If you have diabetes, you probably know that it is important to monitor your carbohydrate intake. But what you may not know is that different foods that contain carbs affect blood sugar or glucose differently. The glycemic index and glycemic load are measures that quantify these effects.  

What Is Glycemic Index?

The glycemic index GI is a given number ranging from 0-100 assigned to carbohydrate-containing foods. The number represents the relative rise in blood sugar levels, the value 100 signifying pure glucose. Although GI primarily refers to the quantity and type of carb certain foods contain, it also includes the carbohydrate molecules trapped in foods, the protein and fat content, the amount of salt, and how it’s cooked. The GI system helps quantify the comparative rapidity with which the body breaks down carbs, making it useful for people with diabetes to control their blood sugar levels better. The glycemic index by itself is not a diet plan but one of the various tools — such as calorie counting or carbohydrate counting — for guiding food choices. Lower the GI, slower the rise in blood sugar level. The more processed a food is, the higher its glycemic index.

What Is A Glycemic Index Diet?

A glycemic index diet is an eating plan that focuses on an individual’s carb intake. The term “glycemic index diet” or “GI diet” usually suggests a particular nutritional plan that utilizes the index as the primary guide for meal preparation. Unlike the usual diet plans, a glycemic index diet does not necessarily specify a particular portion size or the optimal number of calories for weight loss or maintenance.

Purpose

Paying attention to glycemic index and glycemic load can help avoid sudden spikes in sugar. Consuming low-glycemic foods is a way to manage your blood glucose levels and have diabetes under control. The glycemic index is a numerical system for foods that contain carbohydrates. It helps you know how quickly a food with carbohydrates increases blood sugar, so you can adjust to eating foods that raise blood sugar slowly. 

The purpose of a glycemic index (GI) diet is to make sure you eat carbohydrate-containing foods that are less likely to cause significant increases in blood sugar levels. A low-glycemic index may also help in weight loss and prevent the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Foods that raise blood sugar gradually have a low glycemic index. As a diabetic, your carbohydrate-rich food intake should have a low or medium range of glycemic index.

Eating low-glycemic foods is most helpful when combined with other eating plans for diabetes, such as total carbohydrate counting or the diabetes plate format. According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), counting the total amount of carbohydrates is a strong predictor of what happens to blood sugar levels. The total carbohydrate quantity is more important than the glycemic index of foods in helping you control your blood glucose. The diabetes plate format enables you to manage portions and choose from a wide range of foods.

Glycemic Index vs. Glycemic Load

Although glycemic index gives you a numerical account of how drastically foods can spike your glucose levels, it does not determine to what extent your blood sugar may rise when you actually eat the food. That’s why to understand a food’s full effect on blood sugar, you need to know how fast it makes glucose enter the bloodstream and also the amount of glucose per serving it can deliver. For this, a separate measure called the glycemic load is used, giving you a more realistic picture of a food’s impact on your blood sugar. For example, watermelon has a glycemic index of 72, but the glycemic load of a serving of watermelon is only 04. If you only referred to the glycemic index, you’d think watermelon was a bad choice, but with a regular portion size, watermelon has a healthy glycemic load as well as being an excellent source of nutrients. Glycemic load measures the impact of carb intake using the glycemic index while considering the number of carbohydrates eaten in a serving. The factors that define a food’s glycemic load are the amount of fat, fiber, and protein it contains.

The GI of a food can change based on its variety (red potatoes or white potatoes), ripeness, preparation (juiced, diced, or mashed), cooking methods, and how long it is stored.

Since many things affect the glycemic index, the only way to know how food impacts your blood sugar is to check your blood sugar before and after eating that food.

Food is rarely eaten by itself; hence the GI may not be helpful unless you’re only eating that food. Consuming foods collectively changes their glycemic index.

When you plan meals, take a look at the overall nutrition in foods and not only their glycemic index. Certain low-glycemic foods, such as ice cream, have high saturated fat and should be occasionally consumed. Learn more on how to read food labels and other diabetic tips.

Eating low-glycemic foods along with high-glycemic foods can keep your blood sugar from rising quickly.

Carbohydrates

Carbohydrates are the chief foods that increase blood sugar levels. They can be classified as either Complex carbohydrates or Simple carbohydrates.

Complex carbohydrates/Low Glycemic Load Foods

Complex carbohydrates have longer sugar molecules and higher fiber and vitamin quantities than simple carbs and take longer to break into glucose. This helps in slowing down the rate at which carbs are digested and thereby decreases the rate at which your blood sugar levels rise. These carbs have a better nutritional value and are a part of a typical type 2 diabetes diet plan

Healthy carbs are usually plant-based and provide fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. They have a low glycemic load. The additional nutrients help to keep blood sugar stable. Some examples of complex carbohydrates or low glycemic foods include Beans, Brown rice, Fruits, Lentils, Quinoa, oatmeal, grains, starchy vegetables, and Whole-wheat.

Although whole grains, such as brown rice, quinoa, and oatmeal have a low glycemic load and are good sources of fiber and nutrients, processed food labels make it difficult to understand whole grains. For instance, “whole grain pasta” can be made in several ways, and some are not very different from regular pasta (made from refined flours) in its impact on blood glucose. The same holds for whole-wheat bread. It is best to consume whole grains that are still in their grain form such as brown rice and quinoa.

Starchy vegetables that are good sources of nutrients like vitamin C are higher in carbs than green vegetables but lower than refined grains. They should be eaten in moderation in smaller portions. Starchy vegetables include Corn, Potatoes, Squash and Other root vegetables. 

Green vegetables can be eaten in plenty since they have a limited impact on blood sugar and come with many health benefits. 

It is best to consume vegetables that are fresh. Although studies show that frozen vegetables have just as many vitamins and nutrients when frozen within hours of harvesting, you must check to make sure they aren’t packed with sauces with added fats or sweeteners. Try to eat a rainbow of colors through your vegetables, as it is considered to be a good way to get all of your nutrients.

 Simple carbohydrates/ High Glycemic Load Foods

Simple carbohydrates have short sugar molecules and break down into glucose quickly, rapidly increasing blood sugar levels. These foods are not recommended for people with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes. Natural foods such as fruits or milk and processed foods do not include other nutrients that slow down sugar absorption into the bloodstream. Thus these foods can spike your blood sugar dangerously. Many simple carbohydrates that are off-limits are more easily recognized as “white foods.”

Simple carbohydrates or high glycemic index foods that is NOT recommended in your diet plan are white sugar, white pasta, white bread, refined flour, cookies, pastries, white potatoes, breakfast cereals, fruit juices. Learn all about diabetes and foods here.

The Takeaway

It can be challenging to follow a glycemic index diet. For one thing, there’s no standard for what is considered low, moderate and high glycemic foods. In general, packaged or processed foods don’t list their GI ranking on their labels, and it can be difficult to determine what it might be. 

Healthy eating, portion control, and counting total carbohydrates are all optimum ways to better manage and control your blood sugar. 

Want to be absolutely sure before eating foods that could spike your Blood Sugar? Talk to our diabetes management experts at DrNewMed to get a complete understanding of your body, a nutrition plan made just for you, and more. DrNewMed has its Diabetes Management Center in Scottsdale, Arizona as well as Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Visit our center or book an online consultation with us. Bring healthy changes to your eating habits and improve your blood sugar control.

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