Commander's Fit Tip: Carb junkies unite! Understanding what you eat

  • Published
  • By Col. Michael Panarisi
I bet I've heard this a thousand times!

"I spend all this time in the gym, and I just can't seem to lose any more weight!"

We've explored lots of reasons for this, however one of the lesser known characteristics of our programs involves our body's natural reaction to the types of food we eat.

Nutritionists and dietitians (who also like to sound sophisticated!) are well aware of the relationship between food types and weight loss issues and have formed a body of knowledge centered on a term they call "glycemic index."

If you find yourself struggling to drop that "last 10 pounds," you may just find an answer here.

Lots of different diet programs tout advantages of certain food groups over others.

We've all seen low fat diets, low carb diets, high protein diets, and the ever famous grapefruit diet.

Unfortunately, the success rate for these focused intake type diets is relatively low.

Why? Perhaps the biggest reason is that these extreme dietary changes are not sustainable.

In the initial stages of a weight loss program, these diets often prove very useful, however over the long term, the weight typically tends to creep back.

Eventually, there are just not enough minutes in the day to burn off all the calories needed to re-ignite a stalled weight loss program, and we end up back where we started.

By understanding how our bodies react to each type of food, we can take advantage of this relatively recent bit of science and keep our programs on track.

In creating a "glycemic index," dietitians have categorized different foods by the way our body changes blood sugar levels in response to the food we eat.

These blood sugar changes are most closely tied to the carbohydrate content in a food.

It's well understood that our blood sugar will rise rapidly if we eat something very high in sugar (like honey) and won't rise at all (at least for a while!) if we eat something like ham (no carbs).

But the rise in blood sugar is not the only issue.

If we are preparing for a short race, a rise in blood sugar may be exactly what we're looking for.

But over the long term, these rapid changes in blood sugar spell disaster.

When our blood sugar rises rapidly, our body will react by secreting insulin. This insulin reaction is perhaps our greatest enemy in a sustained weight loss program.

Avoiding these reactions and maintaining a more constant blood sugar level will pay big dividends over the long term.

A food's glycemic index describes the intensity of the blood sugar reaction that food will generate.

Foods with a low glycemic index cause relatively small reactions, and foods with a higher index can cause very high reactions.

A classic example is orange juice.

There are plenty of good reasons to drink orange juice, but anyone who knows a diabetic will tell you that when a diabetic's blood sugar gets dangerously low, orange juice is one of the first things they reach for.

As you might expect, orange juice has a very high glycemic index.

This doesn't mean we should never drink orange juice, instead, like so many elements in a fitness program, the term "everything in moderation" applies.

Juices are a great element in our diet, but they pose a significant risk...they are relatively concentrated and very easy to "overdo."

So one technique is to limit juice portions to "the juice you could squeeze from the amount of fruit you'd be willing to eat at the same time."

Getting back to our orange juice example, if your diet would include one medium sized orange at breakfast, this guideline would limit you to only three or four ounces of juice.

Most dietitians would prefer that you eat an orange, but if you are going to try just the juice, you have to avoid the temptation to drink a more normal-sized glass.

Or, go for "50-50."

Just cut the orange juice with an equal amount of water. It will taste a little funny at first, but after a few servings, you'll be just fine with the taste of the lower concentration.

Another element of glycemic index studies looks at "buffering."

If there's a food on your list with a relatively high glycemic index, you can reduce the insulin reaction by eating a lower glycemic index food at the same time.

The impact of that orange juice can be reduced if you add an egg white omelet to the list at breakfast.

And drink the orange juice towards the end of the meal, rather than at the beginning.

High fiber foods are also good buffers. And as you'd expect, high fiber foods tend to have a lower glycemic index.

By considering a food's glycemic index, we can better regulate our sugar levels throughout the day, and eliminating big variations (another good reason to eat several small meals a day!) we can avoid hunger spikes, "sugar crashes" and those pesky insulin reactions that stand in the way of your goals.

Lots of websites list the glycemic indexes of common foods, so the next time you put a meal plan together, look at your list and compare the "GI" of some alternatives.

You'll probably find a few good trades that will help you stay on track!