I like to say brown rice is the female carbohydrate. Why, may you ask would I ever compare a food group to a woman? Well, it turns out that brown rice, along with other healthy carbs, has one very important thing in common with women… it is very complex. So while you may want to keep the complexity of that special woman in your life to a minimum, you should have the opposite attitude toward your carbs.
Why all the fuss about whole grains these days? Grains are the ingredients for the most common carbohydrates we think of. The major grains in the American diet are wheat, rice, barley and oats. And these are processed into any number of foods from bread (think flour) to cereal to cakes to crackers. You likely have heard carbohydrates referred to as “starchy” foods. Other starchy foods include potatoes, corn, and beans. Carbohydrates are composed of starches. Starches are essentially strands of simple sugars linked together. The longer the strand of sugars, the more complex the carb. Whole wheat, for example, is a complex carbohydrate because it is composed of very long strands of simple sugars. On the other hand, white rice is a simple carb because it has been processed, so many of those sugar strands have already been broken down.
Why is all this important? Well, one main reason is because of how the body processes complex carbohydrates versus simple carbohydrates. It takes longer for the body to process a complex carb than it does a simple carb. When a complex carb, such as whole grain, enters the digestive system, the system has to work very hard to process it in order to break down those starches into sugars the body can use for energy. Because of this, the starches are turned to sugar at a slow rate. This is good news for two main reasons. First, it means less of a blood sugar spike, which decreases chances of developing diabetes. Secondly, the longer it takes your body to process something, the fuller you will feel for a longer period of time, which will keep you from overeating.
So back to the original question…why all the fuss about whole grains? A whole grain is basically an unprocessed grain that has not had its bran and germ removed through milling. This keeps the complexity of the grain in tact. A refined grain on the other hand (white rice, white flour, bread, cereal) has already been processed so much that it loses its complexity. This means that the digestive system doesn’t have to work nearly as hard to digest it and can turn the starches to sugar much more quickly. This in turn leads to an increased spike in blood sugar, creating risk for diabetes. It also means that you will get hungry much sooner after eating, which can lead to weight gain.
Another main reason whole grains are much preferred to refined grains is the fiber and nutrient content in whole grains. The high fiber content and vitamins and minerals in whole grains, such as selenium, potassium, and magnesium, have been shown to help lower cholesterol and chances for heart attack and stroke and to help maintain a healthy weight. When a grain is refined, the fiber and nutrients are stripped out of it during the processing. This leaves what I call an “empty” calorie. The carbs taste good, but they are doing nothing for your body. They don’t even keep you full!
Eating complex carbohydrates and whole grains is easy if you know what to look for. For whole grains, make sure you read labels. If you’re looking at wheat bread, for example, make sure the first ingredient is 100% whole grain (or wheat). This ensures that the bread is made with the whole grain, not just refined wheat flour. The same goes for cereals, crackers, pasta, and other refined carbs. (But keep these to a minimum if you can!).
Another great source of information is the glycemic index (referenced on our page). This is basically a chart that indicates how slowly your body processes a certain food. Remember, the slower the better, so you want something on the low side of the index. For example, you will see that a baked potato is a 95. This is very high. But if you look on the low list, you’ll see a sweet potato is a 50. So choosing a baked sweet potato (hold the marshmallows and brown sugar!) is much better for you than choosing a baked white potato. You will find a glycemic rating on almost zero food in the grocery store, but you can always refer to this chart to see where something falls.
Happy and healthy eating!