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Carbs: The Good, the Bad, and the Glycemic Load

The Good

Carbs are either “simple” or “complex,” depending on their chemical structures, how easily they digest and nourish your body.

Foods often contain more than one type of carbohydrate, so it can be a little bit of a puzzle figuring out whether a food is “good” or “bad.”

Whole foods without labels and those with one ingredient on the label are usually excellent choices.

Some of the confusion occurs when labels claim the product contains a whole food, but they’ve pulverized it during processing. They used the entire thing but changed the structure of the food to a simpler carb.

There are complex carbohydrates in

  • whole grains

  • veggies and fruit

  • legumes (seeds from pods, like peas, beans, lentils, and peanuts)

The sugars in these foods are long chains of molecules, and the fiber in them allows the nutrients to digest and absorb slowly into the bloodstream.

This slow digestion feeds the natural flora in the gut and prevents blood glucose levels from spiking. The fiber itself doesn’t digest or absorb, helping you feel full and your bowels regular.

The Bad

Fruits can be both good and bad. They contain simple and complex carbohydrates. It’s helpful to determine how many carbohydrates you want to include in your diet and weigh the cost and benefits of your food.

While eating some fruit is beneficial, eating a lot might provide too much sugar, despite the fiber content.

The same goes for dairy. There are simple and complex carbs in dairy products and various preferences, tolerances, and dietary needs from one person to another.

But some foods are blatantly poor choices. They contain an overabundance of simple sugars and little or no complex carbs. These are some examples:

  • Cookies

  • Cake

  • Candy

  • Ice cream

  • Potato chips

  • Soda pop

  • Orange juice

The Glycemic Load

Glycemic load is a rating system that weighs the number of carbs in a portion of food against the rate blood sugar rises after consuming it. The rate of glucose level in the blood is called the glycemic index (GI).

The GI scale places foods in a range from 0 to 100, with zero to 10 indicating slow blood sugar elevation after eating something, and anything over 70 is high. Between 55 and 70 shows a moderate blood sugar response.

The glycemic load accounts for both the GI and the actual carbohydrates in food. To know the glycemic load, multiply a food’s GI from the scale by the number of carbohydrates per serving and divide by 100.

Glycemic load can also help you understand how it will affect your body’s access to available energy and its likelihood of recruiting stored energy or “dining in.” If your glycemic load is continually lower than 10, you’ll be more likely to run low on available fuel and need to draw from the glycogen stores in the liver and muscles.

Low glycemic load (GL) is 10 or less. Medium is between 11 and 19, and high is 20 or more.


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