- How to Handle Sandwich Bread for Weight & Carb Control
- Here’s how many slices of bread are actually in a single bagel
- Guide To Common Portion And Serving Size From The Grains Group
- Just tell me: How many calories are in a bagel?
- Do bagels contain any nutrients?
- How can you make bagels healthier?
- Carbs Without Cause: 8 Foods Worse than White Bread
- Fancy Coffee Drinks
- Juice Drinks and Smoothies
- Cheese Crackers
- Baked Goods at Coffee Shops
- Yogurt with Fruit on the Bottom
- Movie Theater Popcorn
- Yogurt-Covered Raisins
- 5 Carbs to Avoid on a Low Carb Diet
- Is it really worth not eating bread, pasta and other carbs?
How to Handle Sandwich Bread for Weight & Carb Control
If you are a sandwich lover, then it’s time to take a look at your choice of bread. You do not have to cut out bread if you are trying to lose weight or control carbs for diabetes but you do need to choose wisely to avoid excess calories, carbs, and sodium.
If you are a sandwich lover, then it’s time to take a look at your choice of bread. You do not have to cut out bread if you are trying to lose weight or control carbs for diabetes but you do need to choose wisely to avoid excess calories, carbs, and sodium. Ideally, choose whole grain bread given that it is a good source of fiber and minerals. Whole grain bread, in moderation, is also more heart- and diabetes- friendly compared to white bread and other refined flour breads.
Tip: eating too much bread, even organic whole grain bread, can provide excess calories, carbs, and sodium. Tracking helps you keep tabs on portion size and stay within budget.
So many brands of commercial breads are large and heavy – each slice is about 45 grams or so, resulting in about 120 kcal/slice and about 22 grams of total carbs. When you make a sandwich out of this bread, you end up with 240 kcal and 44 grams carbs (3 carb choices). That’s a pretty hefty caloric cost – and that doesn’t include condiments or protein. Try limiting your sandwich bread to 2 oz (60 grams) total weight. That will limit calories to about 160 kcal and carbs to about 30 grams. Here are some options for lowering the calories and carbs if you buy commercial bread.
Try the brand’s thin-sliced version if they have one. For example, look at the difference between the regular size and thin sliced version of the same type of bread made by Dave’s Killer Bread®
|Bread Type||1 slice||Calories||Total Carbs||Sodium|
|Good Seed Thin Sliced||28 g||70||13 g||115 mg|
|Good Seed||45 g||140||25 g||180 mg|
Double-fiber versions of bread usually have a lower caloric and carb content than their regular versions, but if the bread is heavy, the totals might still be high. So always check the Nutrition Facts (food label). If you plan to make a sandwich with 2 slices of bread, then aim for a limit of 80 kcal/slice, and total carbs 15 grams/slice.
Specialty Bread Products
For maximum lowering of calories and carbs while still getting two sides to your sandwich, try using thin buns instead of bread. Thin buns are usually close to about 110 kcal and only 20 g total carbs for the entire sandwich (while still providing about 5 grams fiber). These products make diabetes meal planning so much easier for sandwich lovers! There are many brands available in the U.S. – e.g. Sara Lee® Thin Style Buns, Orowheat® Sandwich Thins. There are also store brand equivalents in many of the big chain grocery stores for the budget conscious.
Flatbreads & Pita Breads
Not all flatbread brands are low in calories and cabs – you have to be a careful label reader to find those. Here are two popular brands that are available in the U.S. that fit the bill for lowering both: Flat Out Flatbreads® and Toufayan® Smart Pockets, Smart Bagels, Low Carb Pita, and Lavash Plus.
To get a tortilla large enough to wrap sandwich fillings yet stay at or below 160 kcal and 30 grams of total carbs, you pretty much have to use low carb tortillas. The good news is that there are many brands that offer low carb versions in large grocery store chains- e.g. La Tortilla Factory® and Mission®.
Fresh Baked Bread & Artisan Breads
If you make your own bread or buy fresh bread, then I strongly suggest that you buy a digital kitchen scale if you are trying to lose weight or control carbs for diabetes. I was shocked when I first started to weigh slices of fresh bread. One slice from the middle of a beautiful boule could easily weigh 60 grams. So my glorious sandwich made from fresh bread was starting at a whopping 320 kcal and 60 grams of total carbs – without counting the filling or condiments!
Although I won’t give up fresh bread, I will portion control it. Instead of a regular sandwich, I make an open-faced sandwich (1 slice bread) and limit the slice weight to 45 grams. And yes, I usually eat this type of sandwich with a fork and knife, which also has the benefit of slowing down my rate of eating.
There are certain types of breads that due to their larger size and weight, pack a really big calories and carb punch for a sandwich. I find it easier to simply avoid these options:
- Bagels (regular New York style)
- Panini bread
- Pretzel buns
Good luck with your bread adventures! And just remember, generally, the heavier the bread weight, the higher the calories and carbs.
Diabetes->Carbs & Carb Counting Foods & Recipes->Grains & Cereals Weight Loss->Weight Loss Tips & QuipsKatherine Isacks, MPS, RDN, CDE – Registered Dietitian and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE)
Here’s how many slices of bread are actually in a single bagel
Bagel ; a circular roll of leavened dough that is first poached then baked in order to produce the most perfect of breakfast carbohydrates. Originating in Poland, this delectable delight has nourished millions over the span of centuries. It has evolved to be more than a paradox of smooth, chewy crust with a soft fluffy core; bagels have become the foundations of sandwiches, the crust of pizzas, and rainbow Instagram sensations.
Around two to 10 million bagels are sold in the US daily. It would be fair to say that bagels are the undisputed champions of morning sandwiches and brunch binges, and yet lately bagels have gotten a lot of flack. We are living in a brave new world of constantly being scrutinized and photographed. We need to be thin, light, Snapchat-ready, and have breakfasts have to match! So this begs the question: “Are bagels healthy?” And more often than not the following Google search is: “How many slices of bread are in a bagel?”
Rosenberg’s Bagels and Delicatessen
To answer the first question, the healthiness of bagels varies from recipe to recipe. Most bagels contain flour, leavening, salt, water and potentially some sweetener. Bagels are high in carbohydrates, clocking in at about 48 grams per bagel. Carbs aren’t necessarily bad for you, but, unless you’re training for a marathon, it might be best to only eat half a bagel or have an English muffin instead.
Now, for the all important second question. In terms of carbs and calories, there are about 3.15 slices of bread in the average plain bagel (a bagel contains 245 calories, a slice of bread has 79 calories). Obviously this varies greatly if your local bakery makes massive bagels or baby-bite bagels. So yes, bagels are a whole lotta breakfast compared to toast, but if we take a look at other breakfast items like chocolate sprinkle donuts and avocados, they don’t seem so bad.
Fat-wise, bagels barely register. The average bagel (that isn’t doused in an entire container of cream cheese) only has one gram of fat!!! Compared to the average Florida avocado, bagels are a fat-free diet food! (Not really, but I can delude myself.)
Okay, so yes, bagels are more dense, caloric and potentially less healthy than a piece of bread, but would you stake your happiness on that? Bagels are delicious! Awe inspiring! Instagram-worthy! A scientific study at the University of Spoon found that when measuring the happiness created by bagel (in metric sugar plums, of course), it was equivalent to being handed a basket of puppies!
Bagels may not be a diet food, but they are most certainly a food worth jogging for!
Guide To Common Portion And Serving Size From The Grains Group
- Free Signup!
- Top Picks
- Free Printables
- Food Groups-Balanced Meals
- Five Food Groups
- My Plate Printables
- My Plate
- Telling The Time – Mealtime
- Puerto Rico – My Plate
- Food Pyramid
- Rainbow Foods
- Dairy Group Fun
- Fruit Group Fun
- Grains Group Fun
- Protein Group Fun
- Vegetable Group Fun
- Other Foods
- Health Educator Resources
- Parents Handouts
- Chef Solus Game Materials
- Broccoli Brad
- Pediatrician Visit Sheet
- Nutrition Vocabulary
- Nutrition Alphabets
- Nutrition Words
- Nutrition Definitions
- Portions and Serving Size
- Food labels
- Farm To Table Fun
- Food Distribution Channels
- Farming Fun
- Farm Animals
- Farmers Market
- Grocery Shopping
- Kids Cooking Activities
- Cooking Fun
- Measuring and Amounts
- Recipe Books
- Cooking Vocabulary
- Kids Garden Activities
- Food Safety Fun
- Food Safety In The Kitchen
- Hand Washing
- Menus-Meal Plans
- Meal Plans-2-3 yrs
- Meal Plans-4-8 yrs
- Meal Plans-9 yrs or older
- Healthy Kids Calendars
- Healthy Foods Calendar
- Holiday-Themed Calendars
- Make Your Own Calendar
- Healthy Goals Pledge Sheets
- Healthy Goals Tracking Sheets
- Get Moving
- Healthy Anatomy
- Healthy Heart
- Food Allergies
- Group Activities-Games
- Bingo Food Groups Game
- Nutrition Conversation Cards
- Nutrition Flash Cards
- Food Groups Matching Game
- Activities For Kids
- Lunch Box Messages
- Nutrition Puzzles
- Crossword Puzzles
- Jigsaw Puzzles
- Unscramble Word Puzzles
- Word Search
- Summer Printables
- Greeting Cards
- Valentine’s Day Cards
- Mother’s Day Cards
- Father’s Day Cards
- Christmas Day Cards
- Dietitian’s Day
- Nurse’s Day
- Teacher’s Day
- Valentine’s Day
- St Patrick’s Day
- Easter Activities
- Mother’s Day
- Father’s Day
- Healthy Halloween Activities
- Thanksgiving Activities
- Healthy Christmas Activities
- More Holiday Fun
- New Years Day
- President’s Day
- National Nutrition Month
- Cinco de Mayo Holiday Printables for Kids
- 4th of July
- Food Groups-Balanced Meals
- Daily Health Tips
- Parenting Nutrition Advice
- Nutrition Tools
- What’s Cooking With Chef Solus
- After School Snack Recipes
- Back To School Lunches
- Half Time Game Snacks
- Dairy Recipes
- Holiday Recipes
- Valentine Party Snack Recipes
- St. Patrick’s Day Recipes
- Easter Snack Recipes
- Cinco De Mayo
- Mother’s Day Breakfast Recipes
- Father’s Day Lunch
- Patriotic Snacks
- Halloween Snacks
- Thanksgiving Meal
- Christmas Party Recipes
- Kids Fruits Recipes
- Kids Grains Recipes
- Kids Protein Recipes
- Kids Vegetable Recipes
- Potato Recipes
- Nutrition Games and Features
- Contact Us
Member Login Follow Us
Ahh, is there anything better than sinking your teeth into a slightly chewy, slightly crispy bagel on a weekend morning? (I dare you to give a better alternative.) Then again, they often tend to lead to post-brunch naps (hello, food coma). Not to mention, bagels tend to get a bad rep for being, well, not the healthiest. But are they really so bad? Or can I continue to lead my very best bagel life?
Just tell me: How many calories are in a bagel?
“When it comes to bagels, a lot depends on where you live,” explains Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table. “Different cities, areas and countries make different kinds of bagels.” And store bought varieties may differ in size and ingredients, too. As a result, bagels can run anywhere from 240 to 400 calories.
According to the USDA, an average medium plain bagel has 277 calories. (Yeah no, that does not include the cream cheese.)
- Protein: 11 g
- Fat: 1 g
- Saturated fat: 0.3 g
- Carbohydrates: 55 g
- Fiber: 2 g
- Sugar: 9 g
- Sodium: 443 mg
In comparison, one bagel contains about as many grams of carbs as three slices of bread.
Do bagels contain any nutrients?
While most people aren’t exactly eating bagels for their nutritional value, most are made with enriched flour, which contain a good source of iron and B vitamins, Taub-Dix notes. Bagels also contain trace amounts of calcium and magnesium, depending on the variety you buy.
Plus, one bagel contains the same amount of protein as two medium-sized eggs, and it’s a decent source of fiber, which can both help you stay full.
In that case, are bagels really that bad for you? Ultimately, it depends on how often you eat them and what you eat them with, says Taub-Dix. “And so much depends upon other factors, like what your health goals are.”
So no, they’re not exactly health food. But hey, they do have some perks.
Speaking of low-carb…check out Vanessa Hudgens taste-test keto snacks:
How can you make bagels healthier?
1. Don’t opt for plain.
You’d think that plain bagels are healthier, right? It turns out that opting for seeds is the way to go, since they contain heart-healthy fats and fiber, says Taub-Dix. “Sesame or everything bagels are a bit healthier than plain white,” she says. “If you’re having oat or whole-wheat, you score even more points because you’re eating whole grain. Rye and pumpernickel are also good choices.”
2. Opt for store-bought.
“In just about every case I can think of, a store-bought bagel is lower in calories than one from a bagel shop. They’re usually just much smaller,” says Taub-Dix. Plus, a store-bought bagel has food labels, she adds. “You can see the carbs, fiber, and whether sodium or sugar is added.” Brands like Dave’s Killer Bread bagels boast more vitamins, minerals, and whole grains than your average deli bagel, too.
3. Dress it lightly.
Instead of heavily processed cream cheese, Taub-Dix recommends picking nutrient-tense toppings like:
- Tuna, egg or chicken salad mixed with mashed avocado instead of mayonnaise
- Sliced turkey with lettuce and tomato
- Peanut butter or almond butter, for an extra dose of protein and healthy fat.
Marissa Miller Marissa Miller has spent a decade editing and reporting on women’s health issues from an intersectional lens with a focus on peer-reviewed nutrition, fitness trends, mental health, skincare, reproductive rights and beyond.
Not too long ago, carbohydrates were supposed to be the foundation of your daily meal plan (remember the food pyramid?). Then somewhere along the line, carb became a four-letter word. In reality, though, carbs aren’t so evil.
The kind of carbs to avoid are either processed carbs, which have had their nutrients stripped away during manufacturing, or the simple kind, that never had any nutrition in the first place. The right carbs supply steady energy, keep blood sugar levels even, and help keep your mood up, too. A slice of whole-wheat bread—which you probably think of as being particularly carby—contains 13.6 carbs. But these five healthy foods actually have higher carbohydrate counts—proof that you don’t need to avoid them at all costs.
These babies rack up 35 grams of carbs per cup—with only six of those grams from sugar. Chickpeas are also low in calories (just 210 per cup), and they offer 11 grams of protein and 10 grams of fiber.
You probably didn’t think that any kind of milk would be a big source of carbohydrates. But remember, soy milk is derived from soy beans, and beans are rich in complex carbs. A cup of soy milk has 15 grams of carbs, plus eight grams of protein, four grams of fat, and just 131 calories.
MORE: 5 Foods That Have More Sugar Than a Candy Bar
Believe it or not, one large apple has 27 grams of carbs. It also comes with about five grams of filling fiber, 114 calories, and 1.5 grams of fat.
Sweet and chewy, just a quarter cup of raisins has 33 grams of carbs—more than twice as much as a slice of bread! Still, there’s no reason to ditch the raisins: With 123 calories, 1.5 grams of fiber, and 309 milligrams of potassium per quarter cup, they’re still a solid choice.
MORE: 5 Healthy Foods That Have More Fat Than a Doughnut
White potatoes are known for their starchy carb levels. But a medium-sized orange version of this root vegetable has 24 grams of carbs, 105 calories, and decent amounts of vitamin A and potassium. The natural sweetness makes them a great snack; bake one whole, or slice it into strips for baked sweet potato fries.
MORE: 5 Foods with More Protein Than an Egg
Carbs Without Cause: 8 Foods Worse than White Bread
White bread has pretty much become bad-for-you public enemy number one; who doesn’t automatically order their turkey and Swiss on whole wheat? The reason, of course, is that white bread is processed-it’s had all its goodness stripped away, leaving a soft, squishy slice that was all the rage in the last century. But even if you’re a whole-wheat convert, other processed carbs may be finding their way into your diet, many with more than an entire day’s worth of recommended carbohydrates.
Your first line of defense is to opt for whole foods that are as close as possible to their original source, says Manual Villacorta, RD, author of Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches. And, as always, managing portion sizes is key. Otherwise, here are eight bad carbs that may be sneaking into your diet, even if you’ve sworn off the white slices forever.
Fancy Coffee Drinks
Not only can these have as many calories as a meal, (sometimes upwards of 400) their carb count can be on par with a pre-marathon pasta binge; some have 60–80g of carbs per serving. Add in sugars, saturated fats in whipped cream, and chocolate flavorings, and you’ve got dessert in a very large plastic cup.
Bagels are a morning ritual for some, but according to Villacorta, unless you’re hitting the gym right after (and plan on staying until lunch), you may want to rethink, even if you opt for whole wheat.
“Depending on the size, I normally recommend a bagel to someone who is going on a two- to three-hour run afterwards,” he says. The reason is portion size. Many deli bagels can have 250-300 calories and more than 50g of carbs each.
Juice Drinks and Smoothies
Smoothie and juice spots are everywhere, and they can seem like a healthy drink to get on the go. But a 16oz fruit-heavy juice can have as many as 75g of carbohydrates and 64g of sugar (ditto for smoothies). If you can’t start the day without juice, stick to about 4oz, which has a reasonable 15-20g of carbs.
If you’re going to indulge in a few processed carbs, don’t do it here. While the carb count isn’t necessarily through the roof (about 18g per serving), these orange snacks are particularly cringe inducing because there is literally no other redeeming nutritional factor. They’re full of chemicals, additives, and artificial colors, plus they may also contain high-fructose corn syrup. And don’t be fooled by organic versions. They may be filled with less artificial junk, but processed flour and high-fat cheese can still be “organic.”
Baked Goods at Coffee Shops
Muffins used to be a baseball-sized treat. Now they’re more like softballs, with some containing nearly 64g of carbs and more than 30g of sugar. If your morning muffin is made with processed flour, sugar, and butter, it’s really no different than a slice of cake. Stick to a two-ounce serving and choose whole grain ingredients-think bran, not lemon poppy.
Yogurt with Fruit on the Bottom
It’s the ultimate chick pre-workout/afternoon/late-night snack, and yogurt on its own is a great choice. Problem is, that fruit is sugar central. All yogurt contains lactose, which is a naturally occurring carbohydrate; generally in a single serving it equals about 12-15g of carbs, which is fine, but when you add the jammy fruit you can nearly double that amount. You end up with nearly 30g of carbs, half of which is the processed, quick-burning kind. Stick to the creamy (and protein-packed) Greek variety and add some cut-up fresh fruit.
Movie Theater Popcorn
It may seem obvious, given the size, but for many of us it’s a key part of the movie-going experience, and besides, even if you order a bag once a week, how bad can that be? According to Villacorta, very. Popcorn is already about 1,200 calories, almost all from carbohydrates (and a whopping 580mg of sodium) for a large-sized bag. That’s before you add the butter. Don’t waste an entire day’s worth carbs and calories while you mindlessly munch your way through The Hunger Games.
Essentially candy for health-food nuts, and who eats just one-or five? In fact, a scant ¼ cup contains 20g of carbs and 19g of sugar. Skip the bulk candy aisle at your health food store and pick up a small bar of dark chocolate instead.
- By Shape Editors
5 Carbs to Avoid on a Low Carb Diet
That white bread has been sitting in your refrigerator untouched ever since you started your low carb diet. You’ve been strong and followed the list of foods to avoid to lose weight while on a low carb diet, but why keep the temptation around? Throwing away the simple carbs lying around your house will help keep you on track during your diet. Here is a list of high carb foods to avoid while following Atkins low carb diet:
Though this has already been mentioned, make sure to get rid of any white bread in your fridge! Whether it’s hot dog buns, hamburger buns, or regular sliced bread, they all fall into the category of simple carbs. Bread doesn’t need to be completely cut out of your diet, though—try Low-Carb Bread with only 1.8g net carbs per serving!
Just like white bread, regular pasta is another high carb food that will not fit into a low carb diet very easily. Once you reach Phase 4, you can enjoy whole wheat pasta. Until then try Zucchini Pasta with Almond Pesto.
Sauces with Added Sugar
Tomato sauces often contain a lot of sugar not only because of the tomatoes themselves, but also because of added sugars. Donate cans of premade pasta sauce that have sugar as a top ingredient and make this Atkins Basic Tomato Sauce as an alternative. Basic Tomato Sauce has 8.2g of net carbs per serving and is perfect for individuals following Phase 2, Phase 3, and Phase 4.
Cookies, Cake, and Candy
Having these sugar-laden treats around will not make staying on your low carb diet easy. Added and hidden sugars are simple carbs that are digested quickly, which is the opposite of what you want from your food. Get rid of any sweet treat unless it happens to be low carb, like these Atkins dessert recipes.
Regular soft drinks are chock full of sugar and aren’t a great source of nutrients so getting rid of those cans of cola on National Clean Out Your Refrigerator Day is a good idea. Water is a healthy substitute, but if you want something with a little flavor, add a small amount of lemon juice.
For additional information on foods to avoid on a low carb diet, see our list of best and worst foods. Register with Atkins today for low carb recipes, tips, and resources to get started on your weight loss journey.
Is it really worth not eating bread, pasta and other carbs?
It’s become popular to think of foods as either good or bad, something to eat or something to avoid. Carbohydrates, which had their moment as a good food back when fat was the bad guy, are now being blamed in part for the epidemic of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. And a slew of diet books proposes that you will feel better and be healthier if you never eat bread, pasta or sugar again.
But are carbs really so bad?
Science makes the answer pretty clear: no. While bread, pasta and sugar are hard-to-resist sources of calories without much in the way of nutrition, other carbohydrate-heavy foods — whole grains, legumes and fruit — are nutrient-rich. Carbohydrates can play a healthful role in your diet or they can be your undoing, depending on which, and how many, you eat.
The biggest beef against carbs is that it’s easy to eat too much of them, which is a problem because it can lead to weight gain and because they can crowd out more-nutritious foods. There’s also speculation that the way our bodies digest sugar and certain processed grains such as those found in white bread and white rice makes us hungry again soon after eating.
“Carbs aren’t the enemy,” says Julie Jones, a professor emeritus of food and nutrition at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, Minn. who is also a scientific advisor for the Grain Foods Foundation, a baking and milling industry funded group which promotes grain-based food as part of a healthy diet. “Overconsumption, of anything, is the enemy.”
Even so, the good-or-bad notion gets traction. “It’s easier for a lot of people to cut off whole categories of food than to eat moderately,” says Marion Nestle, a professor in New York University’s department of nutrition, food studies and public health. And a lot of people report that they feel better and lose weight when they cut out sugar and refined carbohydrates, she says. Yet there’s no reason, she adds, that bread, pasta and plain old sugar should be completely off-limits, as some popular diets recommend. In moderation, they’ll do you no harm.
To help navigate the world of carbs the foods, it’s helpful to spend a little time with carbs the molecules.
Carbohydrates run the gamut from very simple molecules that your body breaks down easily to very complex molecules that your body breaks down more slowly, or not at all. Since carbohydrates that you eat are mainly converted to glucose, the sugar that every cell of your body can use for energy, the faster the carbohydrate is digested, the quicker it’s turned into blood sugar.
How carbs affect you
There are questions about possible negative health effects of some carbs, such as fructose, which is found in sugar and high-fructose corn syrup, and galactose, which is found in milk. But the question of how carbs affect health is mostly focused on how quickly and efficiently the body can break the molecule down and deliver glucose to the bloodstream.
But you don’t eat carbohydrates, you eat food, so it’s useful to categorize foods by the type of carbohydrates that predominate.
Simple-carb foods are those that your body breaks down quickly and easily, such as sweeteners (sugar, honey, maple syrup) and refined grains (white flour, pasta, white rice). These are the carbs that tend to get the bad rap because they cause spikes in blood sugar. Complex-carb foods, which include whole grains and legumes, have large, complex molecules that are more difficult to digest and consequently don’t cause the same rapid increase in blood sugar.
The simple/complex classification isn’t perfect. Many fruits and vegetables contain both types of carbohydrates: Some get broken down quickly, others more slowly. And it’s not always true that whole foods are digested slowly while refined foods are digested quickly. Potatoes, for example, have lots of carbohydrates in the form of starch, which is broken down quickly.
Let’s look at some of the simple carbohydrates, starting with sugar.
In the complex world of food, it’s refreshing to find an idea on which there is universal agreement: Everyone thinks it’s important to limit sugar consumption. There is, however, a range of opinion on just how bad sugar is.
Some doctors and scientists believe that the problem with sugar is that it’s empty calories — tasty empty calories that go down very easily, particularly in sweetened drinks. Others believe that the ease with which our bodies turn sugar in soda into sugar in our bloodstream messes with our metabolism in a way that disposes us to overeat.
Because the carbohydrates in refined grains — bread, white rice, pasta — come packaged with some fiber, some protein and even a few other nutrients, their calories aren’t quite as empty, and the speed with which they’re digested varies. (Refined flour is also fortified with folate, essential to reducing the risk of fetal neural tube defects.)
White bread, for example, lets loose a flood of glucose, so your blood sugar spikes, but pasta, particularly if it’s not overcooked, doesn’t have that effect. Although the ingredients of the two foods are almost identical, pasta has a difficult molecular structure that your body can’t break down as quickly.
There is a measure for how much a particular food increases your blood sugar: the glycemic index, or GI. When carbohydrates in a food get converted quickly, that causes a spike in insulin, which your pancreas releases to prompt cells to absorb the glucose. The hormones that your body releases in response can make you feel hungry. The higher the GI, the higher the blood sugar level. If you eat high-GI foods often, the repeated stressing of your insulin-producing machinery may have other effects, such as increasing your risk for diabetes.
The glycemic index
There is disagreement about the importance of the glycemic index. While some scientists believe it’s an essential measure of diet quality and while many diets have been designed around it, Nestle isn’t sold. “I’m not a great believer in its importance,” she says, and points out that the GI measures foods eaten alone, and what you eat with your carbs affects subsequent blood sugar levels.
“People don’t usually eat those things without anything else,” Nestle points out. “They put butter on their bread. They put cheese on their pasta.” Both have fat, she explains, and fat slows down the glucose-delivery mechanism which is why the glycemic index of bread with butter is lower than that of bread alone.
Glycemic index response is also affected by how the food was cooked (not only the method but how long it was cooked), how thoroughly you chew and other factors, says Susan Roberts, director of the energy metabolism laboratory at Tufts University in Boston. A person can have a different response to the same food from one day to another.
A study published in December in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared high- and low-GI diets and found that people lost the same amount of weight on both. The researchers found little difference in cholesterol, triglyceride levels and insulin resistance (a condition in which the body doesn’t use insulin efficiently), and concluded that “using glycemic index to select specific foods may not improve cardiovascular risk factors.”
Roberts, while acknowledging the many factors that affect the GI of food, does pay attention to it. “If you look at the epidemiological studies, in every study I’ve seen, the higher the GI, the greater the risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and breast cancer.”
Junk food connection
Why is it that when researchers look at the diet of the population as a whole, they find that a low-GI diet has benefits, but when they bring people into the lab and feed them low- and high-GI diets, they don’t find those advantages?
It could be because low-GI foods tend to be healthful for reasons other than their GI values — they’re nutrient- or fiber-rich — while high-GI foods tend to be unhealthful. In general, whole grains, legumes and vegetables have lower — i.e., better — GI scores than refined-grain breads, baked goods and sugary drinks. So “high-GI” may be a marker for an unhealthful diet. Experimental diets, though, don’t include lots of junk; instead, they use the most healthful of the high-GI foods, because the point is to change as little as possible about the diet to get at the effect of only the glycemic index.
If you eat a lot of junk food, your diet is definitely high-GI. As Julie Jones says, “We don’t need any kind of index to tell us we shouldn’t eat Doodles, Ding-Dongs and doughnuts.”
Roberts says that it could be the higher nutrient levels of low-GI foods, and not the glycemic response, that’s responsible for the lowered disease risk. Luc Tappy of Switzerland’s University of Lausanne, who chairs the committee revising carbohydrate recommendations for France, says we don’t have conclusive evidence of the glycemic index’s importance. He calls it an “open question.”
When questions are open, it’s often hard to know what to eat. But everyone agrees that limiting sugar is important, and Jones points to the U.S. government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans as a simple rule for other carb-heavy foods: Make half your grains whole.
Clarification: Julie Jones is also a scientific advisor. This story has been updated.
Tamar Haspel writes about food and science. Follow her on Twitter: @TamarHaspel.