Don’t Let the Wrong Carbohydrates Hijack Your Health

Discover how sugar and insulin are like valet parking

Glass of fresh beetroot juice with bets on wooden table

Would you like to enjoy increased energy, better physical health and improved clarity of thought? Look no further than your kitchen, because your health is on your plate!

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Carbohydrates, and the way we metabolize them, have everything to do with good health and contentment.

Let’s start at the very beginning with a field trip into a field of wheat.  We’re going to pick out a single grain and study it.  What can you expect to see?

  • A bran fiber coat
  • An endosperm, composed primarily of starch
  • A germ, which holds the nutritious oils

Strip away the bran coat and wheat germ (as humans learned to do only in the past few hundred years), and all that remains is a pellet of starch — also known as white flour.

Close-up on white flour

If you could look at that pellet of starch (flour) under a microscope, you would see a long, simple chain of sugar molecules in a row.

It turns out that our bodies are so good at breaking the links between those sugar molecules that, when you eat white flour, your blood sugar rises as fast as — if not faster than — when you eat table sugar, straight from the sugar bowl.

Beets vs. beet sugar

White flour and sugar are two examples of a category of carbs that are called “refined.” “Refined” means to remove the coarse impurities. It’s a word that was picked by marketing folks to make customers think that whole grain flour was coarse, or unrefined.  A much better term for these kinds of carbs is “stripped.”

In nature, carbs are virtually always associated with fiber. For the most part, stripped carbs are not found in nature — we make them that way by stripping away the fiber matrix.

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Take dates and beets, for example.  Both of these are used by industry as raw materials for manufacturing sugar.  In their original state, however, they are intact carbs, and so rich in fiber that they are considered superfoods.

The breakdown

When you eat, your gut breaks down food into sugar molecules that are then absorbed into your bloodstream. Here’s what happens next:

  • Food that’s broken down easily (like white flour and sugar) gets absorbed quickly, and blood sugars rise rapidly.
  • Food that’s broken down slowly (like produce, nuts, whole grains, beans, eggs and meats) gets absorbed slowly, and blood sugars remain more or less stable.

Once food crosses the walls of your gut and enters your bloodstream, your pancreas releases insulin to catch the incoming sugar and escort it to cells throughout your body.

You need insulin to live, but it’s not exactly your friend. Just like you don’t want your blood sugars to rise too high, you don’t want your insulin to rise too high either. Some is good, a lot is not.

This brings us to the key part of our discussion:

  • The faster you absorb sugar into your bloodstream, the more insulin you need to release in order to catch all the sugar and get it where it needs to go.
  • The more slowly you absorb the sugar, the less insulin must be released to deal with incoming sugar.

Like valet parking

Let’s think about this in terms of valet parking. Imagine that you’ve been invited to a huge party. The party starts at 7 p.m., and 1,000 cars show up, exactly at 7. The hosts are going to have to hire a lot of valet staff to park all those cars at once.

But they could have held an open house instead. Guests would come and go any time between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m. At the end of the day, the same 1,000 cars would have been parked. But the hosts wouldn’t have had to hire nearly as many valet staff to do the job.

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Now imagine that the cars are the sugar, and the valet staff are the insulin. If all the sugar shows up at once, you’ll need a lot of insulin to deal with it.  But if the sugar drips in bit by bit, you won’t need to release nearly as much insulin. If you want to have enough insulin to last a lifetime, you’ll want to use it wisely.

Foods to live by

So which nutrients do we absorb slowly? Intact carbs (with lots of fiber), protein and oil. These are found in foods like:

  • Whole grains (like whole oats, brown rice, quinoa, millet, bulgur wheat)
  • Dates
  • Beets
  • Peanuts
  • Eggs
  • Beans (including hummus, edamame, tofu, lentils, peanuts)
  • Veggies
  • Fruits

Which nutrients do we absorb quickly? Really just stripped carbs, which are found in foods like:

Understanding the differences between carbs that have an intact fiber matrix and carbs  whose fiber matrix has been stripped away is key to learning how to fill your plate with the kinds of nourishing food that bring health, vitality and well-being.

Adapted from Dr. Sukol’s blog, yourhealthisonyourplate.com, May 8, 2011.

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Roxanne B. Sukol, MD

Roxanne B. Sukol, MD, sees patients in the Department of Executive Health and Preventive Medicine at Cleveland Clinic’s Wellness Institute.
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