• Caitanya Chandra dasa

Health: The problem with starches and high-glycemic foods

Updated: 4 days ago

The human body can adapt to many different types of diets. Over the centuries, populations would establish themselves in different environments and do their best to survive. In many cases, the diet would not be an option: they would just eat what was available. Nowadays, however, we have an abundance of food and we are in the unique position of being able to choose what we eat, thus sapience and a good deal of common sense became a necessity.

There are examples of groups living in extreme diets. The Innuit, for example, lived in arctic regions and based their diet on meat (especially fish) and very little else. They would still be healthy (cases of diabetes, hypertension, cancer and other chronic diseases would be rare), but their life expectancy was low, around 70 years. Something similar could be observed in the Massai tribes in Africa: they would also have a diet based on meat, and would also live only up to 70 years.

In Japan, people would eat predominantly whole grain rice and vegetables, supplemented by a few fermented soy products, beans and sometimes fish. They were also healthy, and their life expectancy was higher, around 90 years. The exception was the island of Okinawa: their diet was similar to the rest of Japan, however, due to the particularities of the terrain, they were not able to cultivate rice, therefore their staple was sweet potatoes. It was also a poor region, therefore people would sometimes go hungry for several days (in other words, they would be forced to fast regularly). Despite the harsh conditions, people in Okinawa had the highest life expectancy in all Japan (and probably the highest in the world): they would live up to 110 years!

There is also much information about the "blue zone" populations: groups across the world that had surprisingly high life expectancies. These groups have something in common: they all have simple diets, based in vegetables, fruits, legumes and pulses, whole grains, milk products, fruits and herbs. Many of them would eat fish, but they would rarely eat red meat.

From these examples, we can conclude a few things:

A diet based on meat is not such a good idea for longevity. Groups that had a more varied diet, rich in vegetables, would live much longer.

Even without modern medicine, many of these ancient populations would frequently live past their 90 years, and diseases like cancer were practically unknown to them. From this, we can see that a diet based on refined carbohydrates, sugar and refined vegetable oils like most people have nowadays is the worst possible option. Even the Massai, with their diet of almost exclusively red meat would still live better than most of us! Ironically, a vegetarian can end up with a worse diet than a meat eater if he makes the wrong food choices.

Although a diet based on grains (like the Japanese) is better than a diet based on meat, when grains like rice are replaced by low-glycemic options, like the sweet potatoes of the okinawans, people's life expectancy would grow considerably.

We can convert these three conclusions in three important pieces of information for improving our health and longevity based on the diet:

1- To have a simple diet, based on natural foods, avoiding anything that is industrialized or processed.

2- To eat plenty of vegetables and fruits, making them the basis of your diet.

3- To avoid refined carbohydrates (like wheat flour), eating instead tubers like sweet potatoes, low glycemic whole grains, beans and pulses.

Although wheat flour and sugar are the main offenders, there are other types of refined carbohydrates that are bad for our health for the same reason: they are basically empty calories; carbohydrates in a form that is very easy to digest, devoid of other useful nutrients.

It's important to spend some time checking the nutrition facts of different ingredients that you use. Two informations are important: how nutritious it is (based on the amount of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, protein and health fats) and how high is the glycemic index (GI).

The glycemic index indicates how much a certain food will elevate one's blood glucose when consumed. This is important, because high glycemic foods provoke a strong insulin response. Although high insulin is better than high glucose, it also causes numerous problems in the long run.

Low GI foods, also called "slow carbs" are absorbed slowly due to the presence of fibers and other nutrients. They offer energy, but in a sustainable way, without the highs and lows caused by high-glycemic foods.

Boiled white rice, for example, has a GI of 73, while cooked chickpeas have a GI of 28 (pure glucose has an index of 100). Most vegetables, as well as nuts, legumes and even certain grains, like barley and oats, have a low GI. Others, like corn and wheat, have a much higher GI and should be used with more caution.

The best foods are the ones that combine a good amount of nutrients with a low GI. Pearled barley, for example, is much better than rice in every respect. Oats are better than wheat and so on. Another point is that whole grains are almost always better than processed grains, since the more a grain is processed, the more the nutrients are lost. Steel cut oats, for example, have more nutrients and a much lower GI than instant oats. Whole wheat grains are completely different from white wheat flour and so on.

Just like in the case of fruits, grains are made as a package that combines carbohydrates with protein, fats, fibers, and different vitamins and minerals. This combination not only makes them rich nutritionally, but also causes the starches to be digested slowly, creating a stable release of energy and avoiding spikes of insulin. If one eats refined carbohydrates (breads, cakes, biscuits, etc.) too frequently, the constant release of insulin can lead to insulin resistance, that (as previously mentioned) is linked to a long list of diseases, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, high triglycerides, fatty liver, obesity, diabetes, inflammatory conditions, cognitive decline (lack of concentration, brain fog, bad memory), etc. Recent studies show that most of the chronic diseases are caused or aggravated by an excess of insulin.

Instead of using white flour, we can, for example, make bread using barley flour, or even whole grain wheat flour, mixed with different seeds, nuts and grains (adding flax seeds, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, sunflower seeds, rolled oats, etc), as well as ingredients rich in fibers (like the fibers left from making vegetable juices, coconut flour, etc.) In this way, we create a package, adding fibers, protein, fat and other nutrients.

Tubers, like sweet potatoes, yams and cassava roots, are excellent sources of low-glycemic carbohydrates when cooked (they are not such good options when baked or fried, however, since the GI becomes dramatically higher). You can keep in mind the example of the Okinawans, who were able to dramatically increase their life-span just by replacing rice with boiled sweet potatoes.

Just like fibers, health fats make the absorption of the starches slower, helping to prevent spikes of insulin. There is no need to deliberately make the food devoid of fat. In fact, in the Bhagavad-Gita Krsna defines food in the mode of goodness as being rasyah (juicy), snigdhah (fatty) and sthirah (pleasing to the heart) in opposition to food in the mode of passion, that is ruksa (dry, rough, devoid of fats). The body needs fat to function properly, it should be part of the package. The main point is to eat healthy fats (like ghee, butter, nuts, avocados, coconuts, etc.), instead of refined vegetable oils, eating in moderation and avoiding combinations of refined carbs and fats (especially fried) as mentioned previously.

If eating cakes and other preparations made with white flour is unavoidable (like in a festival, for example), the best way to contain the damage is to combine with other preparations rich in fibers and other nutrients (eating the cake after eating a plate of salad, for example). This way we also create a package and the damage is contained. The most dangerous situation is when we eat a lot of refined carbohydrates and sweets by itself, like if we eat a lot of bread and cakes in a single sitting. If one overdoes it, the best is to fast or eat only fruits and vegetables on the next day, giving the body time to repair the damage.

When we read the Caitanya Caritamrta, we find descriptions of devotees taking very rich prasadam preparations, like fried rice cakes, sweet rice, fried puris in condensed milk, etc. The point we forget to notice is that they would generally fast during the whole day, performing kirtana and other physically demanding activities, usually taking prasadam only once a day. Sometimes they would perform kirtana for several days straight and forget to eat, other times they would eat only mangos, etc. One may exaggerate a little bit if he follows the principle of “fasting and feasting”, but if one just feasts constantly, the body will become quickly overwhelmed and health problems will appear.