Monday, March 23, 2009

More Thoughts on the Glycemic Index

In the last post, I reviewed the controlled trials on the effect of the glycemic index (GI) of carbohydrate foods on health. I concluded that there is no convincing evidence that a low GI diet is better for health than a high GI diet, and in fact the long-term trials suggest that a high GI diet may even be better for insulin sensitivity.

Despite the graphs I presented in the last post, for the "average" individual the GI of carbohydrate foods can affect the glucose and insulin response to carbohydrate foods somewhat, even in the context of an actual meal. If you compare two meals of very different GI, the low GI meal will cause less insulin secretion and cause less total blood glucose in the plasma over the course of the day (although the differences in blood glucose may not apply to all individuals).

But is that biologically significant? In other words, do those differences matter when it comes to health? I would argue probably not, and here's why: there's a difference between post-meal glucose and insulin surges and chronically elevated glucose and insulin. Chronically elevated insulin is a marker of metabolic dysfunction, while post-meal insulin surges are not (although glucose surges in excess of 140 mg/dL indicate glucose intolerance). Despite what you may hear from some sectors of the low-carbohydrate community, insulin surges do not necessarily lead to insulin resistance. Just ask a Kitavan. They get 69% of their 2,200 calories per day from high-glycemic starchy tubers and fruit (380 g carbohydrate), with not much fat to slow down digestion. Yet they have low fasting insulin, very little body fat and an undetectable incidence of diabetes, heart attack and stroke. That's despite a significant elderly population on the island.

Furthermore, in the 4-month GI intervention trial I mentioned last time, they measured something called glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c). HbA1c is a measure of the amount of blood glucose that has "stuck to" hemoglobin molecules in red blood cells. It's used to determine a person's average blood glucose concentration over the course of the past few weeks. The higher your HbA1c, the poorer your blood glucose control, the higher your likelihood of having diabetes, and the higher your cardiovascular risk. The low GI group had a statistically significant drop in their HbA1c value compared to the high GI group. But the difference was only 0.06%, a change that is biologically meaningless.

OK, let's take a step back. The goal of thinking about all this is to understand what's healthy, right? Let's take a look at how healthy cultures eat their carbohydrate foods. Cultures that rely heavily on carbohydrate generally fall into three categories: they eat cooked starchy tubers, they grind and cook their grains, or they rely on grains that become very soft when cooked. In the first category, we have Africans, South Americans, Polynesians and Melanesians (including the Kitavans). In the second, we have various Africans, Europeans (including the villagers of the Loetschental valley), Middle Easterners and South Americans. In the third category, we have Asians, Europeans (the oat-eating residents of the outer Hebrides) and South Americans (quinoa-eating Peruvians).

The pattern here is one of maximizing GI, not minimizing it. That's not because high GI foods are inherently superior, but because traditional processing techniques that maximize the digestibility of carbohydrate foods also tend to increase their GI. I believe healthy cultures around the world didn't care about the glycemic index of foods, they cared about digestibility and nutritional value.

The reason we grind grains is simple. Ground grains are digested more completely and rapidly (hence the high GI), leaving less undigested food hanging around the digestive tract. Undigested starch is readily fermented by intestinal flora, creating intestinal bacterial growth and hydrogen gas that promotes the overgrowth of pathogenic bacteria in other parts of the body. Furthermore, ground grains are more effective than intact grains at breaking down their own phytic acid when soaked, particularly if they're allowed to ferment. This further increases their nutritional value.

The human digestive system is delicate. Cows can eat whole grass seeds and digest them using their giant four-compartment stomach that acts as a fermentation tank. Humans that eat intact grains end up donating them to the waste treatment plant. We just don't have the hardware to efficiently extract the nutrients from cooked whole rye berries, unless you're willing to chew each bite 47 times. Oats, quinoa, rice, beans and certain other starchy seeds are exceptions because they're softened sufficiently by cooking or minimal chewing.

Grain consumption and grinding implements appear simultaneously in the archaeological record. Grinding has always been used to increase the digestibility of tough grains, even before the invention of agriculture when hunter-gatherers were gathering wild grains in the fertile crescent. Some archaeologists consider grinding implements one of the diagnostic features of a grain-based culture. Carbohydrate-based cultures have always prioritized digestibility and nutritional value over GI. Have nutrition authorities suddenly gotten smarter than them in the last 20 years?

Finally, I'd like to emphasize that some people don't have a good relationship with carbohydrate. Diabetics and others with glucose intolerance should be very cautious with carbohydrate foods. The best way to know how you deal with carbohydrate is to get a blood glucose meter and use it after meals. For $70 or less, you can get a cheap meter and 50 test strips that will give you a very good idea of your glucose response to typical meals (as opposed to a glucose bomb at the doctor's office). Jenny has a tutorial that explains the process. It's also useful to pay attention to how you feel and look with different amounts of carbohydrate in your diet.

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