Friday, April 9, 2010

The huge gap between glycemic loads of refined and unrefined carbohydrate-rich foods

I often refer to foods rich in refined carbohydrates in this blog as among the most disease-promoting agents of modern diets. Yet, when one looks at the glycemic indices of foods rich in refined and unrefined carbohydrates, they are not all that different.

The glycemic index of a carbohydrate-rich food reflects how quickly the food is digested and generate a blood glucose response. Technically, it is measured as the area under a two-hour blood glucose response curve following the consumption of a portion of the food with a fixed amount of carbohydrates.

A measure that reflects much better the underlying difference between foods rich in refined and unrefined carbohydrates is the glycemic load, which is the product of the glycemic index of a food by the carbohydrate content in a 100 g portion of the food.

The glycemic load is also the reason for one known fact among diabetics. If a diabetic person eats a very small amount of a high glycemic index food, he or she will have a relatively small increase in blood sugar. If that person consumes a large amount of the same food, the increase in blood sugar will be dramatic.

The table below (click on it to enlarge) shows the remarkable differences between the glycemic loads of foods rich in refined and unrefined carbohydrates. It was taken from an article co-authored by Loren Cordain, Michael R. Eades, and Mary D. Eades (full reference at the end of this post).

At the time of this post’s writing, the article from which the table above was taken had a solid number of citations to it; a total of 74 citations on Google Scholar’s database. It is an excellent article, which I highly recommend reading in full (the link to the online full text is at the end of this post).

What is the reason for the differences in glycemic loads?

The answer is that foods rich in unrefined carbohydrates, even those with a high glycemic index (such as potatoes), are also packed with a number of other things – e.g., micronutrients, fiber, water, and even some protein. An Irish (white) potato is 75 percent water. By comparison, cereal, without milk added, is about 1 percent water. You have to add a lot of whole milk to it to make it a bit healthier. And even unsweetened whole milk is about 5 percent sugar.

There was nothing even remotely similar to modern foods rich in refined carbohydrates in the diet of our Paleolithic ancestors. In fact, the types of food rich in refined carbohydrates shown on the table above are very recent, typically dating back to less than a hundred years ago. That is, they are so recent that it is unlikely that any of us have genetic adaptations to those types of food.

Once one’s glucose metabolism is seriously impaired, which seems to be associated with consumption over many years of refined carbohydrates and sugars (as well as some genetic predisposition, which may have evolved among some of our ancestors), then even the foods with high glycemic index and low glycemic load (e.g., potato) will lead to highly elevated glucose levels if eaten in more than very small amounts.

Insulin resistant individuals should avoid even foods with high glycemic index and low glycemic load, as well as any food that significantly increases their blood glucose levels after a meal, because highly elevated glucose levels are toxic to various tissues in the body. The longer those highly elevated serum glucose levels are maintained, the more damage is done; e.g., 2 hours as opposed to 30 minutes at 180 mg/dl. One reason why they are toxic is because they lead to high levels of protein glycation; this is a process whereby sugar binds to protein and “warps” it, impairing its functions.

Generally speaking, the more glycation is going on in our body, the more accelerated is the aging process.


Loren Cordain, Michael R. Eades, Mary D. Eades (2003). Hyperinsulinemic diseases of civilization: More than just Syndrome X. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology: Part A, 136, 95–112.