Should we pay careful attention to the glycemic indexes of our carbohydrate choices? And what do you think of Powerbars?

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Dear Mrs. Landis,

First, I would like to commend what a fabulous job you did in preparing "BODYFUELING." I found it to be extremely helpful. I was wondering if you would suggest paying careful attention to the Glycemic Index of our carbohydrate choices. Please share with us your feelings about Glycemic Index ratings. Also, I really enjoy "Powerbars" and would like to know how you feel about including them in a healthy diet.Thank you very kindly. Please keep up the good work on this web-site.

Yours very truly,



Dear Wayne,

Thanks for your question. Please e-mail me with your address so I can send you a free copy of Herbal Defense! I could not get your return e-mail address to work.

In my opinion and experience, the focus on "G-indexes" is mostly just another carbohydrate-control scheme that makes hunger the implicit enemy and seeks to turn a normal biological fact (that you eventually get hungry again after eating) into a problem. For the average person, the G-index is really not much of a concern and can be just another added bit of clutter/confusion/distraction in the effort to eat healthy.

The fact: some carbohydrates stimulate more insulin production, and faster, than others; the relative rate at which they do so is termed the Glycemic Index (GI). Some authors and health professionals have fingered the GI as the root of all diet failure. The (supposed) problem: eating foods with a high GI, since they become glucose faster and thus trigger a more rapid insulin surge, "make you eat more."

Of course, as I see it, "eating more" is not inherently a problem. As anyone who has read BodyFueling knows, hunger is your body's plea for more food to fuel its necessary functions. It is not an enemy to be suppressed.

Besides, the differences in breakdown speed among various complex carbohydrate may be infinitesimal. Thus, the relative speed at which a complex carbohydrate becomes glucose is of little consequence to anyone but serious competitive athletes choosing foods to fuel their activity and to refuel with following that activity. In an athletic event where such very fine distinctions matter to performance, strategic timing of complex carbs that provide energy faster (after an event), and those which break down more slowly (before an event) may certainly be useful to performance and recovery.

For the rest of us in daily life, however, any complex carbohydrates work just fine--and a lot better than highly processed simple carbs. And from the point of view of "the livability factor," it's much easier for the average person to think of carbohydrates in two big groups: complex and simple. While speed of conversion to glucose does vary, even among complex carbs, if you generally stick to complex carbs and avoid simple sugars, you'll be fine.

If you try to further divide up the complex carbohydrate category, pitting potatoes against rice, and stoneground against regular whole wheat, it gets awfully fussy (one of my clients stated flatly, "that would be a real pain in the ass.") The fact is, Americans are generally having enough trouble making complex carbohydrates the lion's share of their food intake, without attempting to manage GI indexes and combine low and high GI foods in some "perfect" or "ideal" fashion.

And since the purpose of this picayune complication is often cited as "controlling hunger" to avoid eating--well, spot the diet thinking here! There is little in this type of nitpicking that is useful to most people. It does not promote understanding the whole picture and learning how to work with the body in basic, primary helpful ways. Instead, it encourages a narrow, nearsighted focus on minutiae--for diet-thinking goals such as "weight" loss.

In The G-Index Diet, for example, Richard Podell, M.D. never mentions muscle versus fat and never distinguishes "pounds." He is a graduate of Harvard Medical School and Medical Director of the Overlook Center for Weight Management in Summit, New Jersey--and he characterizes diet success as loss of pounds to reach ideal weight; failure as gaining those pounds back; and blames such failure on eating and snacking too much! "Effective dieters" are hailed for practicing "commendable, well-disciplined programs." (Classic diet thinking language!) A desire to eat again "within hours of eating," and lightheadedness with a skipped meal, are seen as problems (instead of the normal reactions they are).

The G-index concern also often goes hand in hand with the seriously misguided claims of the carbophobia/carbohydrate cravers/carbohydrate addiction crowd. (See my pages on carbophobia: Exiting the Zone, Myth Bust on Carbohydrates, and More on Carbohydrates.) Carbohydrate foods are often blamed for causing fat gain, when the "carbohydrate" examples cited are really problematic: they are typically foods that are also loaded with fat, and/or they are simple carbohydrates, a distinction that IS important. (Amusingly, reading more deeply into some of the so-called "high-protein" diets, you'll find that although often don't make this clear, when they are attacking carbs they are really talking about simple carbs--sugars and such. Well, who DOESN'T agree that simple sugars are to be avoided? Seems we can all agree on that much!

When people re-gain "weight" (read: fat) on fast weight loss diets, G-Index proponents (as well as carbophobics in general) blame it on the "dieter's" penchant for crackers, bread and cereal.( No mention is made of the many pounds of fat-burning muscle that were wasted away during the diet, and how that has lowered the metabolism to virtually ensure fat regain.)

"Weight loss diets" promoted around this concept are also typically lower-calorie than you'd want. They are "diets" in every regard, with "bad" and "good" foods, "willpower," "cheating," rules, regimes, plans and programs. All this does is keep people in the dark, eating out of a "plan's" hand, and not taking responsibility for their bodies.

I have yet another disagreement with the general concept of glycemic indexes: I don't believe the index works the same for every individual. The glycemic index tables I have seen in books and magazine articles definitely don't jive with my own experience. They bash complex carbohydrates I find lastingly filling and satisfying, such as bread and oatmeal, saying they make you hungry fast. Not me! They also claim that foods I don't find satisfying at all, such as orange juice, apples, pears and yogurt, will fill us up and last longer than crackers, bread and cereal. Often I find my experience to be opposite of what is cited in the table. It is important to listen to yourself.

Of course, no matter what I eat, I am ready to eat again in three or four hours. But that's not wrong. It's human. Following glycemic indexes doesn't teach you this, or much of anything about how your body works (other than its glycemic response).

Hope that helps! :)

As for Powerbars, I'm glad you asked. I currently choose Clif Bars, Luna Bars, Odwalla Bars, Intellect Bars (by Aveda), Kashi Lean Bars, Breakthru Bars, B Healthy bars, and the new Re-Bar (an all-fruit-veggie bar that's organic). I favor these because they use either organic unprocessed sugars, complex brown-rice based sweeteners, and/or fruit sweeteners and NO high-fructose corn syrup, which is a cheap, highly processed sweetener that makes you thirsty and gives me a headache. Intellect is all organically grown ingredients plus wildcrafted herbs. It's super tasty, but more expensive than the others. All the rest of the bars on the market that I know of use corn syrup or high-fructose corn syrup. I used to eat Powerbars when they didn't use the high-fructose corn syrup. As some companies will do when they get really big, they switched to this cheaper, more processed ingredient a number of years ago, and I promptly switched away. I also refuse on principle to use energy bars associated with high-protein diets.

(By the way, I have no affiliation with any of these companies. These are just my personal opinions.)


~ Robyn Landis

NOTE: For more on diets the restrict carbohydrates, also see "Exiting The Zone" Myth Bust, the "Confused About Carbohydrates?" Myth Bust. and the "South Beach Diet" Myth Bust as well as Experts Talk Carbs.


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