GI Symbol News with Dr Alan Barclay

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Dr Alan Barclay

A diet of unintended consequences.
Whatever your health problem (being overweight/obese, or having type 2 diabetes or heart disease), what many fad diet solutions have in common, is advising you to severely limit or completely avoid the nutrient that is supposedly responsible for it.

Turning the clock back, carbohydrate was THE nutrient to avoid in the 1970s. In the 1980s and 90s, however, carbs lost the limelight as fats were fast-tracked to front position as THE dietary demon. Carbs in general made a brief comeback in the early years of the 21st century before THE problem (‘toxic’) nutrient of our time message zoomed in on sugars in general, and fructose in particular.
The problem with this One-Nutrient-At-A-Time approach, as I have discussed previously in GI News, is that we don’t eat single nutrients – we eat foods, that are usually a part of meals, and the meals we eat are at the very least partly determined by our social and cultural background. And this is why most people find it hard to stick to fad diets for prolonged periods of time – there are too many pressures from family, friends, and the societies we live in to consume a wide variety of foods. Enter our modern, high-tech food industry. They saw an opportunity and took it, creating low carb or low fat versions of our favourite foods when we asked for them.

The low fat boom The boom in low fat foods began in 1980s and continues today. We can choose low fat variants of everything from potato crisps to salad dressings. We can now have our proverbial cake and eat it. And because these were supposedly healthier versions of our favourite foods we could stick with this ‘diet’. We all know the consequences: rates of overweight/obesity and related conditions continued to rise.

The low carb boom When carbohydrate was subsequently re-anointed as THE problem nutrient to avoid at all costs, food industry again rode to our rescue producing low carb versions of breakfast cereals, pasta, cakes, cookies and more. Here at the GI Symbol Program, we measured the GI of several of these low carb alternatives and we were deeply concerned that they had values that were much higher than the regular counterparts, so much so that the glycemic load (or impact) was essentially the same: the lower carb content was counter-balanced by the higher GI. There were no net health benefits. Rates of overweight/obesity/type 2 diabetes continued to rise … and these foods didn’t help anyone manage their BGLs either.

The low sugar boom will be on your supermarket shelves soon Business is business. The food industry is now in the process of adapting our favourite foods to make them lower in sugars because it knows (through market research) that’s what their customers now believe is THE problem nutrient. The technology is there – most sugars can be relatively easily replaced by oligosaccharides and starches – perhaps with a non-nutritive sweetener like aspartame, sucralose or stevia thrown in to replace the lost sweetness. The net result will likely be of little nutritional benefit, however, as these oligosaccharides and starches are usually as equally refined, devoid of nutrients (other than kilojoules) and have a higher GI than the sugars they replaced. Like their low carb predecessors, they will likely be of no real health benefit. Based on the events of the past few decades, it’s highly likely that these ‘all new’ sugar free varieties will continue to contribute to the global obesity and type 2 diabetes epidemic just like their low fat and low carbohydrate predecessors. History has the strange tendency of repeating itself.

It’s time to stop the nutrient blame game – to stop ‘going on a diet’, and to start to focus on healthy eating patterns like the (higher fat, moderate carb) Mediterranean diet or (low fat, high carb) Japanese (traditional Okinawan) diet. Principles from these tried-and-true dietary patterns like eating minimally refined vegetables, fruits, grains, nuts, seeds, legumes, lean meats/fish, yoghurt and other fermented dairy products, and oils (olive/peanut) can be adapted to suit most people’s personal, familial and cultural backgrounds. Nutrients are by definition essential – it’s how we eat them (and how many of them we put on our plates) that ultimately counts.

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For more information about the GI Symbol Program
Dr Alan W Barclay, PhD
Chief Scientific Officer
Glycemic Index Foundation (Ltd)
Phone: +61 (0)2 9785 1037
Mob: +61 (0)416 111 046
Fax: +61 (0)2 9785 1037