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Women + Certain Carbs = Early Death

This is one of those “Not fair!” studies, an “Is there no justice?” piece of research that underscores the importance of gender in health.

Doctors have known for years that diets high in certain carbohydrates increase blood levels of triglyceride fats and lower HDL (the good cholesterol), a recipe for heart problems. These carbs also boost blood sugar and insulin levels, leading to diabetes, which further increases your chances of developing heart disease.

But exactly what kind of carbs are we talking about here–all of them or just certain types? And is everyone at risk or only some of us? To answer these questions, researchers in Italy tracked the eating diaries of 15,171 men and 32,578 women, looking at the glycemic index (GI) of the carbs they were eating.

The GI of any food measures how quickly it’s absorbed and, as a consequence, how quickly it raises your blood sugar after you eat it. As you might gather, a Twinkie has an off-the-charts GI. Its refined flour and sugars rocket into your bloodstream, causing a quick energy surge and then a crash, because there’s no actual substance in this “food” product.

An apple, on the other hand, has a low GI and, eaten with a piece of cheese or a few nuts, can sustain you for hours. And it’s worth noting that the GI of white bread is not far from that of Twinkies.

The Italian researchers also tracked the total amount of carbs (both high-GI and low-GI) participants ate using a calculated number called the glycemic load (GL). The evil Twinkie and white bread have a high GLs, the apple a low GL, and this holds true for most foods: low GI, low GL.

Asking the 47,749 volunteers to keep food diaries for almost eight years helped the researchers see who actually developed heart disease based on their carb intake. And their answer: women who ate a lot of bad carbs (high GI and high GL) had a marked increase in the development of heart disease. The men, despite bad carbs, were spared.

Now, you might say, “But men have more heart attacks than women.” Yes, this is true, but their risk factors come from smoking, untreated high blood pressure, obesity, and inactivity. Not carbs. Simply put: if a man has absolutely no heart disease risk factors, he can eat pretty much any type of carb he wants and it won’t increase his heart disease risk (until those bad carbs start to increase his waistline, that is).

Not so for women. An otherwise healthy woman eating high-GI carbs places herself at risk for heart disease.

We also know that heart disease is on the rise among women and is, in fact, their number one cause of death. Although smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure are the major risk factors for women and heart disease, doctors are seeing more heart attacks among even non-obese, exercising, nonsmoking women. Now we know why. It’s the junk carbs.

Here are a few steps to lower your GI/GL load:
• Eat mostly fruits and vegetables.
• For breakfast make your own hot oatmeal or barley. No sugar please–add fruit instead.
• Bread, to be eaten sparingly, needs to be made of whole grains (“whole wheat” doesn’t count–it’s just a euphemism for refined flour).
• Reduce or eliminate white potatoes, but enjoy sweet potatoes…with the skins.
• Choose brown rice over white.
• Enjoy whole-grain pasta and noodles.
• Have a little lean protein or good fat (yogurt, avocado, olive oil) with every meal to slow the absorption of anything you’re eating.

You can learn more about the GI index of foods here.

And if you’re thinking you might need some help with all this, consider setting up an appointment with our nutritionist, Marla Feingold.

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