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When we think of an artery-clogging diet, we usually think of fattening foods like fried chicken, filet mignon and French fries. And for good reason: saturated fat has been cited as a major culprit in heart disease. But, according to a new study on heart disease published in this week’s Archives of Internal Medicine, it’s not the only one.
Turns out, women who eat a diet that’s high in simple carbohydrates like plain bagels, white rice and baked potatoes are more than twice as likely to develop heart disease than women who don’t eat a lot of simple carbs. While we won’t go so far as to say that men get off completely scot-free, according to the study, conducted by the National Cancer Institute in Italy, men who ate the same carbohydrate-rich diet were not at the same risk of heart disease. No fair!
But don’t go dusting off your Atkins diet book just yet. All carbs do not have the same effect on the body. The study showed that only carbohydrates with a high glycemic index (GI) are to blame. The glycemic index measures a food’s impact on our blood sugar, or glucose, levels. The higher the food’s glycemic number, the more our blood sugar levels skyrocket after eating it. In general, complex carbs like whole grains and fruit do not wreak havoc on our glucose, and are okay to eat. It’s the sugary and refined foods like doughnuts and pasta that we have to watch out for.
Consuming a lot of simple carbs appears to have a double-whammy effect on women’s heart health. It can boost the amount of triglycerides (a type of fat) in the blood, while lowering our “good” HDL cholesterol. HDL helps keep our arteries clear by removing deposits of “bad” LDL cholesterol. Having high triglycerides don’t just increase your risk of heart disease, it’s also a strong predictor of stroke.
So why do men get to eat refined carbohydrates without worrying about their hearts? Researchers speculate that it has something to do with their hormones. Male sex hormones called androgens may keep carbohydrates from morphing into sugar at warp speeds. Female sex hormones, like estrogen, on the other hand, appear to speed the process up.
If you’re confused about what to eat, look to the heart-healthy Mediterranean diet. It is loaded with lean protein such as fish, poultry and beans; nuts; fresh fruits and vegetables; and whole grains–all of which have low glycemic loads. Some nutrient-rich foods, like dried fruit, can make your blood sugar spike. To reduce their impact, try eating smaller portions with foods that take longer to digest. The Italians, for instance, have long known that the healthiest way to eat pasta is al dente (slightly undercooked) and served with chicken, beans and veggies.
Of course, the reason most of us turn to carbs is to feed our sugar cravings. For tasty ideas on how to satisfy your sweet tooth without hurting your heart, check out our tips on 11 Heart-Healthy Snacks.
Jill Provost is a health writer and editor living in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in several publications, including Women’s Health, Glamour and Good Housekeeping.