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Making sense of sugar vs carbs

pile of sugar cubes made to look like a wall

Pretzel - making sense of sugar vs carbsWhile you’re contemplating sugar, it might be a good time to look at carbohydrates in general.

Scientific research shows that smart carbs offer a host of health perks, especially for children. But sorting through the facts about these foods is not an easy task.

First, it’s important to know that all carbohydrate-rich foods are not created equal. Some carbs, such as candy, are just sugar without any redeeming nutritional value; others, such as whole grains, come with good stuff like fibre, vitamins, minerals and an assortment of antioxidants.

Another way to look at carbs that is becoming more and more part of the mainstream is the Glycemic Index (GI). It’s a measure that ranks a food on how quickly the body absorbs it into the bloodstream, compared to a rapidly absorbed carb – either sugar or white bread, which has a score of 100. Evidence is accumulating that a diet high in fast carbs (or a high GI diet) is linked to health problems including obesity, diabetes and later in life, coronary heart disease, certain cancers and even eye diseases.

At a recent international consensus conference called Glycemic Index, Glycemic Load and Glycemic Response, the latest carb research showed that even for kids, choosing smart, or low, GI carbs offers health perks.

  • They make you feel fuller, both at meals and then afterwards through the day, defending against obesity.
  • They may promote healthier blood pressure readings.
  • They can also help fend off type 2 (adult onset) diabetes, which is beginning to show up in teens and tweens, too.

Scientists do not promote banishing quickly digested or high GI carbs altogether. It’s all about balancing low GI foods with high GI foods.

At meals with high GI selections, keep portions in check and add some low GI foods. For example, if you’re serving mashed potatoes at dinner (a high GI food), dish up a smaller scoop and add some chick peas (low GI) to a salad. This is called lessening the glycemic load, a measure which takes into account both a food’s GI, as well as the portion size.

Here are some tips for choosing smart carbs:

Cook your pasta properly. It’s an example of the wisdom of the ages: the traditional way of cooking pasta, al dente — meaning to the tooth — yields a low GI. Overcooked pasta, though, is a high GI food.

Go for intact or longer cooking grains insted of instant or short-cooking ones. For example, large flake or rolled oats have a low GI of around 50, while instant oats have a value of 83. To save time when preparing longer cooking grains, make extra and then freeze portions in labelled containers.

Look for coarse, grainy breads rather than light fluffy varieties. They tend to have higher GIs, even if whole grain. While your kids may turn their noses up at these breads, rotate them with their favourites and over time, they may actually prefer them.

Serve pulses – dried peas and beans which are low GI and fibre-rich. They tend to have higher GIs, even if whole grain. While your kids may turn their noses up at these breads, rotate them with their favourites and over time, they may actually prefer them.

Go for balanced meals. Incorporate small portions of lean protein and healthy fats with smart carbs to lower the glycemic load of the meal.

Low GI score (up to 55)Medium GI score (55 to 69)High GI score (70 or more)
Craving bread?

  • 100% stone ground whole wheat
  • Heavy mixed grain
  • Pumpernickel
  • Cracked wheat bread
  • Corn tortilla
  • White bread
  • Bagel
Good morning!

  • All Bran
  • Bran Buds with Psyllium
  • Large flake oats
  • Cream of Wheat
  • Grapenuts
  • Quick cooking oats
  • Puffed wheat
  • Instant oatmeal
  • Puffed rice cereal
On the dinner plate

  • Barley
  • Bulgur
  • Pasta/noodles
  • Parboiled or converted rice
  • Legumes such as lentils, chickpeas etc.
  • Couscous
  • Quick-cooking white rice
  • Basmati rice
  • Rice noodles
  • Instant rice
Veg out

  • Peas
  • Carrots
  • Apples
  • Oranges
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Sweet corn
  • Raw apricot
  • Cherries
  • Pineapple
  • Potatoes (mashed, baked and boiled
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Watermelon
 Snack time

  • Nuts and seeds
  • Hummus
  • Popcorn
  • Pretzels
  • Rice cakes
  • Soda crackers

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and is author of
The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Visit for
more on healthy eating.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, October 2013.

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