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Conquering Carbohydrates Part 3: The Complex Carbohydrate Conundrum


A few weeks ago, we posted Carbohydrates For Dummy’s Part 1: Saccharides and Such. 

A week after that we posted Part 2 of the Conquering Carbohydrates story: an introduction to Complex Carbohydrates.

Then came a few distractions and the Annual Fair Foods Blog, but we’re back on track today  with the 3rd and final part of the Conquering Carbohydrates Conundrum.

Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load

If sugar, starch, simple carbs, complex carbs, and ne t carbs weren’t enough to test your meddle, two other sometimes confusing carb-centric terms to contend with are Glycemic Index (GI) and Glycemic Load (GL).

Glycemic Index simply ranks foods on how quickly they affect glucose levels in the blood stream.  Developed in Toronto in the 1980s to help doctors prescribe diets for diabetics, foods that quickly elevate blood sugar levels have a high glycemic index.  Foods that increase blood sugar slowly have lower glycemic indices.

In addition to Diabetics, Athletes also tend to be highly aware of blood glucose levels to both prepare for and recovery from intense exercise.   Regular exercisers can also benefit from an awareness of blood sugar levels, however, because the of the effect cortisol has on glucose metabolism when you are low on blood sugar.

You might think that you’re doing yourself a favor skipping lunch, when in fact, doing so triggers your body to generate more cortisol.

Cortisol … the “your under stress hormone” counteracts Insulin production and reduces the metabolism of glucose.  The result of this is disproportionately more fat storage in anticipation of famine!  Additionally, the increased Cortisol increases appetite so you’re more likely to overeat at your next meal!

It would be great if you could simply categorize carbohydrates into glycemic index groups that fit nicely within some saccharide category, but the truth is, it’s somewhat of a frustrating memorization exercise.

Take roots.  Carrots & yams (both simple carbohydrate foods) have relatively low GIs of 39 and 51, respectively, while potatoes have GIs as high as 85!   The difference here is that potatoes are very starchy.

So, starchy means high GI then?

Not quite. Plenty of other starchy carbs, like Oats, Bran, Rye and Barley are actually quite low in GIs scoring in the 20s and 30s.  Similarly,  wheat and most rices also score fairly low (50s), while brown rice pasta has an exceptional and soaring 91!

And then there’s fruit.  Unless I’ve missed something, no fruits are starchy.   They’re fibrous and watery, but not starchy.  But here’s the rub: some fruits have very low GIs, like grapefruit (25), plums (39), and apples (38); and some fruits have moderate GIs, like mangos (56), apricots (57), and raisins (64).  Why then, does watermelon have a sky high GI of 72?

It makes no sense, and in the end, you must simply memorize or carry GI tables with you to get it right!   Here’s one build for the sometimes-popular South Beach Diet.

Attempting to solve this mystery steps in Glycemic Load.

As it turns out, part of the reason why inconsistencies exist across the simple to complex carbs GI spectrum is related to quantity consumed.   For example, a single piece of hard candy (nearly all sucrose) will trigger a smaller glucose response than a bite of a banana.  But if you consume 2 cups of each, the candy outpaces the banana quite quickly!

What’s more, Net Carbs also have a role.  As mentioned above, the fiber content will affect digestion speed, which, in turn, effects blood sugar fluctuations.  So, in the late ‘90s,  the Glycemic Load became a more popular way to determine food effect on blood sugar, defined as the percentage of GI times Net Carbs:

Glycemic Load = Glycemic Index / 100 x Net Carbs

Got that?  Well, before you start looking for a smart phone app to calculate GL, have no worries, many nutritionists have simply done the math for you with tables they’ve built themselves.  In fact, one of my all time favorite nutrition sites, NutritionData.com doesn’t list GI at all, but instead lists an Estimated Glycemic Load number for most of it’s nutritional listings.  The values are estimated simply because complete data on GI and Net Carb values simply hasn’t yet been compiled for all foods.

What you also need to know about GI vs GL numbers is that a high GL number could be a low GI Number:

Within the heavily debated carbohydrate controversy, exists a separate embedded micro controversy around GI and GL.  As with carbohydrates, many experts propose low GI/GL diets within the weight reduction context, while others staunchly oppose it.  A 2008 German study, for instance, actually found that low GI/L diets actually correlated to higher bodyfat results.

Withstanding GL wizardry, one food category that emerges consistently high in the GI tables is highly refined grains, particularly those in baked goods.  French bread, cookies, cakes, doughnuts, rice cakes, and many breakfast cereals ALL SCORE very high on GI tables.

Refined Grains and Added Sugars

Refined grain products (cookies, cakes, cereals) also suffer from two other significant problems: added sugars and nutrient deficiency.

In fact, according to the  USDA’s 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, the single largest problem with many American diets is, indeed,  these refined grain products.

Not only do they trigger a short, spiky bust in glucose, but they are also reasonably ‘empty’ calories with very few micronutrients (vitamins and minerals).  To make matters worse, they frequently include added sugars to make an already unhealthy food even more caloric.  Sometimes inclusive of saturated and/or hydrogenated fats as well, and well, these products are really quite evil to health and fitness professionals.

The Carbohydrate Conundrum: What to do?

With all of this going on, it’s no wonder the general public is confused about carbohydrates and their dietary relevance.  Here then is my professional recommendation on the topic.

First, if you are diabetic, follow your doctor’s orders, not mine.

For all the rest of us:

  1. The easiest way to defuse most of your concerns about carbohydrates is simply to exercise more!  Not only will you metabolize more calories in doing so, but other hormones involved with exercise and exercise recovery help keep cortisol and insulin balanced.
  2. Recognize that carbohydrates are, above all else, your body’s primary fuel source.   While it’s true that your body always metabolizes a blend of carbohydrates, fats, and protein, carbohydrates are your primary fuel source.  If your engine is just idling, back off on the fuel!
  3. Adjust your complex carbohydrate intake with your anticipated physical activity
    1. If you are sedentary, you need very complex few carbohydrates.  Most of your energy will come from stored energy sources (glycogen and body fat).   Eliminate most complex carbohydrates from your diet to avoid gaining body fat.
    2. If you are active, you need some complex carbohydrates.  Try to get most of your complex carbohydrates early in the day, typically before 2:00 PM.  Switch to mostly simple carbohydrates after that.
    3. If you are regularly exercising, or an athlete, you need a LOT more carbohydrates. Get most of your complex carbs early in the day, but do include moderate quantities later in the day.  Don’t hesitate to include higher amounts in your diet if you have a high intensity exercise event the following morning.
  4. Eat a wide variety of and large quantities of fruits and vegetables.  Follow the seasonally available produce and you’ll get plenty of variety.  Make sure you get at wide variety of color in your diet.   A lot of people miss out on the yellows: squash, yams, yellow peppers.
  5. Try to incorporate more legumes into your diet: green beans, black beans, pinto beans, white beans; etc.
  6. When choosing complex carbohydrates, focus on whole grains, and high fiber sources.  Steel cut oats, whole wheat, and wild rice are good examples.
  7. Always avoid or minimize highly refined grains, particularly those with added sugars.  MOST of the grocery store bakery fits into this category: cookies, cakes, pies (it’s the crust), french bread, muffins, and doughnuts.   What’s worse is that many of these will also include partially hydrogenated fats.
    1. Avoid or eliminate them if you are serious about your health.
    2. Heart disease is still the #1 cause of death for men and women in America and these fats are deadly
Did I Miss Anything?   What’s your burning or unanswered carbohydrate question? 

10 Days to Summer – Need an Emergency Fitness Plan?


With some luck, you’ve been increasing your lean body mass for a few months now with excellent form and full range of motion resistance exercise.

You’ve been resistance training 3 or 4 times weekly and completingg a well balanced program of 2 hours of cardio each week.  You’ve eliminated all of the junk from your diet, get sufficient protein intake, keep well hydrated, and keep saturated fats intake to a minimum!

If this is you, you’re probably looking and feeling great and are very much looking forward to summer!

But if not, don’t panic.  There’s still time left to salvage some fitness for summer!   If you need an Emergency Fitness Action Plan, here is your …

Get Fitness Together Emergency Fitness Plan (EFP)!

First, take that 1st step to committing to getting fit.   No one simply get’s fit because they’re interested.    There are too many distractions, too many excuses, too many high fat content fast foods, too many sugar loaded dairy things, and too many other things in life to get fit because you’re interested.  You must make the commitment and decide to get fit.  It doesn’t happen casually.

It all starts in your head.   Because where your head goes, your body must follow!

 And if you’re on an EFP, you’re head needs to take action TODAY.

The next step is to start building your Metabolic Engine.   Plan for resistance exercise no fewer than 4 days per week.  Get some help if you’re new to resistance exercise.  Don’t just start running, especially if you are de-trained or highly unfit.  You’ll simply blow up in Zone 5, catabolize lean muscle mass,  and increase your body fat content in the process .. if you’re lucky.  If you’re unlucky, you’ll strain or sprain something, start eating like a horse to cover the state of ketosis your body will experience, and lose all hope in about 14 days.   Not Good.

Have someone hold you accountable.    If you have a personal trainer, you’re set.   A good trainer will definitely tick you off at least once a week by pestering, nagging … even guilting you into maintaining regular exercise attendance.   Got an important work deadline?  We don’t care – no piece of soon-to-be-forgotten paperwork is as important as your health.  Got family coming in from New Hampshire this weekend?  That’s great – how about bringing Aunt Nellie in for some cardio too?   Not feeling ‘up for exercise today?’   Oh please,  that’s the MOST IMPORTANT time to exercise.  It’s all head trash.   That’s a trainer’s job: part physiologist; part psychologist; part entertainer; and full-time scheduling machine.

Just move.  Complete no fewer than 2 hours of cardio each week.  But don’t make it too hard.  Nor too easy.  The best way, and the most  appropriate way to incorporate cardio into any program, especially if you’re on the EFP, is to introduce Long Slow Cardio into your life.

Coincidentally, it happens to be Bike to Work Month!  For 10 more days you can reduce your carbon footprint, get started on long slow cardio, and see people and parts of town never before imagined!      Honestly, I’ve been riding my bike to work since my 1st job as a lifeguard when I as 16 years old.  I also biked to work when I was in college, and when I worked in technology during the earlier years of my career.  The hardest part is deciding to get it done.  Here’s where to start.  

So then, here’s the Emergency Fitness Plan Exercise Prescription for the next 1o days:

  1. Low intensity, form-focussed range of motion resistance training
  2. Long Slow Cardio – test ride your bike to work and back
  3. Moderate Intensity, form-focussed High repetition resistance training
  4. Long, Slow Cardio
  5. Rest
  6. Moderate Intensity, form focussed High repetition resistance training
  7. Moderate Intensity, Moderate Duration Cardio
  8. Active Rest – lawn mowing, gardening, yard work, etc.
  9. High Intensity Resistance Exercise
  10. Long Slow Cardio

What do you think?  

Please leave a comment or take my (above) poll!