diet is one way to limit them if you need to because you’re trying to lose weight, manage diabetes, or simply improve your health. But another way to maintain optimal carbohydrate intake for any goal is to consider the glycemic load of a particular food or an entire meal.

Glycemic load is a rating system that weighs the number of carbs in a portion of food against the rate blood sugar rises after consuming it. The rate of glucose level in the blood is called the glycemic index (GI) (8).

The GI scale places foods in a range from 0 to 100, with zero to 10 indicating slow blood sugar elevation after eating something, and anything over 70 is high. Between 55 and 70 shows a moderate blood sugar response.

Foods that break down slowly have a low glycemic index, and foods that digest more quickly have a high GI (9).

The GI itself doesn’t tell you whether you should or shouldn’t eat a particular food or label it healthy or not. It simply gives you a measure to compare with the total carbs to help balance your eating and meal planning with your needs.

Table of some foods in each category of a low, medium, and high GI

Low

Medium

High

Fruits and veggies

Potatoes

White bread

Whole grains

White rice

Cake and pastries

Beans

Corn

Bagels and croissants

Low-fat dairy

Couscous

Crackers and cookies

Nuts

“Whole grain” cereals

Packaged cereals

The glycemic load accounts for both the GI and the actual carbohydrates in food. To know the glycemic load, multiply a food’s GI from the scale by the number of carbohydrates per serving and divide by 100 (10).

Glycemic load can also help you understand how it will affect your body’s access to available energy and its likelihood of recruiting stored energy or “dining in.” If your glycemic load is continually lower than 10, you’ll be more likely to run low on available fuel and need to draw from the glycogen stores in the liver and muscles.

Low glycemic load (GL) is 10 or less. Medium is between 11 and 19, and high is 20 or more (11).

Table of some foods in each category of a low, medium, and high GL

Food

GI

Carbs/serving

Low

Medium

High

Strawberries

40

7.5

3

Bananas

62

15

9

Whole grain bread

45

18

8

Oatmeal (not instant)

55

30

17

Spaghetti noodles

37

43

16

Couscous

60

45

27

White Rice

85

40

34

Bagel

72

35

25

It’s critical to note that the glycemic load is only accurate if you eat one serving. The more servings you eat, the greater the glycemic load because the glycemic index is set. A serving size of shortbread has a GL of 10. Not bad for something with sugar, but if you eat a whole row of shortbread, the GL will shoot up into the high column.

For someone planning meals and maintaining a low-carb diet, glycemic load can help decide what to serve with the roast beef or the clam chowder.

If your main course is a protein, a non-veggie side dish might include a potato (GL 15), with a salad or green beans (both low GL; but watch the salad dressing!) If you do have a potato, you won’t want a slice of Texas toast also. And don’t even consider dessert.

If you server Pad Thai for dinner, a low glycemic load main dish, an orange for dessert would be perfect.

Summary

Carbs aren’t all bad. Complex carbohydrates are nutritious and provide our bodies with needed energy, fiber, and vitamins.

Simple carbs like processed sugary foods don’t provide good nutrition, so they aren’t worth the extra carbohydrates. They cause spikes in blood glucose levels and contribute to conditions such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes.

Reading labels can help identify the relationships between carbs, protein, and fiber to guide food choices and support you in your health objectives. Understanding the relationship between glycemic index, carbohydrates, and glycemic load can help you plan meals.

Eating a variety of whole foods, veggies, fruits, proteins, and whole grains in appropriate serving sizes is optimal for nutrition and carbohydrate intake.

Author

Fact Checked By Jill Armijo, PTA, CHC

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