Colette's Blog

Being Carb Smart Can Help Your Heart Health

November 20, 2014

A growing body of research suggests that the types of carbohydrates a person eats—not just the quantity—have wide-ranging health effects. Much has been written about how “bad carbs”—meaning white bread, potatoes, pasta and others that cause blood sugar levels to quickly spike and then crash—make people more prone to obesity and diabetes. Now, researchers are linking such carbohydrate foods, which have what is called a high glycemic index (GI) with health problems. This association is especially relevant in the case of women.

As a case in point, a new Italian study finds that a diet high in high GI carbohydrates raises the risk of heart disease for women.”A high glycemic index is known to increase the concentration of triglycerides and lower the concentration of HDL cholesterol, the good kind,” explained Victoria J. Drake, director of the Micronutrient Information Center at the Linus Pauling Institute of Oregon State University. “Those adverse effects make it a stronger risk factor for heart disease.”

The Italian researchers followed more than 15,000 men and more than 32,500 women for nearly eight years after they filled out questionnaires on their food intake over the course of that time. The research team discovered that the women who consumed the most carbohydrates had about double the incidence of heart disease compared to the women who had consumed the least carbohydrates. But this is where it gets interesting. When the researchers looked more closely, they saw that the higher risk of heart disease was associated not with the amount of carbohydrate food but specifically with higher consumption of high GI foods.

In summarizing their conclusions, the researchers wrote, “Thus, a high consumption of carbohydrates from high-glycemic index foods, rather than the overall quantity of carbohydrates consumed, appears to influence the influence of developing coronary heart disease.”

We’ve seen a similar effect in other groups of women in earlier research. For example, the Harvard Nurses Health Study, commissioned by the Harvard School of Public Health and funded by NIH, followed almost 120,000 female nurses for an average of eight years. The study was headed up by Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, who has concluded, “Our findings suggest that a high intake of rapidly digested and absorbed carbohydrate increases the risk of CHD [coronary heart disease] independent of conventional coronary disease risk factors. These data add to the concern that the current low-fat, high carbohydrate diet recommended in the United States may not be optimal for the prevention of CHD and could actually increase the risk in individuals with high degrees of insulin resistance and glucose intolerance.”

So what does all this mean for you? The word “glycemic” simply means “relating to sugar.” The higher the glycemic impact of a food, the greater and more rapid its effect on your blood sugar—and the more insulin required to restore a normal blood sugar level. Since insulin is a fat-storage hormone and since overweight people often already produce too much of it, high blood sugar and high insulin can sabotage your weight-loss efforts. Eating lower glycemic foods is definitely the way to go.

Atkins has always been a low-glycemic approach. Almost 40 years ago, Dr. Atkins stressed the effect of food on blood sugar and insulin levels and explained in great detail why foods with a significant impact on blood sugar—meaning processed carbohydrates—were exactly what you don’t want on your plate, whether you’re concerned with your weight or your health. But how do we measure the glycemic impact of foods containing carbs? And how does that translate into deciding what to eat and what to pass up?

The Atkins Diet makes this easy. First, it restricts carb intake overall. Secondly, the carbohydrate foods that are acceptable in Induction are those with the lowest glycemic impact. From the start, you eliminate added sugar and focus on whole foods, including foundation vegetables, as the core carbohydrates. As you transition to Ongoing Weight Loss, and later Pre-Maintenance and Lifetime Maintenance, you gradually reintroduce carbohydrate foods with a progressively higher GI. This process allows each person to customizes the program to his or her tolerance for carbs, specifically when it comes to foods with a higher GI.

There’s no need to worry about the specific GI number for any carb food when you do Atkins. Simply use the Carb Counter. Another useful tool is the Carb Ladder, which is a simple way to check out the relative glycemic impact of various food groups. Those on the lowest rungs have the lowest GIs. The higher you go up the ladder, generally the higher the GI, culminating in whole grains.

Now we have another valuable tool to offer you. The New Atkins For a New You, by Drs. Phinney, Volek and Westman, explains how to succeed with this way of eating as well as information on the research that supports the Atkins approach. Two chapters are devoted to how Atkins can reduce your risk for metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease by eating fewer carbs and focusing on the right ones.

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