Let me be honest, last night I was chowing down on some delicious biscuits and gravy. Now, I have done tons of research on carbohydrates and the damage they can wreck on your body. I know about carbs. I am a self-proclaimed nerd, so I know exactly what those B&G were about to do to my hormones, energy, and waistline.
But I still chose to devour them! Why are they so hard to resist?
One day I think, f*** those carbs, give me kale and salmon – I am ready to get shredded! And the very next day, I would rather keep those extra 10 pounds if that means I get to enjoy that pint of Ben and Jerry’s (and pizza, burgers, and hot wings all in one meal eff it)!
Do I regret eating those biscuits and gravy last night? YES
Would I do it again? YES
So what are we supposed to do with these carbs?
I know what carbs are and what they do to our bodies. And I could give you the magic carb formula to get you to your weight loss or muscle gain goals immediately. But that magic formula is HARD to follow because those stinkin’ starches are so delicious. So you have to make the decision for yourself what your carbo relationship is going to be like! And the nerd I am, wants you to make an informed decision about your carbs.
I want to start at the beginning so you really understand what these little buggers are all about
CARBOHYDRATES are one of the three main MACRONUTRIENTS – quite possibly the most delicious of the three (although I do love me some steaks and bacon).
Technically, carbohydrates are made of different types of sugars, all welded up into one giant carbo molecule.
After that delicious carb is eaten, it’s broken down into its simple sugar molecules (glucose, fructose, and galactose) in the stomach and small intestine. The small units of sugar are absorbed through the small intestine and enter the blood stream where they travel to the liver.
You remember the liver? That large organ that has to work overtime on the weekends when you have had a few too many adult beverages (probably mostly carbs at that)… that thing that detoxifies your blood so you can sober up… Well the liver converts the fructose and galactose into glucose. Blah, blah, blah… I won’t remember those sugar terms anyway.
SUGAR IS SUGAR, RIGHT?
Pretty much, but the important sugar form to remember is GLUCOSE. Carbs are broken down into glucose. The glucose rides the waves of our bloodstream to travel to our cells.
And why do our cells want the glucose? For energy.
Imagine every little cell in your body is a little tiny person working to keep your body moving. That little cell has one job and it does the same thing, day in and day out, to run our bodies. And that cell only gets fed by the bloodstream and whatever is floating around in it.
So our bloodstream delivers glucose to the cell to provide energy. So glucose is food for the cells. The cells take in that food and burn it up for energy so they can keep doing their monotonous job of running our bodies.
Glucose is the food for the cells.
So if the cells are full, the glucose goes to the next best eaters – the liver and muscle tissues. The problem is, the liver and muscle tissues don’t eat very much. And they hate glucose. So the body has to turn glucose into something tastier – GLYCOGEN (yes another sugar molecule name to remember). But the moral of the story: the liver and muscles don’t do much to remove that extra glucose (or converted glycogen) out of the bloodstream buffet because they just can’t eat that much.
So what does the body to do get rid of that extra glucose? It sends it to the final storage source – THE FAT CELLS. These fat cells will eat anything. And they will eat any amount that is given to them! They can stretch and grow to accommodate any amount of glucose. So the more glucose you have in your bloodstream after those cells are full, the more that goes into your fat cells. And the growth in fat cells means growth in the fat you see on your body! Yep, your expanding waistline is from the extra carbs you eat.
So yes, carbs can be used as energy AND stored as fat. This is why we love and hate our carbs.
Eating fat doesn’t make you fat. Eating too many carbs does.
But wait, it gets worse. When we eat too many carbs, our bodies release a powerful hormone. Sometimes that hormone does great things for us. But not always.
Insulin is a hormone secreted by the pancreas.
Its like our body’s very own Millionaire Matchmaker. Insulin’s job is to introduce glucose to the cells. (If you want to be fancy, you could call insulin the transmembrane receptor that regulates glucose homeostasis). So yes, it is much easier to think of insulin as a professional matchmaker. Insulin introduces glucose to the cells and convinces the cells to take the glucose out of the bloodstream. The cell then burns the glucose for immediate energy. Without insulin completing the glucose-cell matches, we wouldn’t be able to give our cells energy for their jobs.
When you carbo load (or down too many breadsticks at Olive Garden), you have more glucose in your bloodstream than your cells can eat. Since your body wants to return to your normal baseline state, more insulin is released from the pancreas. This additional insulin works to make more matches between glucose and the cells in order to get the glucose out of the bloodstream as quickly as possible.
But this extra insulin floating around is not good for our bodies. Insulin is damn good at matchmaking so the extra insulin gets the glucose out of the bloodstream quickly – giving you surges and crashes in energy.
But insulin is more damning than just changing our energy levels. Extra insulin also raises our CORTISOL and triglycerides. Cortisol is responsible for fat storage. So the more insulin you have released, the easier it is for your fat cells to take in glucose. Triglycerides are fats in our blood stream. The more fat in our bloodstream, the higher the risk for atherosclerosis (that nasty plaque buildup in your arteries) and heart disease. High insulin levels hurt your waistline and your heart.
We love that insulin, but only in small doses!
How do I know if my insulin is working for me?
The effectiveness of your insulin is mostly known as insulin resistance. But although we call it that, we really care more about where insulin is on a continuum. A person is not insulin resistant or insulin sensitive. Your body’s efficiency falls somewhere in-between these opposite ends of the spectrum.
The goal is to work toward insulin sensitivity.
Insulin sensitivity is like having a super effective Matchmaker. It only takes a tiny amount of work to convince the cell to take in the glucose. If you are insulin resistant, that Matchmaker has to work her ass off to get the cell to give glucose a chance. And if that insulin is working hard, it is going to call for reinforcements (meaning more insulin is released, cortisol and triglycerides raise, and the vicious cycle continues). We want to be insulin sensitive.
Insulin runs a tight ship in keeping our blood glucose levels balanced. And when our blood glucose is balanced, we have stable and efficient energy sources for our cells.
When our blood glucose is not balanced, we join the sugar rollercoaster. The excess glucose gives us a surge in energy. The excess insulin gives us crashes. Insulin runs a tight ship in keeping our blood glucose levels balanced. And when our blood glucose is balanced, we have stable and efficient energy sources for our cells. When our blood glucose is not balanced, we join the sugar… Click To Tweet
And when we start crashing, we start craving a new source of energy. Because carbohydrates are the fastest source of energy, we crave more carbs. If you eat them again, you get a new surge (and a following crash) in energy. It’s like a roller coaster ride.
The carbohydrates you choose to eat can keep you off this roller coaster.
GLYCEMIC INDEX 101
The Glycemic Index (GI) was developed in the 1980s to measure how specific carbs increase the blood glucose levels. The creators measured the impact a glucose solution had on our sugar levels and gave it a value of 100. Every carb that was measured after was then compared against this solution and assigned a number to mark how it changed your glucose levels in the blood.
So the GI Number is the quality (or potency) of carbohydrate in that food. It’s like when you order a drink – the amount of alcohol in that gin and tonic tells you the potency of the drink. The stronger the drink, the more fuc… the better dancer you become. The more carbohydrate in the food, the more your blood glucose levels increase.
FOR THE SUPER NERDY:
How does the GI Number Get Assigned in the First Place?
The researchers (we call them super nerds) responsible for assigning GI Numbers have a very specific process. First, they take 10 healthy individuals for test subjects and gather lots of baseline blood work. After a night of fasting (also known as torture to us food lovers who can’t imagine being apart from our beloved food), the test subjects are all fed the same amount (typically 50 grams) of the same food item. The amount of carbs is based on the AVAILABLE CARBS in that food.
Available Carbs = (Total Carbs in the Food) – (Total Fiber in the Food)
FIBER – it makes you poop.
That’s about all you really need to know about fiber. But for these super nerds, they found out that the fiber in the food is not digested easily in our bodies. And because fiber slow down digestion, it doesn’t raise our blood glucose levels very much. By eliminating fiber from the calculations, the super nerds get a more accurate measurement of that specific carb’s impact on the blood glucose level.
Once the 50 grams of available carbs are eaten, finger-prick blood samples are taken every 15-30 minutes for the next two hours. All of these blood samples are then processed and the changes in blood glucose levels are plotted along a curve. The area under the curve (called the iAUC) reflects to total rise in blood glucose levels after eating the test food. The iAUC of the newly tested food is then divided by the iAUC for the reference food (one that has the same amount of glucose) and multiplied by 100. The results are the standardized GI Index numbers.
It’s okay if you skimmed that section… the only people who really care are the super nerds.
The assigned GI Numbers measure the quality of that carbohydrate and are always the same for that specific food.
THE HIGH AND LOW ON THE GLYCEMIC INDEX
Some lazy resourceful people decided to make the Glycemic Index even more efficient by letting you to forget what the specific GI Numbers are. Instead, you get to remember the range a food falls in within the Index.
HIGH GI FOODS are broken down quickly and give you an influx of glucose. This increases your blood glucose levels (thank you Captain Obvious) with sharp spikes.
High glycemic foods (GI of 70 or higher): White bread, rice cakes, most crackers, bagels, cakes, doughnuts, croissants, most packaged breakfast cereals.
LOW GI FOODS are slowly absorbed and digested and produce gradual rises in blood sugar. Because the blood glucose levels rise slowly (and not nearly as high), less insulin is released. The less insulin we release, the more stable our energy and the more effective our fat burning!
Low glycemic foods (GI of 55 or less): Most fruits and vegetables, beans, minimally processed grains, pasta, low-fat dairy foods, and nuts.
MODERATE GI FOODS which are just our middle-of-the-roaders!
Moderate glycemic foods (GI 56 to 69): White and sweet potatoes, corn, white rice, couscous, breakfast cereals such as Cream of Wheat and Mini Wheats.
But the Glycemic Numbers can Be Changed.
It’s true that a cookie made by Keebler and a cookie made by Toll House could have different Glycemic Index numbers! (Both oh so delicious, but different numbers nevertheless).
BUT WAIT!! Earlier you said that once a food is assigned a GI Number, it never changes!
Let me explain. When a food is tested by the super nerds that be, that specific (very, very specific) food is assigned a value that DOES NOT change. But it is impossible to test every single cookie brand, flavor, and make out there. So instead of spending eons testing cookies, a few cookies are tested and generalized. But we know the difference between our favorite cookies and so does our body. So our bodies respond differently. This is when the High/Medium/Low categories come in handy. You don’t need to know the specific numbers of each brand of cookie because you can generalize most of them into the High GI category.
This works for generalizing almost all foods. Even though your numbers are not exact, you get a ballpark figure that falls within the high, medium or low range.
The reason different brands of the same type of food have different GI numbers is because many factors can change the way our body breaks it down.
FACTORS THAT IMPACT THE GLYCEMIC INDEX OF A FOOD:
- Ripeness: the riper a food is, the higher the GI You know how riper fruits taste sweeter? It is because the sugar molecules change and are subsequently broken down differently in our body.
- Processing: heat and hydration (two pieces of the processing puzzle) raise the food’s GI. Juice has a higher GI Number than whole fruits and mashed potatoes have a higher GI than a baked potato.
- Cooking Method: similar to processing, the heat from cooking changes the molecular structure of the food. The less cooked a food is, the lower it typically is on the GI Index. Al dente pasta has a lower GI than soft-cooked pasta. And when you explode corn grains to make popcorn, you raise the GI number 15-20%!
- Variety: different forms of similar foods have different GI numbers based on their molecular structures. Remember those two different brands of cookies? Same thing goes for other foods. Long grain white rice has a lower GI than brown rice, but short grain white rice has a higher GI than brown rice.
- Food Combinations: when you eat foods paired with other foods, you can modify the GI Number for the meal. Since proteins and fats only limitedly impact our GI Numbers, adding a slice of cheese to a slice of bread would lower the GI value of that meal (although cheese and bread does not a meal make – but maybe an appetizer with our wine…).
SO WHAT IS GLYCEMIC LOAD?
The assigned Glycemic Index Number never changes for a (specific) food. But our blood levels can change based on the amount of food we eat. Glycemic Load (GL) is the measurement for this.
GLYCEMIC LOAD = GLYCEMIC INDEX x QUANTITY (grams)/100
The GL is the amount of carbohydrate in a food, adjusted for it’s potency. This means we look at both the quality and quantity of the food we eat. The GL is a far better measure than GI when looking at the impact a food will have on our bodies.
The Glycemic Load has its own scale for comparing high/medium/low foods (because why would we want to keep the scales the same, that would be too easy).
- High GL: 20 and above
- Medium GL: 10 – 20
- Low GL: Less than 20
Let’s take an example: Watermelon
On the Glycemic Index, watermelon is given a GI score of 72. That is in the High GI Foods category and something most of us would avoid! After all, a white bagel also has a GI of 72.
But we know watermelon would be a better choice than the bagel.
When we use the Glycemic Load to measure our foods, the watermelon has a GL of 4. That white bagel has a GL of 25. Watermelon is a Low GL food and that bagel is still a High GL food.
How are the numbers so different between the Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load? Remember, the GI is measured based on 50 grams of available carbs. That would take 5 cups of watermelon to get the appropriate amount. Most of us don’t eat 5 cups of watermelon at a time (although I have been known to put it down on some occasions). The Glycemic Load is measured on a serving size of watermelon – which is 1 cup. So one cup of watermelon will not impact your blood sugar levels as much as 5 cups.
Even though everyone knows about the Glycemic Index, what you really should start caring about is the Glycemic Load.
SO WHY DO I CARE ABOUT THE GLYCEMIC LOAD?
The Glycemic Load gives us a better measurement of how the food we eat (both the quality of the carbohydrate and quantity of food) will impact our blood glucose levels.
SO WHAT DO I REALLY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THESE PESKY CARBS?
Carbs give our cells energy. Once eaten, the carb is broken down into glucose molecules. Glucose travels through our blood to our cells where they get used up for energy.
Insulin is the hormone focused on balancing our blood glucose levels. When blood glucose levels are high, extra insulin is released into our body to help lower the levels back down. Too much insulin can be harmful.
The GI is a measure of how much a specific food raises our blood glucose levels. High GI foods raise our levels sharply and then decrease rapidly. This gives us surges and crashes in energy.
The GL is a more accurate measurement tool for our food because it examines the GI and the amount of food we eat. It gives a more precise picture of how our blood sugars will react to a food.
AND HOW ARE THESE CARBS RELATED TO MY WEIGHT AND FITNESS GOALS?
In order to turn our bodies into fat burning, muscle building machines, we need them to run efficiently.
Eating foods with High Glycemic Loads will give us big spikes and drops in blood glucose levels. The spikes give us sugar rushes and sugar crashes – not a very efficient way to get through your day! To combat the roller coaster energy ride, more insulin is released from our pancreas. The increase of insulin increases our cortisol and triglyceride levels, leading to clogged arteries, heart disease, and lots of extra fat storage! This does not sound like the way to your weight loss goals!
Eating foods with Low Glycemic Loads will keep you running efficiently. Your cells learn to adapt to the insulin sensitivity and become more responsive to the small amount of insulin flowing through your body. Your energy levels remain stable and your insulin is low. You are able to efficiently burn fat and build muscle. Your heart and arteries are also happy because their hormones are more balanced.
CARBS AFFECT OUR FAT STORAGE, ENERGY LEVELS, HORMONES, HEART, AND ARTERIES.
When we keep our carb intake in check, we keep our bodies burning fat and building muscle.
So the information is simple.
First, know your macros and how many carbs you should be eating.
Second, choose foods with low Glycemic Loads to fill your carb ratio.
But this is much easier said than done. It is hard to constantly turn your back on those tasty cookies, crackers, and biscuits and gravy. The choice is yours. But now, you know how that choice will impact your energy and waistline.
Since we know this love-hate relationships is hard to deal with, we created the Top 10 Carb Rules for Weight Loss to help simplify your choices. Click below to download your FREE guide and get the scoop on how to carb wisely.
Don’t let those pesky carbs get the best of you! Download the report now!