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Understanding how the fuel of life impacts the body's complex works

by Corinna Arcellana-Nuqui

JULY 2012

Put simply, glucose is the fuel of life. The human body gets the fuel molecule glucose from food in the diet, not just carbohydrates, but fat and protein as well. A current marketing buzzword, the glycemic index (GI) refers to the potential of a food item to raise the blood glucose level. But while not everyone needs to explore the nuances of biochemical interplay in metabolism, the complexity of biochemical reactions in the human body deserves much respect.

Avoiding diet pitfalls

Reducing the amount of sugar consumed in the diet is a classic strategy of those trying to lose weight. But it should be accompanied by a warning against resorting to items that purport to be sugar-free or have sugar substitutes. Traditional replacements for sugar have included honey or other syrups, but since they still break down into glucose, they don’t present themselves as the ultimate solution.

Another strategy is resorting to diet versions that use sugar substitutes in food and drinks, but the trouble with them is that sugar alcohols like sorbitol cause diarrhea or gastrointestinal upset, as they aren’t absorbed. And while the palate is fooled into thinking one is eating something sweet, the brain chemistry is not—some food and drinks with sugar substitutes can actually trigger more hunger, which leads to more eating and a higher blood sugar level.

The elusive GI

Simply choosing a food item because it possesses a low GI may seem commonsensical. But that list includes high fructose corn syrup, an ingredient implicated in lifestyle diseases like obesity and increased insulin resistance. So carefully choose what you eat. Expert Janine Freedman, R.D., C.D.E, issued some caveats in an editorial from Diabetes Forecast:

• The GI of a food item will depend on its type, ripeness, storage conditions, the manner it was cooked and processed. An example cited were potatoes, which have a much higher GI in Australia than in the U.S.

• Depending on blood glucose levels, insulin resistance and other factors, the GI of a food item will vary from person to person. • A food item may have a different GI when eaten alone, and another when consumed as part of a complete meal.

• GI values are based on portions containing 50 grams of carbohydrates, an unrealistic serving size.

• Most GI values reflect blood glucose response only up to two hours. Glucose levels actually can remain elevated longer than that, in the case of diabetics.

The American Dietetic Association reports that blood glucose levels peak at the same time regardless of the carbohydrate source. It also said that carbohydrate content and GI values aren’t directly related to the body’s insulin response.

Eat from scratch

Confused? The wise thing to do is to choose foods that the body has to work "harder" to process, thereby keeping blood levels of glucose steady. Complex carbohydrates in the form of whole grains, such as unpolished rice, fruits and vegetables, lean protein, and a measure of oil or fat, form the basis for many healthy diets.

For more information and tips on managing blood glucose, get a copy of HealthToday’s July issue, out now in bookstores and newsstands.

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