Saturday, January 12, 2008


A question in from Peter, fellow participant in our experiment:

P: Now, does “sugar-free” mean giving up cookies, cake, candy, the obvious stuff, or does it mean that I have to scan every single list of ingredients and not eat things that have, say, brown rice syrup in them? For example, do I have to give up my beloved Kashi Organic Promise Cinnamon Harvest cereal because it has some organic cane juice crystals in it?

L: Sadly, I suspect (but can’t say for certain) the answer is: you can't really give up the cookies without giving up the Kashi. It’s not the organic cane juice crystals that pose problems; it’s that all processed/refined/“simple” carbohydrates act as sugars in the body.

P: But are the cane juice crystals refined? Are we giving up white flour too? Is this an all-refined-carbohydrates fast? Will I have to give up my beloved Stacey's Pita Chips? (Which have sugar in them, but I'm sure just a touch.)

OK, here goes my garbled yeoman’s parsing of a distinction I don’t fully understand myself. It seems to me the problem with these snacks and cereals is less the sugar content than the grain composition. While Kashi is certainly superior to Cheerios, both are refined carbohydrates that swiftly raise the body’s blood sugar level and trigger the release of insulin in the system. So organic cane juice crystals-versus-high fructose corn syrup isn’t really the issue.

I’m turning to Sugar Busters! (a good deal more interesting than the cover suggests) for some clarity: “Controlling…our body’s insulin requirement is the key to having our body lean and healthy. Today’s sugary, highly processed foods cause a rapid rise in blood sugar, which immediately create a big demand for the hormone insulin.” Foods with refined sugar and processed carbohydrates require the “secretion of large amounts of insulin to regulate your blood sugar” and “cause a dramatic increase in your body’s need for insulin.”

OK, check. But again, so what? What’s so terrible about the production of insulin? Well, the Sugar Busters! experts have found “nothing good about high average levels of insulin in the body. Insulin not only causes the body to store excess sugar as fat….[it] can also stimulate the liver to make more cholesterol.” There’s also the emotional roller-coaster side of things to consider: refined sugar/carbs + insulin = a quick burst of energy followed by an equally precipitate drop in blood sugar, loss of energy, etc. That’s why eliminating these foods can also help regulate moods and curb depression, insomnia, and so on.

This is not to say that all carbohydrates are bad; by no means. It’s the simple, or “fast,” refined carbohydrates—the kind in bagels, pastas, and Kellogg’s products—that turn immediately to sugar and prompt the secretion of insulin. By contrast, complex/“slow”/unrefined carbohydrates (and here I’m borrowing Ann Louise Gittleman’s Get the Sugar Out, on which more presently) “are made up of long chains of simple sugars.” Slow carbs “are much more complex in structure than simple sugars and require longer digestion to be absorbed.” The process of breaking down these chains slows down the release of sugar into the blood, which results in longer-lasting energy that your body can use as needed, rather than simply store as fat.

The basic principle is: Choose carbs that take longer to digest. The less processed the food you eat, the less insulin you’ll secrete, and the less out-of-whack your blood sugar response will be. More or less. Granted, many natural foods—white potatoes, beets (hélas) sweet corn—also require high levels of insulin to digest. But I think I’ll tackle this thorny subject in my next less-self-absorbed-than-usual entry on the role of the Glycemic Index in this whole good-versus-bad carbohydrate debate.

If you think this explanation sucked, try this aggressively incoherent Newsweek article, which both of us read over and over without even sort of understanding:
“Fat, Carbs, and the Science of Conception”


Robin said...

I have heard awful things about that Harvard fertility book--that the things it suggests will help in only a very small number of cases, and so it's full of false hope for everyone else.

I am trying to eat more whole grains, but kasha, millet, and quinoa have not been very warmly welcomed by my dinner companion. If I make bread with 1/3 whole wheat flour and 2/3 white, am I still basically eating candy, or can I feel a little ok about it?

lcmitzie said...

i think the candy comparison is spot-on; it's all whole grain or nothing. you should see arun's reaction to my ezekiel sprouting grains -- he throws it in my face. but quinoa has gone over well after several violent confrontations of this sort..