Can I eat quinoa?

It’s a frequent question: Can I eat quinoa . . . or beans, or brown rice, or sweet potatoes?

These are, of course, non-wheat sources of carbohydrates. They lack several undesirable components found in wheat, including no:

Gliadin–Degraded to exorphins that exert mind effects and stimulate appetite to the tune of 400 additional calories per day.
Gliadin–Intact, gliadin triggers autoimmune diseases and neurologic impairment.
Amylopectin A–-The highly-digestible “complex” carbohydrate of grains that is no better–-worse, in fact–-than table sugar.

So why not eat non-wheat carbohydrates all you want? If they don’t cause appetite stimulation, behavioral outbursts in children with ADHD, addictive consumption of foods, ulcerative colitis or rheumatoid arthritis, why not eat them willy-nilly?

Because they still increase blood sugar. Conventional wisdom is that these foods have lower glycemic indexes than, say, table sugar, meaning they raise blood glucose less. That’s true . . . but very misleading. Oats, for instance, with a glycemic index of 55 compared to table sugar’s 59, still send blood sugar through the roof. Likewise, quinoa with a glycemic index of 53, will send blood sugar to, say, 150 mg/dl compared to 158 mg/dl for table sugar–-yeah, sure, it’s better, but it still stinks. And that’s in non-diabetics. It’s worse in diabetics.

Of course, John Q. Internist will tell you that, provided your blood sugars after eating don’t exceed 200 mg/dl, you’ll be okay. What he’s really saying is “There’s no need for diabetes medication yet, so you’re okay. You will still be exposed to the many adverse health consequences of high blood sugar similar to, though less quickly than, a full diabetic, but that’s not my problem.”

There are two ways to better manage your carbohydrate sensitivity to ensure that metabolic distortions, such as high blood sugar, glycation, and small LDL particles, are not triggered:

1) Count net carbohydrate grams. Because total carbohydrates listed for any food includes fiber (that is biochemically a carbohydrate), but humans cannot digest fiber into sugars, we subtract fiber:

Net carbohydrate grams = total carbohydrates – fiber

A ripe medium-sized banana, for instance, contains 27 grams total carbs, 3 grams fiber. 27 – 3 = 24 grams net carbs. That’s enough to raise blood sugar substantially, trigger insulin/insulin resistance, turn off weight loss, trigger formation of small LDL particles that persist for one week (unlike the 24 hours of large LDL particles triggered by fat consumption). (And don’t confuse the high net carb content of ripe yellow bananas with the low- or no-carb content of green, unripe bananas that we use for prebiotic fiber effects.)

Most people can tolerate 15 grams net carbs per meal before triggering adverse health phenomena. Only the most sensitive, e.g., diabetics, people with the genetic pattern apo E2, those with familial hypertriglyceridemia, are intolerant to even this amount and do better with less than 30 grams per day. Then there are the genetically gifted from a carbohydrate perspective, people who can tolerate 50-60 grams, even more—but uncommon.

Problem: Individual sensitivity varies widely. One person’s perfectly safe portion size is another person’s deadly dose. For instance, I’ve witnessed many extreme differences, such as 1-hour blood sugar after 6 ounces unsweetened yogurt of 250 mg/dl in one person, 105 mg/dl in another. So a second, more individualized way to manage carbohydrate intake is to. . .

2) Check fingerstick blood sugars. Check a pre-meal blood sugar, then 30-60 minute blood sugar after-meal, and aim for no change. A fasting blood sugar of, say, 100 mg/dl should be followed by a 30-60 after-meal of no higher than 100 mg/dl. Rises above the starting level trigger glycation, insulin/insulin resistance, formation of small LDL particles. If a food or meal triggers a rise to, say, 140 mg/dl, look at the net carbs and cut back next time, or eliminate the causative food.

People will sometimes say things like “I eat 200 grams carbohydrate per day and I’m normal weight and have perfect fasting blood sugar and lipids, so carbs aren’t a problem for me.” As in many things, the crude measures made are falsely reassuring. Glycation, for instance, from postprandial blood sugars of “only” 140 mg/dl–-typical after, say, unsweetened oatmeal–-still works its unhealthy magic and will accelerate development of cataracts, arthritis, heart disease, dementia, and other conditions over the years. (Detect this, by the way, by assessing hemoglobin A1c, HbA1c—pre-diabetic values in people who claim they are healthy are exceptionally common.)

Humans were not meant to consume an endless supply of readily-digestible carbohydrates. Counting carbohydrates is a great way to “tighten up” a carbohydrate restriction.

And, by the way, why the big push for quinoa? Before 2014, I’ll bet 99% of people never even heard of quinoa. Part of the explanation is damage control—in response to all the wheat-bashing going on, the grain lobby and trade groups have launched marketing pushes for quinoa as an alternative. Yup: it’s them again, just with a food under a different name. The Whole Grains Council has even declared quinoa the March Grain of the Month.

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Dr. William Davis

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