The Glycemic Index – another diet fad, or a helpful tool in your nutritional toolbox? Turns out, managing your blood sugars (whether or not you have diabetes) with deliberate food choices can support your health in many ways.
What is the Glycemic Index (GI)?
Generally, the GI is a number from 0-100 that determines how quickly a certain food will raise blood sugar levels. 0 indicates no raise, and 100 indicates the sugar in the blood will rise higher and more quickly after eating. Generally, low-GI is ~30 or less, and a high GI is high-50’s and up. The higher the GI, the more likely one is to experience an energy crash (like that “pasta hangover” effect). On a long-term perspective, focusing on lower-GI foods can help manage heart health, a healthy weight, and prevent complications with blood sugar control like diabetes. (1)
Which foods have a GI?
There are three nutrients you’ve likely heard of that give us all the calories in our diet – carbohydrates, fat, and protein (otherwise known as the three “macronutrients”). Carbohydrates (which include starch, fiber, and sugar) are naturally broken down into sugar in our bloodstream to be used for energy. For this reason, only foods with carbohydrates have a GI above zero.
Carbohydrate-containing foods include all grains (breads, corn chips and tortillas, rice and pasta, crackers), sweets (soda, cookies, cakes), fruit (because of their natural sugars, especially fruit juices), and dairy foods including milk and yogurt.
Foods that are made up primarily of fats and protein have little to zero GI because they don’t raise blood sugars. These include all meats, eggs, and nuts. Many vegetables are carb-free, and for this reason have a GI of zero.
How do I put this into practice? Which foods are higher and lower GI?
It’s tricky to keep track of foods that are lower and higher in GI. Some people find it helpful to print out a list of these foods, and Wellview has resources like this for your reference. Generally, foods that have a lower GI are broken down by food group and listed below:
Grains: For the most part, all grains have a moderate-high GI. Moderate options include pumpernickel bread and Ezekiel sprouted bread.
Sweets: sugar-free sweeteners and beverages, and interestingly cake with frosting has a moderate GI. This can be attributed to the fact that frosting has a high fat content, and slows down the digestion of the carbs and sugars. I’m sure you can guess that it doesn’t make it a health food, however!
Fruit: berries, grapefruit, pears, sweet cherries, plums, and honeydew melon.
Dairy: cheddar and provolone cheese.
Vegetables and legumes: lentils, some beans (kidney, lima, soy), avocado, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, cucumbers, green beans, mushrooms, spinach.
Foods with a higher GI include:
Grains: bagels, corn products (bread, tortilla), most breakfast cereals (with or without added sugars), cookies, wheat and white bread, most white pasta and rice.
Sweets: honey, table sugar, candy bars.
Fruit: All juice, papaya, cantaloupe, dried fruit (like raisins), watermelon, and any fruit that’s canned in its own juice or syrup.
Dairy: Ice cream, yogurt with added sugar (for example, fruit on the bottom that isn’t “diet”), swiss cheese.
Vegetables and legumes: canned beets, raw carrots, yellow corn, parsnip, potatoes. These are all naturally starchier and higher-sugar vegetables. A helpful rule of thumb is that if a vegetable is a root vegetable (potatoes, beets, carrots), it naturally is a bit more sugary. Interestingly, yams and sweet potatoes are moderate GI.
Does this mean I have to give up all of these high-GI foods??
Not at all! While the goal is to reduce the intake of high-GI foods, it would make our lives very difficult and less enjoyable. When it comes to consuming carbs, especially higher-GI ones, the goal is to combine them with a source of protein and/or fat to slow digestion and reduce blood sugar spikes. This means mixing a meat sauce into your pasta, eating your apple with some peanut butter, or having 2 hard-boiled eggs along with your bowl of morning cereal. Reach out to us if you’d like to consult with a Registered Dietitian to learn more!!
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– Samantha Marks, RD, LDN