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Dr. Riggs: Choose carbs carefully for better health

Bob Riggs, MD

I’ve been writing about nutrition over the past couple of months and today I am going to write about carbohydrates, or carbs. They are called carbohydrates because chemists found that they are generally made of six carbon atoms, six oxygens, and 12 hydrogens. That works out to be one water molecule per carbon, thus they were like hydrated carbons, or carbohydrates.

Sugars and starches are examples of carbs. When you eat a starchy food like potatoes, the starch is broken down into glucose, which is then absorbed through your gut and into your bloodstream.

The glycemic index of a food is a ranking of how fast the food affects your blood glucose levels. A food with a high glycemic index will get your blood sugar up faster. That is good if you are an athlete training, and usually not so good if you are a diabetic trying to control your blood sugar. A low glycemic index food takes longer to digest and does not raise blood sugar as much.

Carbs are important sources of energy, and you need the glucose from the digestion of carbs for your brain to function; however, when you eat a lot of carbs your blood sugar goes up, which is not so good for the body. This causes your pancreas to secrete insulin to help you absorb that sugar and use it later. Insulin makes you crave more carbs and it is easy to get into a cycle of eating and craving carbs.

Carbs are found in bread, milk, pasta, rice, potatoes, beans, fruits, vegetables and more. It is important to be sensible about not only how much we eat, but also about choosing wholesome sources of carbs. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, “What’s most important is the type of carbohydrate you choose …”

You should be looking for carbs that have not been processed or that have been minimally processed. Processing removes important micronutrients, healthy fats, and fiber. Good sources are whole grains – like whole wheat, oatmeal, quinoa and brown rice – as well as starchy vegetables.

Preparation is important too. I recommend steamed, grilled, sautéed with very little oil or butter, or roasted. I love sweet potatoes, but I bake them rather than smothering them in brown sugar and marshmallows like we do at the holidays.

Limit or avoid added sugars and refined grains. Examples of these would be sugary drinks like soda and fruit juice, refined grains like white flour, desserts and candy. Huge sources of sugar in my patients’ diets are soda and fruit juice. A typical can of soda has roughly 10 teaspoons of sugar.

I encounter patients who drink soda every day. Just this week, I saw a middle-age man who drinks five cans of cola every day. That is a bit over a cup of sugar. I encouraged him to cut down to just one now and then, or better yet, none. It won’t be easy, but if he succeeds, he will likely lose some weight, feel better and sleep better.

Things like cakes, candies and cookies should be treats that you have once in a great while. When you eat bread and pasta, eat smaller amounts. Eat more fruits, vegetables and beans. Big changes are never easy, so when it comes to things like eating more vegetables, set attainable goals. If you love bread, opt for whole-grain bread, and have only a slice or two.

Lifelong changes to make your diet healthier for you on a daily basis take time to get used to, so ease into it and keep at it.

Dr. Bob Riggs is a family medicine physician practicing at Group Health’s Riverfront Medical Center.

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