Missing the point by forgetting the fiber

Eating Well

March 04, 1997|By Colleen Pierre | Colleen Pierre,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Will eating carbohydrates fatten you up or trigger diabetes? It depends on the type and amount of carbohydrates you choose.

New information from the Nurses' Health Study of 65,000 women shows those who ate the least cereal fiber and the most quickly digested carbohydrates like white bread, cola drinks and white rice were the most likely to develop diabetes. Those who chose the most cereal fiber and more slowly digested carbohydrates from yogurt and breakfast cereal had the lowest risks.

The women's research echoed findings from a similar study in men. Together, they confirm the Food Guide Pyramid recommendation to base your eating habits on grain foods. But they also add a new dimension. Make more of your choices whole grains.

These studies shed light on America's recent disastrous love affair with low-fat, high-carbohydrate diets.

What went wrong?

Pre-Snackwellian researchers proposed high-carbohydrate, low-fat diets for weight control. Studies showed that weight watchers who ate lots of fruits, vegetables and whole grains (foods naturally low in fat, but rich in high-fiber carbohydrates) filled up fast on those high-bulk foods. Feeling satisfied, they stopped eating after fewer calories. And limiting calories is the single most important factor in weight loss.

Then things got out of hand. Both dieters and food processors quickly picked up on the high-carbohydrate, low-fat concept but missed the fiber part. Fat-free foods created largely from sugars and refined white flour hit the shelves, and the orgy began.

DTC Whole cakes, cartons of cookies, double-size bagels, piles of pasta and pounds of pretzels replaced balanced meals and healthy snacks. The fat-free feeding frenzy piled on the pounds because meals containing lots of carbohydrates but little fiber, negligible fat and minimal protein were not very satisfying. As a result, normal "full" and "stop" signals failed to function, and dieters ate more calories. And eating more than you expend ends up in weight gain.

And for about 25 percent of people, weight gain increases insulin resistance, and can lead to diabetes. Here's what happens:

Eaten alone, carbohydrates are quickly digested to form your body's favorite energy source, glucose, which is released into your blood. At the same time, a matching amount of the hormone insulin is produced. Acting as a gatekeeper, insulin opens cells so glucose can enter and be used for energy. But if you've produced more glucose than your cells are willing to accept, insulin will shuttle the excess into fat storage for later use.

But some people are insulin-resistant. Although a few are thin, most have been gaining weight. The increasing body fat makes cells reluctant to open when insulin knocks. In an effort to persuade cells to respond, even more insulin is released. Although some may be effective, the excess can further increase fat storage. In a vicious cycle, weight gain increases insulin resistance increases weight gain. And constantly high levels of glucose and insulin raise risks for diabetes and heart disease.

On the plus side, weight loss and regular exercise have been shown to reverse this process.

How might whole grains help?

Whole grains are higher in fiber than processed grains, making them harder to digest. When you eat your carbohydrates mixed with a little fat, some protein and enough fiber, digestion takes longer. Glucose is released into your bloodstream more gradually, decreasing the amount of insulin required and increasing the likelihood that your cells will, over a longer period of time, be able to use all the carbohydrates you've eaten. (If you haven't eaten too much.)

Easy ways to get more whole grains

Alternate among several breakfast cereals that contain four grams of fiber or more per serving. Try tiny shredded wheat biscuits with chopped banana and toasted almonds, quick-cooking oatmeal with raisins and toasted walnuts, or multi-bran Chex with chopped fresh apple and toasted sesame seeds for starters.

Find a bread that contains three grams of fiber per slice, like Branola Country Oat or Rubschlager European Style whole-grain bread. Beyond sandwiches, use them to make your own croutons for soup or salad, or to make stuffing for chicken or turkey.

Replace some of your potatoes, pasta and rice with brown or wild rice, whole-wheat pasta, barley or buckwheat (kasha).

Read labels. Choose higher-fiber pita pockets, English muffins, tortillas and crackers, including reduced-fat Triscuits and Ak Mak stone-ground whole-wheat crackers.

Colleen Pierre, a registered dietitian, is the nutrition consultant at the Union Memorial Sports Medicine Center and Vanderhorst & Associates in Baltimore.

Pub Date: 3/04/97

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