By: Jean Johnson for Veins1
Most everyone has had the experience of having their fasting blood sugar levels checked. It’s usually first thing in the morning since you can’t eat anything for eight hours before. There you are in the lab with your sleeve pushed up and the tourniquet in place, most likely looking very carefully in another direction while the tech draws a vial of blood from your vein. The idea is to see how well your pancreas – your body’s insulin factory – is handling your blood glucose.
| To keep blood sugar levels in line consume more whole grains
A rule of thumb is that less processed a grain is, the longer it takes to be digested and the better it is for avoiding spikes in blood sugar and insulin.
Finely ground grain – as in flours both whole-wheat and white – is digested more rapidly than whole grains like oats, brown rice and quinoa.
Quinoa is a relatively unfamiliar grain, but it is gaining popularity because of its nutritious value and the speed at which it cooks. A pot of quinoa (pronounced keen-wa) can be ready in 10 minutes.
Blood Glucose Levels and Diabetes by the Numbers
Readings of 126 mg/dL or higher will net a call from your physician plus an invitation to come back in to the office to discuss type 2 diabetes. But even if you ring in between 100 mg/dL and 126 mg/dL, you’ll still probably get the signal that you are pre-diabetic and need to start watching what you eat and getting more exercise.
No need to feel alone if it happens to you. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, there are 18 million diabetics in the United States and another five million who don’t know they have the disease. If that’s not enough, Harvard’s predicting that by 2025, 22 million Americans will have been diagnosed with this preventable disease. In other words, we’ve got a bit of a problem on our hands.
Standard American Diet (SAD) and Amber Waves of Grain
It should come as no surprise, given the overweight and obesity epidemic that is sweeping the nation and the greater developed world. We spend too much time driving our cars to fast food restaurants and chowing down on food that makes our internal organs shudder. All this comes back to haunt not only our girth, but also our insulin production system.
The answer is to steer clear from what’s known as the Standard American Diet, or SAD, and eat more reasonably. To eat better, it’s the usual list – whole grains, legumes (beans), vegetables and fruits with limited amounts of fish, meat, nuts and oils.
Thinking of ways to get more vegetables and fruits is pretty straightforward. And even increasing one’s intake of legumes can be accomplished by simply having a bowl of chili or making some mexican food.
But when it comes to getting more whole grains, it’s a different proposition. Crusty sourdough bread, all hot and buttery with garlic, is everywhere in restaurants. Pasta made from refined white flour is the gold standard and mashed potatoes rank right up there with pastas. Bagels and donuts, scones and fancy pastries beckon from shop windows across the country. And we haven’t even mentioned pizza. Clearly the amber waves of grain in America have taken on a new meaning since Katharine Lee Bates penned “America the Beautiful” in 1893.
When we eat refined carbohydrates which are easily digested and converted to glucose, we get sustained spikes in our blood sugar and insulin levels. This, of course, is territory dangerous to diabetics, and it should be thought dangerous to pre-diabetics as well, not to mention the rest of us as well.
Too bad whole grains sound so boring, because this realm of whole-wheat flour, oats, polenta and buckwheat is really where blood sugar salvation lies. Brown rice, though, got a bad rap back in the ‘60s when baby boomers were first exploring being vegetarians and experimenting with macrobiotic diets.
We’ve almost come full circle back to the old sourdough buckwheat pancakes days of great grandma. So if you happen to have the family recipe, get that baby out. Buckwheat is definitely a whole grain and as granny always said, “Good for what ails ya.”
Polenta, A Sunny Springtime Hit
If flap jacks don’t interest you, there’s always polenta; coarse ground corn meal which has helped keep Italians’ blood sugar levels balanced for generations. The trick is to make sure the polenta is ground from whole corn that has not had the germ removed.
The reason is because any whole grain has three parts: The starchy carbohydrate that forms the bulk, the hard shell or bran that is a source of fiber and nutrients and the germ that contains a load of vitamins and more nutrients. Anything stripped of the germ and bran is refined and despite popular opinion to the contrary, fortification in which nutrition is added back in to stripped grain never comes close to the original. Refined grains are decidedly inferior nutritionally.
So next time you’re at the store, grab some polenta. There are about as many ways to cook it up as there are to make eggs, but a surefire fast and easy approach is to use two cups of water for every cup of polenta. Bring the pot to a boil and stir like crazy or else you’ll get coarse cornmeal mush within minutes.
Take it off the burner and put a lid on to keep it warm while you’re dishing up the rest of the meal. Then place a nice dollop or two of polenta alongside, drizzle with olive oil and scatter over a fresh grate of parmesan (or any other kind of cheese and oil you think might go well – the sky really is the limit here, so all creative types need apply). And remember to take a nice whiff. As American Indian tribes have known for centuries, there’s nothing like fragrant steaming cornmeal to perk up your day.
If a nice meal of warm polenta, dark green salad, roasted peppers and tomatoes – and perhaps bit of fish or sausage – sounds good, you might even be adventurous enough to think about polenta as leftovers the next day. Just pop the pan in the fridge for the night. Once it cools it solidifies and can be cut in all manner of shapes.
My mother remembers what they called “fried corn meal mush” back in her Iowa childhood. It’s a taste treat all the way with its crispy golden brown edges. But it takes up a lot of oil when it’s frying, so if you’re trying to get around that all those farmer-sized calories, what many do is simply enjoy leftover polenta cut into bold yellow wedges at lunch along side some soup or a bowl of split peas cooked with thin discs of carrot and bits of onion. If room temperature polenta is too cold to please the crowd, however, warming the wedges in the oven works wonders.
Dress up Grains and Keep Blood Sugar in Balance
In short, it’s not the particular grain itself that’s the problem; it’s learning how to make things tasty. Just like the trick to putting a good meal together is choosing textures and colors that please the eye and the palate, cooking well with whole grains benefits from knowing what to pour over them and stir into them.
A bowl of homemade muesli (oats, wheat germ, bran), for example can turn into a gorgeous diabetes friendly breakfast with nonfat yogurt and three different colors of fruits like strawberries, kiwis and oranges on top. And polenta can go sweet or savory depending on whether you decide to fiddle about with the cheeses and herbs and oil, or get out the raisins, walnuts and apples.
That’s what peasants throughout history have known. And it’s what we can get back to as well, one tentative, yet adventurous meal at a time. Our bodies will thank us, and the next time we’re in the lab with our sleeves rolled up, we’ll get the feedback we want that we’re on the right track.
As nice people at the Harvard School of Public Health have noted, diabetes is a behavioral and lifestyle disease. The good news, of course, is that habits can change. In this case, developing new ones around whole grains can be quite fun. Who knows, before we know it, we’ll all be making pizza with 100 percent whole-wheat flour. I’ve done it for almost 10 years now, and it’s great.