Glycemic Index

The season of overeating is upon us. Everyone looks forward to the holiday parties and get-togethers with family and friends with endless amounts of the foods we love to eat, but we know we shouldn’t.  It is estimated that the average American gains about one-half to two pounds during the holidays; pounds that tend to stick with us, especially as we get older.  

Let’s face it, the foods that taste the best are generally the ones that are the worst for our bodies.  They tend to be the highest in sugar, fat, and oftentimes salt.  Our taste buds love these sensations, but at what cost to the rest of the body.  

The body needs fuel to run.  Food contains carbohydrates, proteins, and fats from which our cells derive energy to run the system.  Carbohydrates are broken down into simple sugars, such as glucose, and are a source of quick energy.  Proteins are somewhat more complex structures that are metabolized to amino acids and then converted into energy as well.  Fats are also more complex and are broken down into glycerol and fatty acids, then metabolized to release energy.

When the body needs more energy, signals from hormones and other chemicals tell us that we need to eat, i.e. hunger.  Our body has easily-accessible energy stores such as glycogen (chains of glucose) stored in the liver and muscles and not-so-readily accessible energy stores such as fat.  When we use up our easy stores, we get hungry; we either have to eat something or start using up fat or our body proteins for energy.  

A common dietary pitfall is that when we feel hungry, we reach for something with quick energy, e.g. a candy bar or sugary soft drink that has simple sugar.  This boosts our blood sugar levels way up, but temporarily.  Then it rapidly drops and we start to feel hungry again.  If we were to reach for foods that have more protein, the blood sugar would be more stable because these foods are more slowly metabolized.

Some carbohydrates are very easily broken down to sugar.  These foods are said to have a high glycemic index, meaning they raise the blood sugar quickly (glucose is used as the reference at a value of 100).  Foods such as white rice, potatoes, refined breads and pretzels have a glycemic index in the 80’s.  On the other hand, yogurt, peanuts and milk have indexes in the 30’s or lower.    

Some carbohydrates are structurally more complex.  They are called complex carbohydrates.  These molecules have sugars that are more tightly linked together making it more difficult for the body to break them down.  Examples include many vegetables, whole grain breads and high fiber foods such as bran.        

Though the body needs all types of foods to run efficiently, most Americans are eating far more simple carbohydrates than is necessary.  They take in a surplus of quick energy, don’t use it up, and it is being stored as fat.  This is one of the reasons why we are seeing epidemics of both diabetes and obesity.  

We need to make a conscious effort to exam the foods we eat in light of their carbohydrate, fat and protein contents.  Many products that are labeled “natural” or “healthy” actually have way more carbs and sugar than our body needs.  Some labeled “low fat” have added sugar to make up for less fat.  Merely by cutting out excess carbohydrates, our bodies can use up fat stores, lower blood sugar and actually lose weight.  I have done this for the last thirty days and have lost fifteen pounds.

The content in this column is for informational purposes only.  Consult your physician for appropriate individual treatment.  Dr. Reynolds practices Family Medicine in Chesterfield.

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