Helpful info for a healthier lifestyle
Glycemic index and low carb

What Do “Low Carb” and “Glycemic Index” Really Mean?

December 23, 2014
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I have been compensated for my time by McNeil Nutritionals, LLC, the maker of SPLENDA® Sweetener Products. All statements and opinions are my own. I have pledged to Blog With Integrity, asserting that the trust of my readers and the blogging community is vitally important to me.

I am not one to eavesdrop, but I do often stop and listen (very discreetly) when people are talking about food and nutrition issues, mainly in grocery stores. Sadly, more often than not, misinformation abounds.

While myths about nutrition and its impact on health are widespread, two areas where I know consumers may not have all of the facts are: 1) carbohydrate-related, particularly what “low carb” means or does not mean, and 2) what the glycemic index (GI) is all about.

Going back as far as I can remember and having been interested in nutrition, there have been a glut of books, mainly diet books, which address the consumption of carbohydrates and their impact on weight loss. Since weight loss diets are not my main focus in this blog, bear with me while I digress for a moment to mention two of these “diets” that stand out in my mind. One was titled (if I recall) something like the T-Factor Diet. Several of my friends gave it a try. This diet encouraged people to eat unlimited carbohydrate-based foods and avoid fat of any kind. Well, my friends found out quickly that eating marshmallows dipped in chocolate syrup was not very satisfying! I am exaggerating a little but there is some truth to it – they became so saturated with sugar, they threw in the towel almost immediately without losing a pound.

On the opposite end of the scale was the still-present Atkins Diet that many people continue to swear by – almost no carbohydrates allowed but everything else is fair game: meats, vegetables and fats. The Atkins trend has indeed found a following, especially now that those who love this weight loss program are not so hardcore about zero carbs.

Of course, there is a reasonable middle ground. Nonetheless, experts are now saying that it is prudent to reduce the amount of simple and refined carbohydrates that we consume. In their place, complex carbohydrates, foods that are minimally processed can and should play a role in a healthful diet. A non-caloric sweetener like SPLENDA® No Calorie Sweetener can play an important role in healthful diets of all kinds.

That brings me to one of the two topics at hand. What exactly does the term “low carb” mean? If I may, I will put on my “eat like you have diabetes hat” since I feel that meal plans designed for those with diabetes probably are a healthy option for many people.

One excellent resource on dietary issues related to “carbs” is the American Diabetes Association (ADA). An example of this is their article on “Understanding Carbohydrates.”

According to ADA, there are three main types of carbohydrate in food:

  1. Starches (also known as complex carbohydrates)
  2. Sugars
  3. Fiber

ADA notes, “You'll also hear terms like naturally occurring sugar, added sugar, low-calorie sweeteners, sugar alcohols, reduced-calorie sweeteners, processed grains, enriched grains, complex carbohydrate, sweets, refined grains and whole grains.”

For the purposes of this blog, let’s stick to “sugars.” ADA states: “There are two main types of sugar: naturally occurring sugars such as those in milk or fruit, and added sugars such as those added during processing such as fruit canned in heavy syrup or sugar added to make a cookie.”

It is up to you, the consumer, to determine which foods offer “low” carbohydrate content by reading the ingredient label. Why? The US Food and Drug Administration does not currently have any regulations authorizing claims or use of phrases such as "low carbohydrate," "reduced carbohydrate" and "carbohydrate free" on food labels. However, it is certainly possible to know how much carbohydrate is present in a serving of any food by looking at the Nutrition Facts panel. If the total grams of carbohydrate per serving is much less than the total grams of the other macronutrients in the serving, or is much less than the combined total grams of protein and fat per serving, it’s reasonable to assume that the product is relatively “low carb”. That said, the key is consuming a diet that has enough carbs, but not too much. Nutrition Facts labels can tell you exactly how much carbohydrate you are getting per serving. Your average daily intake of carbohydrate should represent about 45-65% of your average daily calorie intake. Good resources on how to count carbohydrates can be found in many of the reputable websites that offer nutrition information important for diabetes management.

But enough about ”low carb”. Let’s move on to the glycemic index (GI).

What is the Glycemic Index – also known as GI?

The ADA offers an excellent explanation of the GI that is easy to understand. “The glycemic index, or GI, measures how a carbohydrate-containing food raises blood glucose. Foods are ranked based on how they compare to a reference food — either glucose or white bread. A food with a high GI raises blood glucose more than a food with a medium or low GI.”

“Examples of carbohydrate-containing foods with a low GI include dried beans and legumes (like kidney beans and lentils), all non-starchy vegetables, some starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, most fruit, and many whole grain breads and cereals (like barley, whole wheat bread, rye bread, and all-bran cereal). Meats and fats don’t have a GI because they do not contain carbohydrate.”

Here is the caveat though, and it is important to remember. According to ADA, “The GI value represents the type of carbohydrate in a food but says nothing about the amount of carbohydrate typically eaten. Portion sizes are still relevant for managing blood glucose and for losing or maintaining weight.”

My words to the wise about GI echo what ADA has to say: “Many nutritious foods have a higher GI than foods with little nutritional value. For example, oatmeal has a higher GI than chocolate. Use of the GI needs to be balanced with basic nutrition principles of variety for healthful foods and moderation of foods with few nutrients.”

Other useful information about the Glycemic Index is provided by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and goes into significant detail. Their bottom line: “Even though the glycemic index isn’t a perfect system, it can be a useful tool to identify lower-glycemic foods that are often more nutrient-dense, as well as what foods are higher in refined carbohydrates.”

That statement brings me back full circle to why I blog here. SPLENDA® Sweetener Products have helped many consumers – myself included – cut back on their intake of refined carbohydrates, ideally as part of a much healthier overall diet. While avoiding sugar entirely is not what I am suggesting by any means, I never miss sugary foods whenever I swap full sugar for SPLENDA® Sweetener Products.

Sue Taylor is a consulting nutritionist with more than 35 years of experience. She is passionate about sharing her nutrition knowledge and fondness for good, healthy food. Sue will put relevant information in consumer terms and provide valuable perspective to clear up misinformation and confusion about nutrition and food safety.

December 23, 2014  |  POSTED BY: Sue Taylor, MS  |  IN: Healthy Lifestyle, Sugar Substitutes

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