Healthy Eating: The low down on carbs, part 2

From bread, to rice to potatoes, find out which of our favorite starches are better than they seem, and which are worse than we could have ever dreamed.

Bread 311 (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Bread 311
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Last week, we covered the glycemic index as well as four “good” carbs (quinoa, pearled barley, oatmeal and bulgar) that are not only loaded with vitamins, minerals and other essential nutrients (also known as fiber), but also help to control and even lose weight! Unfortunately, most of our favorite carbs do not fall into this “good” guy category. From candies, to sodas, to most alcohol and processed grains such as white bread and white rice, these "bad” carbs seem to pop up and follow us everywhere we go.
But before diving into which these villainous foods are, first let's discuss why these carbohydrates are so terrible? For starters, “bad” carbs are typically processed foods that are depleted or stripped of their nutritional content. Now, if that wasn’t bad enough they are quickly digested, causing blood sugar levels spikes. While instant energy boosts are sometimes important (and needed), like everything in life, what goes up must come down, so even though these carbs may give one a temporary pick-me up, blood sugar levels will quickly come crashing down, leading to fatigue, irritability and of course craving for more (high sugar) food. “Good” carbs, on the other hand, burn much slower, keeping blood sugar levels stable and thus keeping one feeling full longer – thereby eliminating hunger  and craving for more food. This is not only important for weight loss and weight management, but also for one’s health. Sharp, rapid rises in blood sugar levels due to eating foods high in sugar, which results in a high glycemic index, cause the pancreas to release large amounts of insulin needed to remove this excess sugar from the bloodstream. Over time, the demands that these high glycemic foods exert on insulin producing cells begins to wear the cells down and can lead to insulin resistance. This in turn, is linked with high blood pressure, high triglycerides, weight gain, heart disease, type II diabetes as well as certain cancers. In fact, today, the leading cause of obesity, type II diabetes as well as cardiovascular diseases is “bad’ carbs! While minimal and controlled amounts of these naughty foods will rarely cause one harm, over-consumption of these carbs can lead to serious health problems. In fact, recent studies have shown that diabetics who keep their blood sugar levels under tight control, best avoid the complications that the disease can lead to.
So who exactly are these food culprits? While candy, alcohol, juices, pastries and other dessert type foods, fall into this category, they are not the only ones. Most people consume three meals a day, and at most of those meals, breads, rice and or potatoes typically find their way onto our plates. And why shouldn’t they? These starches taste delicious and are typically rich in nutritional content. Modern day refinement processes strip these whole grains of the majority of their vitamins, minerals as well as fiber content, while unhealthy preparation processes can leave once healthy potatoes covered in saturated fats and depleted of their once abundant nutritional content.
So to flush out those “bad” carbohydrates and to start replacing them with healthier alternatives, read on...
Back to the basics: Bread
BreadBreadWhen it comes to dieting and weight management, most people do not consider bread to be their friend – and for good reason as most breads rank high on the Glycemic Index scale. (The glycemic index of a food is ranked between 1 to 100 where foods with a glycemic index of 55 or lower provide slow-releasing energy that will stabilize blood sugar levels, foods with an index between 56 and 69 high a medium glycemic Index and foods that have scores of 70 and above have a high glycemic Index. For more information on the GI scale, see Healthy Eating: The low down on carbs part I.)
However, like most foods, not all breads are created equal. While a slice of white bread and a slice of whole wheat or heavy mixed grain all have roughly 70 - 80 calories per slice, they are nowhere near equivalent when it comes to their nutritional value or their glycemic index.
The kernel of grains, such as wheat, barley, oat, rye, corn and rice, consist of three main parts: the bran (the outermost layer of the grain) followed by the endosperm (the main part of the grain) and the germ (the smallest part of the grain). Whole grains contain all three layers and therefore breads such as whole wheat or whole grain, which contain the bran and germ layer (the two most nutritious parts of the grain) are not stripped of any of their nutritional content. Whole grain breads are therefore an excellent source of many of the B Vitamins as well as folic acid, zinc copper and (plant-based) iron. During the refinement process, most of these nutrients are lost, leaving white bread drained of its vitamins and minerals. However, the refinement process does more than just strip away these essential micro-nutrients; it also eliminates the breads entire fiber content. Fiber is not only extremely healthy for us, but it also helps to slow the rate of absorption of the food, thus helping to prevent sharp rises followed by quick drops in blood sugar levels.  So how do the most popular breads stack up when it comes to the Glycemic Index scale? While wholegrain pumpernickel has a GI of 46, heavy mixed grain has a GI of 45, whole wheat has a score of 49 and sourdough rye has a GI of 48, white bread and bagels have a GI just above 70 and French bread hits the roof with a whopping GI of 95! 
So while most of us enjoy wearing white in the summer, and white kitchens are coming back in style, when it comes to bread, white is definitely out, and brown is most definitely in!
Many “whole grain/wheat” breads contain white flour, wheat flour or enriched wheat flour (all ingredients that will up the bread's GI), so make sure to read the ingredients carefully. Also, try and opt for breads that contain a sourdough starter, low levels or even no added sugar, as well as stone ground flour. Finally and most importantly, for  it to be truly healthy, whole grain needs to be listed on the ingredients list in the first or second position. If not, then it is likely that the bread contains some refined flour that is merely enriched with molasses – to give it its brown coloring.
As complicated as a Chinese puzzle box: Rice
RiceRiceWhite rice? Brown rice? Long-grain rice? Short-grain rice? Basmati rice? Sticky rice?!? When it comes to the world of rice, the possibilities are endless- so how does one choose wisely?
For starters, just like bread, when it comes to rice, white is out and brown is in. A grain of rice has several layers (all loaded with different micro and macro nutrients). To create brown rice, only the outermost layer, referred to as the hull, is removed. This process is the least damaging to the nutritional value of the grain and conserves the greatest amount of nutrients.  In fact a cup of brown rice provides 88 percent ofone’s daily requirement of manganese, as well as is an excellent source of selenium and magnesium.
However, to make white rice, the grain is further milled to remove the bran and most of the germ layer, and then polished, removing the aleurone layer of the grain-a layer filled with essential fats. The complete process destroys 67% of rice’s Vitamin B3, 80% of its Vitamin B1, 90% of its Vitamin B6, 50% of its manganese, 50% of its phosphorus, 60% of its iron, and all of the dietary fiber as well as essential fatty acids. What we are left with is a refined starch largely stripped of its nutritional content (and even if these lost minerals and nutrients are added back into the processed food, it is never the same as the original natural version).  Besides containing more minerals, brown rice contains one more nutrient than white rice – fiber! Fiber slows the digestion of food and keeps blood sugar levels stable (thus preventing those unwanted and unhealthy rollercoaster like peaks and dips). With everything taken into consideration, brown once again triumphs over its nutritionally deprived albino cousin.
However when it comes to rice, there is more than just the color to consider – the shape of the grain matters too.  Long-grain rice, as the name implies is longer and narrower rather than round and short, like short-grain rice. So how do these shapes stack up when it comes to their glycemic index? There are two types of starch in rice: amylose and amylopectin. Amylose is a long, straight starch molecule that does not gelatinize during cooking, so rice grains that are higher in this starch do not stick together when cooked. Amylopectin, on the other hand, makes rice stick and clump together when cooked. While this may seem complicated, what is important to take into consideration is the ratio of amylase to amylopectin, as rice higher in amylose has a lower Glycemic Index number. As long-grain rice contains the most amylose of all the different varieties, it has a lower GI than short-grain rice (Long grain rice scoring only 56 on the GI scale while short grain white rice has a GI of 72). Brown rice and basmati rice have a medium GI of 55, while sticky rice contains no amylase and therefore has the highest GI of the bunch.
So while sticky rice is certainly yummy, the next time you are craving some Chinese, Thai or Vietnamese rice, opt for brown long-grain rice over its sticky white rice counterpart every time.
Master chef: Potatoes
PotatoesPotatoesThe staple food throughout World War I and II as well as The Great Depression, potatoes have remained frequent guests on the dining room table. Loaded with Vitamin C, Vitamin K , B vitamins, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, zinc and iron, there is no doubt about it, this popular tuberous vegetable is certainly healthy when it comes to nutritional content. However, are these spuds duds when it comes to their harmful effect on blood sugar levels? Unfortunately, the majority of potatoes fall into the moderately high to extremely high ranges of the GI scale, with some actually ranking closer to table sugar, than to other starches. 
Like bread and rice, the type of potato matters – some have a lower GI and are richer in vitamins, minerals and even protein than others. For instance boiled white potatoes have a medium GI around 50, while baked russet potatoes have a relatively high GI of 85. However, with potatoes it goes one step further – the way one prepares the potato plays a big role, as the cooking method significantly affects and alters the GI level.  For instance, a study reported in the "Journal of the American Dietetic Association,"  (conducted at the University of Toronto) found that boiled red potatoes consumed cold the next day have a GI of only 56, while hot boiled red potatoes consumed the day of had a high GI of 89. However, it gets stranger as the method used to cook potatoes affects more than just the GI – it also affects the nutritional content! While most vegetables lose some (to even all) of their vitamins and minerals when cooked, when red potato are fried their antioxidant levels falls by about half as compared to when boiled (according to the US Department of Agriculture); while baking reduced the red potato's antioxidant levels by almost 65%!
Sweet potatoSweet potatoNow while potatoes are rich in essential nutrients, they have nothing on their distantly related sweet potato and yam cousins. These two orange veggies are not only packed solid with beta-carotene (the precursor to Vitamin A), but are also rich in Vitamin C, manganese, copper, fiber, Vitamin B6 as well as anti-oxidants and other anti-inflammatory agents. Moreover, while these potatoes may be called “sweet,” their GI only falls in the medium range (which is lower than most members of the potato family). However, to reduce their effect on blood sugar levels, leave the skin on (this also applies to regular white potatoes) as the skin contains high amounts of fiber.
So while mashed and baked potatoes may be considered comfort foods, to feel more comfortable in your clothes, watch out on how you cook and consume (with skin, and without  artery clogging toppings) your favorite spuds.