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Dr. Morton Rinder, St. Luke's Hospital

Heart-healthy benefits of "good carbs"

We have heard a lot about antioxidants and how they reduce the risk of heart disease by counteracting the destructive effects of free radicals. Excess sugar in the bloodstream stimulates the generation of free radicals, the oxygen molecules known to damage cells lining blood vessels and many other organs. In blood vessels, free radical injury causes inflammation and initiates the accumulation of plaque that can lead to blocked arteries and cardiovascular disease. We also know that eating certain carbohydrates (carbs) increases blood glucose levels even in non-diabetics.

A recently published eight-year study from Italy evaluated the long-term effects of eating two different types of carb-rich foods; ones that do not increase glucose levels (fruits and pasta) and ones that cause higher glucose levels (white bread, white rice, pizza). Researchers found that women who consumed the good carbs (fruits and pasta) had half the risk of heart disease in comparison to women who ate more bad carbs (white bread, white rice, pizza). There was no difference in men.

The concerning issue in this study is that even though these were non-diabetic women with otherwise normal blood sugars, there appears to be a detrimental effect of consuming foods that raise blood glucose. This finding confirms that eating bad carbs increases oxidative stress from free radicals, and it is the first time this has been demonstrated in non-diabetics. Even more interestingly, it did not occur in men. It is difficult to know why there is no effect in men, but it emphasizes the belief that women whose diets are low in fat also need diets low in simple carbs - even if they do not have diabetes.

Consuming antioxidants in the form of supplements (Coenzyme Q10 and low dose vitamin E) and foods like dark chocolate will help reduce the risk. However, by consuming fewer simple (bad) carbs and increasing your consumption of complex (good) carbs, there will be less oxidative stress and blood vessel damage. Be sure to check the content of carbohydrates, and consume more whole grains in your diet.

Dr. Morton Rinder specializes in general cardiology and interventional cardiology at Premier Heart Group, located on the St. Luke's Hospital campus. Call 314-485-3500 or visit his Physician Referral page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on May 6, 2010.