Regulars and Shorts

Body, Mind & Wellness

By Lucy Beale

Why they call them beer bellies (because “cortisol belly” isn’t half as catchy).

by Lucy Beale

We love our comfort foods. I’ve never met a jilted lover who favored a fish fillet over a cookie or ice cream. A hard-boiled egg might not be described as “soothing;” mashed potatoes, on the other hand, would definitely be. Yet a steady diet of yummy comfort foods may bring new problems.

Many health-conscious folks ban sugar, yet relish eating bread and other starches. But before you take that first bite of your morning toast, hear this: Your body digests the toast into glucose faster than it does the teaspoon of table sugar in your coffee. This means that you get more of a sugar-rush from fluffy, starchy foods than from plain ol’ sugar. And a starch rush is even more powerful.

Both of those rushes increase a person’s blood sugar levels with a corresponding increase in the fat-storing hormone insulin, thus increasing the risk of many chronic health conditions: diabetes, obesity, inflammation of any sort, high blood pressure, heart disease, metabolic syndrome, autoimmune disorders and even cancer.

But wait. How do we know that the harmless-looking piece of toast, whether white or whole wheat, is so threatening? Because of thousands of tests run on thousands and thousands of people over the past 20 years. The tests were done by scientists at the University of Sydney in Australia to determine the glycemic value of many different types of carbohydrates for ranking on the Gly­cemic Index, which you’ve probably heard of by now. You may have also heard that the glycemic index is too confusing to use. Not so.

In a nutshell: Carbohydrates with a low-glycemic value are mostly healthy for you and cause a slow low rise in blood glucose levels. Carbs with a high-glycemic value can spike blood sugar levels and contribute to health problems.

I began to eat glycemically years ago and became a believer in the glycemic index after I noticed that the weight around my waist and abdomen, which had been creeping on slowly, was going away. That was 10 years ago and the weight has never come back. Here’s why: High blood sugar causes high insulin levels which increase blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Insulin is a fat-storing hormone, and cortisol/stress makes sure that the fat goes straight to your belly and waist.

Here’s where the beer comes in. Alcohol all by itself increases cortisol/stress levels. Too much beer or alcohol and voila, a beer belly appears. Add to that pretzels, popcorn, chips, cookies, cakes and bread, and a bigger belly grows. A person who eats plenty of starches and sugars but doesn’t imbibe will still have the telltale beer belly.

Low-glycemic carbohydrates are vegetables and fruit, along with legumes, sweet potatoes and squash. Whole un-milled grains, such as wheat berries and barley are included along with pure ice cream. Most unsweetened dairy products are low-glycemic.

Medium-glycemic carbs include dark chocolate, table sugar, pure stone-ground bread, and sour dough bread. (The acid taste lowers the GI value.) Pasta if cooked to barely al dente is low or medium; if cooked until soft, it’s high glycemic.

High-glycemic carbohydrates are bread – both white and whole wheat, popcorn, pretzels, cakes, cookies, rice crackers and frozen soy desserts, with all the tasty variations. White fluffy potatoes are high-glycemic. Actually, a good rule of thumb is, “white and fluffy makes you puffy.”

No-glycemic foods are fats, butter, meat, fish, poultry, eggs, and nuts. They are so slowly digested that they don’t give even a tiny sugar-rush. Also included are full-fat salad dressings.

Paying attention to the Glycemic Index doesn’t mean you must deprive yourself of your favorite comfort foods. Instead, eat them sensuously, slowly and lovingly. Make a little go a long way. That way, you can eat your chocolate cake and enjoy the benefits of low-glycemic eating, too.

Simple eating Suggestions from “The Complete Idiot’s Guide Glyce­mic Index Cookbook,” by Lucy Beale and Joan Clark-werner (Alpha Books, 2009)

• For breakfast, have three ounces of protein, such as two eggs and a piece of fruit. If you like, add long-cooking steel-cut oatmeal or soup. It’s easier to resist high-glycemic starches if you start the day by eating protein such as meat, eggs or fish and avoid high-glycemic starches.

• If you do eat bread for breakfast, you can lower its effective glycemic value by buttering it. The fat slows digestion. Butter-substitutes may or may not work; some contain high-glycemic ingredients such as modified starch or maltodextrins.

• Plan to have two or three servings of vegetables or fruit at every meal along with three ounces or 15 grams of complete protein.

• Choose salads for lunch or order up a sandwich (hold the bread).

• Avoid soft drinks because both the sugared and artificially sweetened varieties have been shown to encourage diabetes and weight gain. Instead, drink water. Teas and coffee are fine in moderation. You can even eat at a burger joint if you order a burger (hold the bread) and a side salad.

• For snacks choose nuts, olives, pickles, fruit, dried fruit, vegetables, dark chocolate, cheese, cold cuts – all in moderation.

• Dinner can be meat, fish, poultry or eggs with two or three servings of vegetables. Choose soups, salads and fruit. Add al dente pasta or long grain rice. Basmati rice is also a good choice. If you need a sweet taste after a meal, have a bite or two of your favorite dessert but not much more than that.

• If you ever overdo the high-glycemic foods, squeeze a half lemon in a glass of water and drink. The acid will slow digestion and reduce the sugar/starch rush. So will eating anything acidic such as dill pickles, green olives, capers, sauerkraut and grapefruit.

• Cinnamon has been shown to help reduce the glycemic effect of a meal, as does a vinegar-and-oil salad dressing or eating a sour food. Enjoy a cup of cinnamon tea with your meals. Eat lots of fiber-filled foods, such as vegetables and fruit. Set your goal to eat 10 servings a day. Fiber slows digestion and absorption of high-glycemic foods.

• Choose farm-sourced foods over factory-sourced foods and you’ll mostly be eating low-glycemic. This currently fashionable way to eat eschews packaged foods and favors fresh produce, meats and fish, preferably locally produced.

Lucy Beale is a regular contributor to CATALYST. Her newest books are “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Glycemic Index Weight Loss,” and its cookbook companion, coauthored with Joan Clark-werner. Lucy lives in Sandy, Utah.;

This article was originally published on March 30, 2009.