Getting Creative with Carbs

As with Meatless August last year, one of the challenges in a low-carb diet is finding a replacement for the ubiquitous potato. Almost every meal has potatoes as a side. If it isn’t potatoes, it’s pasta or rice. Bread is almost ever-present as well. So far just avoiding pasta, rice and most bread hasn’t been too difficult. But potatoes present a real obstacle.

So I’ve gotten creative with squash and beans. Last night I cooked some rib eye steaks directly on the coals. Instead of potatoes our side was a stuffed zucchini. I cut the zucchini length-wise, scooped out the seeds and filled the hollows with a mixture of diced celery, onions and jalapenos, held together with cream cheese.  Then I baked the zucchini at 350 for about 30 minutes.The other side dish was a bean and corn salad that’s intended to be used like salsa with chips but is great by itself. This morning I took 1/4 of the zucchini that wasn’t eaten, removed the filling, diced it and fried it alongside my eggs. It made a more than passable substitute for hash brown potatoes.

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What’s the Big Deal About Carbs, Anyway?

You might get the impression that the thing to do would be to eliminate carbohydrates altogether, since they seem to cause so many problems. A few diets, Atkins, the Keto diet, and others, actually try to eliminate carbs completely.  Energy, the kind that allows humans to move, think, work, play and live, comes primarily from two macro-nutrients, carbohydrates and fats. Carbs are the body’s first choice of fuel for energy. Fat is often just excess carbohydrates that weren’t needed for immediate energy when they were eaten, so the body stored them as fat. The theory behind the carb-elimination diets is, the body has an almost unlimited store of fuel in the form of fat. If we can just force the body to get to the stored fat, weight loss will naturally follow. That’s an unsustainable approach in the long run, maybe even in the mid-run.

Fat burns as fuel, but it burns in a carbohydrate fire. Without carbs to get the fire going, the body acts as if you’re trying to start a campfire with wet tinder. It just won’t burn that fat. So the trick is to have enough carbs in your diet to light the fire, but not so many that there are leftover carbs that get neatly packaged away as fat.

In the past week, I’ve added a few select carbs back into my diet. Last week I ate oatmeal twice. Oatmeal is one of the good carbs because its glycemic index is low. Oatmeal is on every recommended list of food. In my opinion, oatmeal is there because it tastes so bad that you don’t eat it. Voila! Immediate caloric intake reduction. Do that enough and you’ll lose weight. Oatmeal tastes like shredded cardboard, unless you dump a few tablespoons of brown sugar and about a half cup of cream on it. That kind of defeats the purpose of oatmeal as a low calorie, low carb food. The first time I ate it last week I used skim milk and sliced strawberries. All that did was make the strawberries taste like cardboard. The second time I mixed some flavored yogurt into the oatmeal rather than use milk. I threw about half of it out. Sunday night Nancy made chicken cacciatore, which we put over pasta. Some recipes call for cream; she just used diced tomatoes and spices. I’ve been eating leftover chicken cacciatore, minus the pasta, for lunch this week.

Anyway, for whatever reason, low carb, eating less, maybe even the dreaded “E” word (exercise) I’m continuing a slow weight loss. Here’s this morning’s result as I begin Week 4. That needle is flirting with 205, which puts me down between five and six pounds since August 1.

The Glycemic Index

Last week I mentioned that carbs such as potatoes, bread, rice, and pasta are bad because they are the equivalent of dumping a couple of teaspoons of sugar directly into your blood, which causes a spike in blood sugar levels, triggering a responsive release of insulin, which is usually too much, pushing the blood sugar level low, which results in hunger. Does that mean all carbs are bad?

The answer is no, just those carbs that are high on the glycemic index. The glycemic index is a relative ranking from zero to 100 of carbohydrates in accordance with their effect on blood glucose (blood sugar). Carbs that are high on the index are those that are metabolized quickly, resulting in the spike in blood glucose levels. Carbs low on the index are metabolized more slowly, releasing their sugars more gradually. A ranking of 55 or lower on the glycemic index is consider better than a higher ranking. Not surprisingly, the foods most people consider the best tasting are high on the list. Here’s a list from Harvard Medical School of 60 typical foods.

FOOD Glycemic index (glucose = 100)
HIGH-CARBOHYDRATE FOODS
White wheat bread* 75 ± 2
Whole wheat/whole meal bread 74 ± 2
Specialty grain bread 53 ± 2
Unleavened wheat bread 70 ± 5
Wheat roti 62 ± 3
Chapatti 52 ± 4
Corn tortilla 46 ± 4
White rice, boiled* 73 ± 4
Brown rice, boiled 68 ± 4
Barley 28 ± 2 (I’m not sure why they put barley on the “high” list)
Sweet corn 52 ± 5
Spaghetti, white 49 ± 2
Spaghetti, whole meal 48 ± 5
Rice noodles† 53 ± 7
Udon noodles 55 ± 7
Couscous† 65 ± 4
BREAKFAST CEREALS
Cornflakes 81 ± 6
Wheat flake biscuits 69 ± 2
Porridge, rolled oats 55 ± 2
Instant oat porridge 79 ± 3
Rice porridge/congee 78 ± 9
Millet porridge 67 ± 5
Muesli 57 ± 2
FRUIT AND FRUIT PRODUCTS
Apple, raw† 36 ± 2
Orange, raw† 43 ± 3
Banana, raw† 51 ± 3
Pineapple, raw 59 ± 8
Mango, raw† 51 ± 5
Watermelon, raw 76 ± 4
Dates, raw 42 ± 4
Peaches, canned† 43 ± 5
Strawberry jam/jelly 49 ± 3
Apple juice 41 ± 2
Orange juice 50 ± 2
VEGETABLES
Potato, boiled 78 ± 4
Potato, instant mash 87 ± 3
Potato, french fries 63 ± 5
Carrots, boiled 39 ± 4
Sweet potato, boiled 63 ± 6
Pumpkin, boiled 64 ± 7
Plantain/green banana 55 ± 6
Taro, boiled 53 ± 2
Vegetable soup 48 ± 5
DAIRY PRODUCTS AND ALTERNATIVES
Milk, full fat 39 ± 3
Milk, skim 37 ± 4
Ice cream 51 ± 3
Yogurt, fruit 41 ± 2
Soy milk 34 ± 4
Rice milk 86 ± 7
LEGUMES
Chickpeas 28 ± 9
Kidney beans 24 ± 4
Lentils 32 ± 5
Soy beans 16 ± 1
SNACK PRODUCTS
Chocolate 40 ± 3
Popcorn 65 ± 5
Potato crisps 56 ± 3
Soft drink/soda 59 ± 3
Rice crackers/crisps 87 ± 2
SUGARS
Fructose 15 ± 4
Sucrose 65 ± 4
Glucose 103 ± 3
Honey 61 ± 3

There are some surprises, at least to me, on this list. Rice crackers, typically thought of as a diet snack, have a GI value of 87, while chocolate is only 40. White spaghetti is better than couscous.  Potato chips are actually better than popcorn (another supposedly “healthy” snack food). Of course, this list is only one measure of a food’s value.  While chocolate might have less than half the GI of rice crackers, there’s no accounting for the number of calories in similar portions. And popcorn, if it’s unbuttered, has far less fat than potato chips.

Nevertheless, for people with Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes, a glycemic index evaluation of all foods is now recommended by the American Diabetes Association, the Canadian Diabetes Association, the UK Diabetes Association and others to maintain blood glucose levels and thereby better manage or prevent diabetes.

Week 2 Results

Week 3 began yesterday, so it’s time to see if this low carb eating is still helping weight loss. Again, it’s kind of hard to tell from the bathroom scales, but it looks like I’m down another 1-1 1/2 lbs. for the week, making my total weight loss somewhere in the 3-4 lb. range, having started around 211 and now being somewhere in the 207-208 range.

Week 1 Results

End of Week 1.

It’s been a couple of days since Week 1 of low-carb August ended. The most objective result, weight loss, is encouraging. Here’s where I was on August 7, one week after starting.  If you look at my starting post, you can see the needle was a skosh above 210 and on August 7 is was a couple of thin little lines below 210. Healthy weight loss is 1-2 lbs. per week, so even though this isn’t as dramatic as what happens on Biggest Loser, it’s progress.

The other results are less objective. How do I feel, how am I doing, that sort of thing. I feel hungry most of the time. I don’t know that this is so much a result of cutting carbs as it is of simply being more aware of what I am eating and not eating between meals. Most of the books that tout low-carb diets are premised on the fact (theory?) that for a lot of people, eating most carbs, especially the potatoes-rice-pasta-bread varieties, is no different from dumping several teaspoons of refined sugar directly into your system. Your body quickly breaks those carbs down into simple sugars. All that sugar causes a release of insulin, but the body overcompensates and releases too much insulin. As a result, blood sugar is quickly lowered and the hunger cycle begins again, usually met by a donut or candy bar. And around and around the mulberry bush we go.

Accepting that fact (theory?), cutting carbs should reduce hunger pangs. Anyway, that’s the story I’m telling myself to keep going, because around 3:00 in the afternoon, I’m about ready to kill for a bag of potato chips or a bagel.

I write “fact (theory?)” because over 30 years of mildly following diet and nutrition trends has convinced me that they (the experts) are making up a lot of it as they go.  Eggs were good until they were bad, but now they’re good again. Bagels were considered a safe, low-fat food until they realized that these carbs are as bad, if not worse, than higher fat foods. Steak was a great source of protein until red meat was linked to cancer. In the 1950s and 60s a typical college football team had steak and eggs for a pre-game breakfast. Then the idea of carbo loading came up and those foods were replaced with pancakes, waffles, toast, oatmeal and the like. In recent years research has shown that carbo loading needs protein to effectively utilize the carbohydrates, so the meat is back on the table.

And so it goes.

One Week!

Today is Day 7 of low-carb August. Since I’m doing this to try to lose weight, and make my blood work look better at my upcoming annual physical (where I’ll be reminded I’m overdue for a colonoscopy, but that’s another story), I’m anxious to see what the scale shows tomorrow morning.

The first week has revealed a few things. First, I don’t think I’m as committed to this as I was to Meatless August. I say that because I’ve already slipped a couple of times and changed the rules. It’s my experiment and I’ll make the rules….. Anyway, the weekend, with family events, was difficult to stay on track.  And I’m finding it harder to say what carbs fall into the forbidden zone and what carbs just need to be cut back on.

So my two rule changes are: potatoes, rice and pasta are forbidden. Bread is not forbidden but it’s disfavored. That means an occasional roll as a side but no sandwiches, hamburgers or hot dogs with buns; pizza; or breakfast meals like French toast, pancakes or waffles. Essentially anything where bread serves as the foundation of the meal. That’s change #1. Change #2 is, depending on the circumstances, I’m allowing myself one cheat day a week. I used this change on Sunday when our son had us over for hamburgers, hot dogs, and bratwurst. I allowed myself one small serving of pasta salad, but had no bun for my burger or bratwurst. I did, however, eat more than a serving of potato chips.

Monday I was back at it. Eggs for breakfast. As much as I love eggs, I think once or twice a week low fat yogurt with granola or bran in it will add variety. Cottage cheese with tuna, raw cauliflower and broccoli, chopped celery and a spoonful of mustard; string cheese; cherries and strawberries for lunch. Dinner was a small pork chop, salad, and one-half of a zucchini stuffed with sausage and cream cheese.

Finally, and this is off topic, but I entered three photographs in the Cache County Fair. Here they are.

November campground, black and white category

 

What are you looking at? Human interest category

Into the storm. Scenic category

 

Two Days In

Not much to report since I started low-carb August day before yesterday. As I mentioned, on Thursday I had a luncheon. It was grilled chicken, salad, rice and rolls, which didn’t leave a lot for me to eat. By late yesterday afternoon I was suffering from hypoglycemia and trying to mow the lawn in 92 degree heat. Not fun.

Today I started with my go-to breakfast, eggs with veggies. This is the omelette before I folded it over and topped it with sliced avocado and green salsa. I added a banana (not to the omelette. That’s just gross). Breakfast isn’t a problem. For lunch I stopped at the salad bar at Smith’s supermarket. They have quite a good salad bar with lots of toppings. It remains to be seen what dinner brings.

Adventures in Eating, Part Deux

Cave man steaks

Last August I went meatless. It was interesting but I didn’t notice any particular health benefits and I didn’t lose any weight. This August I’m going low carb. You can’t go carbless or no-carb because, well, you need carbohydrates to live. But for a lot of people with pre-diabetes or Type 2 diabetes, like me, low carb is recommended.

I’ve done the South Beach diet before and honestly it was the only diet on which I lost significant weight. During four months one summer, between the end of July and about Thanksgiving, I lost nearly 20 lbs. But not to worry; they came home. So I’ve decided to try again. The true South Beach diet starts with almost total abstinence from most carbs. No refined flour, no potatoes (white, red, sweet or otherwise), no pasta, no rice, no fruit for the first two weeks, no juices except vegetable juice, no dairy initially. It’s tough. So I’m modifying it a bit. I’m saying “no” to the flour, pasta, potatoes,  and rice, but I’m allowing fresh fruit and dairy. I don’t eat a lot of either so allowing these shouldn’t impact the month too much. The hard part will be no bread or pasta. Also, I’m cutting out junk food, which eliminates potato chips, one of the basic food groups. I refuse to give up my diet Coke, however. This is an experiment, not a death sentence.

I began this morning with eggs, a staple of my breakfasts. Two scrambled eggs with mushrooms, onions, roasted eggplant, topped with cheese and homemade green salsa. I’ve never put eggplant in eggs before. They added a nice sweetness and I’l definitely do it again.

Lunch was cauliflower soup, raw veggies, cherries, strawberries (1/2 cup of both). Two sticks of string cheese made a nice mid-afternoon snack, but by 4:30 I was really hungry.

Dinner was an experiment in cooking. Nice New York cut steaks and corn on the cob cooked directly on hot coals. Add 1/2 cup of cottage cheese, 1/2 avocado and a couple of bacon wrapped, cream cheese stuffed jalapenos, and it was a tasty meal.

To cook meat directly on the coals, salt, pepper and coat with garlic liberally. Get a nice pile of charcoal (I didn’t have enough and had to finish the steaks in a cast iron frying pan), about 1100 degrees. For the corn, pull back the husks of the corn, remove the silk, and pull the husks back up. Tie with kitchen twine and soak in water for about 30 minutes. Then put everything on the hot coals. I used an instant read meat thermometer to get my steak to a perfect medium rare doneness. With the right amount of coals, I think it would have taken 10 minutes or less.

Tomorrow I have a luncheon. They always have delicious hard rolls and some form of potatoes. I’ll let you know how it goes.

For the record, here’s where I’m starting weight-wise. Yep, my tank is full.