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Diabetes Diet

Eat High-Carb Low-GI Breakfast, Think Better

Who would have thought that we can think better after eating whole grain barley for breakfast?

We knew that barley kernels cause our blood glucose levels to rise much less than any other grain. Whole pearl barley has a glycemic index of 25; the next lowest whole grain tested, rye kernels, has a GI of 34.

Now, however, Anne Nilsson shows in her Ph.D. dissertation presented to Sweden’s Lund University that whole barley makes us think more clearly that three other grains, including rye, wheat bran with spaghetti, and spaghetti, do. The people who had whole barley for breakfast could concentrate better and had a better working memory than those in the other groups. Her results also show that low GI foods that have enough indigestible carbohydrates – dietary fiber and resistant starch – can keep our blood glucose level low for up to ten hours and keep us feeling full.

Today I put one part of her thesis to the test. After eating a bowl of whole barley for breakfast at 5:30 a.m., I went for a 10-mile hike in the Rocky Mountains. It was only after returning to my SUV at 3:30 that I was a bit hungry. That’s 10 hours. Yes, I took my Byetta before breakfast, but its effects don’t last longer than 6 hours.

And, no, I don’t recommend that most people with diabetes should
go that long without eating. In fact, it’s a good idea to carry rapid-acting carbs on the trail. If you don’t carry glucose tab at least carry some raisins or other dried fruit.

While I didn’t have an objective way to test how clearly I was thinking, the fact that returned intact after climbing about 2,000 feet to almost 11,000 feet with much of the trail covered with ice, should count for something. But if you doubt the wisdom of my hike in the first place, don’t blame it on the barley. I decided to go there well before breakfast.

Dr. Nilsson studied people who don’t have diabetes. It seems to me, however, obvious that people with diabetes benefit just as much – and probably more – from a high-carb, low-GI breakfast like whole barley.

Last year in fact some professors at the University of Toronto compared how well people with type 2 diabetes could think after eating low-carb (pasta) or high-carb breakfasts (bread). While the foods didn’t make as much sense as those that Dr. Nilsson chose, the pasta eaters did have better cognitive performance.

Dr. Nilsson’s tests didn’t even use hulless barley. She used pot barley, which is similar to the pearl barley readily available in American markets. With pot barley they remove only the hulls, leaving the endosperm and pearl. But even this minimally processed barley has lost the vast majority of protein, fiber, fat, and minerals.

When we eat hulless barley, on the other hand, they don’t remove anything. When we eat hulless barley, we eat the whole kernel, including the nutrient-rich bran and germ. This means that hulless barley is truly the best form of the best grain.

How important is it that barley has indigestible carbs? By passing through the small intestine and reaching the large intestine they nourish the good intestinal bacteria there. This helps us regulate our blood glucose and feel full. They also reduce inflammation.

What do you think about this news?

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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  • Rhonda at

    I got some hul-less barley but now how do I cook it?

    • David Mendosa at

      Dear Rhonda,

      I don’t eat any grains since I went on a very low-carb diet in 2007. So, it’s been years since I cooked hullless barley. But I remember that the water to barley ratio is a surprisingly high 4 to 1 and that you have to cook it for quite a while for it to get soft enough. But I forget how long. Sorry.



  • Liz at

    Wouldn’t know how to eat barley for breakfast, maybe like oatmal? Interesting thought tho, I’ll check, I’m sure they have recipes for such online.