Carrots Nutrition 101 – Are Carrots Good for You?
To me this question is like asking “Is salad healthy?” I would think everyone would answer YES! But thanks to a lot of conflicting information surrounding the glycemic index / glycemic load of carbohydrate-containing foods a lot of people are apparently still confused about carrots nutrition. I thought I’d address this issue since one of Andy’s patients just sent us an email wanting to know “Are carrots good for you?”
YES! Carrots are Good for You!
I don’t think anyone can argue that carrots are an excellent source of nutrients. Carrots are incredibly rich in both alpha-carotene and beta-carotene (which converts into vitamin A in your body) plus they have a ton of fiber, lots of anti-aging and disease-fighting phytonutrients, a hefty dose of potassium and even a sprinkling of calcium and magnesium.
Carrots are Good for You Cooked or Raw…But Add Some Fat
Carrots are good for you whether you eat them cooked or raw, but interestingly, cooking carrots actually makes the nutrients more bioavailable…which is a fancy way of saying it’s easier for your body to use the nutrients in carrots if the carrots are cooked. Even more interesting is that the fat-soluble carotenoids in carrots are best absorbed by your body if you eat the carrots with a bit of fat (same thing for tomatoes, the lycopene in tomatoes is best absorbed with some fat…which is why it’s not a good idea to eat “fat free” tomato sauce!) Besides carrots and tomatoes both taste better with a bit of fat anyway, so this shouldn’t be too difficult to do.
But, Do Carrots Make You Fat?
You can read the long-winded scientific answer below if you want but the Cliff’s Note version can be summed up in one simple sentence. Eating carrots will not make you fat.
I’m pretty sure it was The South Beach Diet that was really responsible for popularizing the myth that carrots were “fattening” because the diet encouraged people to be conscious of the glycemic index of the carbohydrate-containing foods they ate.
What is the Glycemic Index?
The glycemic index (GI) is a numerical system of measuring how quickly a carbohydrate containing food turns to glucose (blood sugar). The slower a carbohydrate containing food is turned to sugar the better. The higher the GI number the faster the carbohydrate containing food will turn to glucose and the lower the GI number the slower the carbohydrate containing food will turn to glucose.
• A GI of 70 or more is high
• A GI of 56 to 69 is medium
• A GI of 55 or less is low
The theory behind the Glycemic Index/ Glycemic Load is simply to minimize insulin-related problems by identifying and avoiding foods that spike blood sugar levels. Eating foods that are converted to sugar quickly and that cause a rapid rise in blood sugar will cause your pancreas to secrete large amounts of insulin that can, over time, lead to loss of sensitivity to insulin (called insulin resistance). Insulin resistance is associated with obesity, high blood pressure, heart disease, elevated blood fats (triglycerides), and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Benefits of avoiding foods that spike blood sugar include:
• Hunger-free weight loss
• Improved sensitivity to insulin (and thus, improved ability to burn fat)
• Improved control over diabetes/ Protection against type 2 diabetes
• Reduced risk of heart disease
• Reduced cholesterol levels (insulin activates the main enzyme in your liver responsible for making cholesterol)
• Reduced triglycerides
• Reduced food cravings (especially for sugary foods)
How Scientists Determine the Glycemic Index:
The glycemic index value of a food is assessed by giving 10 or more volunteers a serving of the carbohydrate containing food containing 50 grams of digestible (net) carbohydrate. Scientists then take blood samples every 15 minutes to test how long it takes the 50 grams of carbohydrates to turn into blood sugar. The subject’s response to the carbohydrate being tested is compared with the subject’s sugar response to 50g of pure glucose. Since glucose is standard, it is the reference food and the testing of glucose on the subject’s blood sugar levels is done on a separate occasion. The average blood sugar response from 8-10 people will determine the glycemic index (GI) value of that particular carbohydrate containing food.
Measuring the Glycemic Index Has a Big Flaw:
One major drawback to measuring the glycemic index of foods is that the tests are not performed using typical portion sizes. For example, carrots rank high on the glycemic index but the typical 3 ounce serving of carrots contains just 9 grams of carbohydrates and 2 grams of fiber (7 grams of net carbs). It’s not accurate to say that carrots have a high GI because it’s practically impossible to eat 21 ounces of carrots (the amount needed to obtain the 50 grams of net carbs used to measure the GI of a food).
The Quantity of Carbohydrates You Eat at Each Meal Affects Your Blood Sugar Levels:
When using the glycemic index as a guide to carbohydrate choices, you must consider how many grams of net carbohydrate a normal serving contains. The low-carb gurus advise to avoid all high GI foods including otherwise nutrient rich foods such as carrots, beets, and bananas. This is not sound dietary advice as it is nearly impossible to eat 50 grams of net carbohydrates from certain foods. For example, one would need to eat nearly 3 bananas to obtain 50 grams of net carbs—the typical person only eats 1 banana at a serving.
Meet the Glycemic Load
The problems with the glycemic index are what led scientists to come up with the idea of glycemic load. The glycemic load ranks foods according to actual carbohydrate quantity (typical portion-size), rather than how fast a 50g amount of carbohydrates raises blood sugar levels in a laboratory setting of force-fed volunteers.
I’m not a fan of the Glycemic Index
Like the misleading Nutrition Facts, the glycemic index drives me nuts for three main reasons:
Major Pitfalls of the Glyemic Index
1. It doesn’t take the nutritional value of the food into consideration. Just because a food has a low GI does not make it a nutrient-dense food! According to the Glycemic Index the following foods are equally healthy choices simply bc/ they have similar GI ranks:
- Pizza and plain unsweetened yogurt
- White pasta and carrots
- Bananas and potato chips
- Watermelon and white bread
- Baked Potato and glucose
2. Too complicated!! Doing calculations for everything you eat and memorizing food charts is NOT practical.
3. It doesn’t take into consideration that carbohydrates are often eaten in combination with other foods that contain fiber, protein and fat—–fiber, protein and fat all slow the conversion of carbohydrates to blood sugar and reduce the glycemic load of the entire meal
So Forget About the Glycemic Index! Writing all that science makes me hungry so I’m off to make my easy carrot apple soup recipe.