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The Glycemic Index: A Powerful Dietary Tool

"Your glycemic response to a food or meal is the effect that food has on blood sugar levels after consumption."

In today's post with Dr. Nancy, learn about how using the Glycemic Index and measuring the Glycemic loads of the foods you eat can help improve weight, blood sugar, energy, and overall health. Find out just how the Glycemic Index should be playing a role in the foods we eat to help control inflammation, diabetes, and other health issues. We’ll also talk about something calledglycemic load and how it fits into the glycemic index/blood sugar discussion. And last, but certainly not least, we’ll share a few of our favorite low GI recipes!

Video Highlights

  • 04:20: What is the Glycemic Index?
  • 11:51: The Glycemic Load
  • 17:58: Glycemic Response
  • 19:07: Why the Glycemic Index is Important
  • 23:20: Easily Determining the GI of Certain Foods
  • 24:50: Surprising GI Scores
  • 31:42: Other low-GI foods to add to your routine 
  • 35:00: Low GI Snack Options
  • 40:05: Low GI Fruit Smoothie
  • 45:30: Wrap Up 

What is the Glycemic Index?

The Glycemic Index ranks the carbohydrates present in a particular type of food in a certain way. This is important, especially for diabetics, because the Glycemic Index (GI), measures carbohydrates according to how quickly they will be digested, absorbed, and metabolized, which, in turn, affects how slowly or how quickly blood glucose levels will rise in the body. 

Here’s a breakdown of how foods are measured on the GI scale: 

  • Low GI = less than 55
  • Medium GI = 56-69
  • High GI = over 70

So, foods lower on the GI scale are digested slowly and release glucose into the bloodstream at a gradual rate. Foods that are higher on the GI scale digest more quickly and release glucose into the bloodstream at a faster rate. 

Carrots, for example, are lower on the GI scale. Even though they’re a sweeter-tasting vegetable, boiled carrots only have a GI of 39. White bread, on the other hand, has a GI of 76. 

A few examples of where foods fall on the Glycemic Index include:

  • Guava — with a GI score of 78, this fruit is extremelyhigh on the index
  • Lime — with a GI score of 29, this is muchlower on the index
  • Watermelon — A GI score of 72 makes it the second highest fruit on the index
  • Apricot — A GI score of only 23 places it low on the index
  • Mango — GI score is 56
  • Cherry — GI score is 20
  • Avocado — GI score is 15!
  • Apple — GI score is 39
  • Orange — GI score is 44

Processed foods with refined sugar, flour, and similar ingredients usually have a GI score in the 100s or higher. 

The Glycemic Load

We can’t really talk about the Glycemic Index without mentioning its counterpart, the glycemic load (GL). Let’s take a minute to talk a little bit more about glycemic load. 

Calculating the glycemic load of a food provides an even more accurate picture of what that food will do to your blood sugar.  Glycemic load accounts for carbohydrates in food and how much each gram of it will raise your blood sugar level.

To find a food’s GL, multiply its GI by the number of carbohydrate grams in a serving, and then divide by 100. As you can imagine, you want your diet to have GL values as low as possible.

(GI x Carb grams) / 100

As an example, let’s take that slice of white bread we were talking about earlier – it has a GI of 75 and 23 grams of carbohydrates. Multiply 75 by 23 and then divide by 100, and you get 17.48, which is close to the top of the moderate range for glycemic load.

To give you an idea what that compares to, a lime’s glycemic load is 1. A strawberry’s load is 1. An apricot, cantaloupe, or lemon is 3. Blueberries and apples are 5. So bread is much higher on the range. Your goal should be to make sure your glycemic load is low whenever possible.

Typically, you want to keep your glycemic load under 100 grams a day, which is easy to do if you consume mostly low-GI foods, and not so easy if you don’t. 

Acceptable glycemic loads per meal depend on your body, and whether you have trouble managing blood sugar. It also depends on how much energy you expel. So if you’re super active, or if you are diabetic, these things can influence what your per-meal Glycemic Load should be.

Glycemic load accounts for the amount of carbs you are consuming, and this, too, is broken into three classifications 

  • Low GL: 0-10 grams
  • Medium GL: 11-19 grams
  • High GL: 20 and up grams

Glycemic Response

When discussing Glycemic Index, you might also hear the term glycemic response. 

As you know, it’s  normal for blood sugar and insulin levels to rise after eating and then return again to fasting levels over a given period of time. Yourglycemic response to a food or meal is the effect that food has on blood sugar or blood glucose levels after consumption.  So a food that has a high glycemic index, like white bread or white rice, would have a much faster, more intense glycemic response than that of a low GI food like almonds or chia seeds — glycemic response, an important term to be aware of.

Why the Glycemic Index is Important

Each year, approximately 2 million people are diagnosed with diabetes. As of 2015, 30 million Americans had diabetes, and nearly 200,000 of those people were under the age of 20. Also, in 2015, 84 million people 18 years or older were diagnosed with pre-diabetes, a condition where blood glucose levels are high but not quite at full diabetes level. Those who are pre-diabetic are at a greater risk of developing type II diabetes and are at greater risk of experiencing a stroke and developing heart disease

With that being said, if you’re one of those people who already suffers from diabetes, then GI isvery important, since maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is crucial to controlling diabetes. You should already be paying attention to and eating low-GI foods. In fact, studies have found that eating low-GI foods can lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. 

On the flip side of that, eating lots of high-GI foods like bread, oatmeal, white potatoes, sugary cereals, and candy, to name a few, will put you at greater risk of getting type II diabetes. Additionally, you'll increase the risk of: 

  • Heart disease
  • Obesity
  • Stroke
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Nerve and kidney damage

High-GI foods are also linked to inflammation. This is because foods with a high GI are often processed, contain refined sugar and carbs, and have very little fiber. So there’s even more benefit to eating foods that have a lower GI since chronic inflammation can also lead to things like heart disease, diabetes, and high cholesterol.

You can use all this information to your advantage by consuming lots of low to medium GI foods, which will help keep your cholesterol in check, will help you lose weight, and help you reduce the risk of getting diabetes, stroke, cancer, and heart disease. 

Easily Determining the GI of Certain Foods

There are two great resources that can help determine the GI of certain foods: 

  • Harvard Health’s website. This is a great list of foods ranking the Glycemic Index for people over 60. 
  • Weight Loss Resources. This one might be an even better because it has an extremely extensive list of foods and breaks those foods down by category, as well as by low-, medium, and high-GI 

Surprising GI Scores

Looking at the list of high-GI foods, some of them may surprise you!

Parsnips, for instance, have an extremely high GI of 97. 97! Parsnips are great — they’re even on Dr. Nancy’slist of anti-inflammatory foods. So does this mean they need to come off the list? Not exactly. Remember thatglycemic load we talked about? Well, parsnips have a GL of 12, meaning they are relatively low in carbohydrates. If you’re following a strict, low-GI diet, then yes, you probably want to steer clear of parsnips, but if you’re someone who’s just trying to eat healthy, then parsnips are okay, given the fact these root veggies are low in carbs, are super filling, and have lots of vitamin C and magnesium

Fruits with the skin removed, like pineapple and cantaloupe tend to have a higher GI than fruits eaten with the skins on them like apples and berries. Watermelon, for instance, has a GI of 72, so, while it’s a great anti-inflammatory fruit choice, it may not be a good choice if you have diabetes. 

The GI of a sweet potato nearly doubles when you bake it. Raw sweet potato has a GI of 32 while a baked sweet potato has a GI of 64. Eating sweet potatoes raw can be hard to digest, but it’s not impossible. If you want to try it, you can add a handful of grated sweet potato to a salad or your morning smoothie. 

You can also steam sweet potatoes, which will also give you a lower GI than baking, keeping it around 63. Simply cut a few sweet potatoes into cubes, bring water to a boil, and place them in your steamer basket, covered, for about 20 minutes or until they’re nice and tender. You can toss them with a few cloves of minced garlic, a few chopped green onions, some cilantro and red pepper flakes, a drizzle of olive oil and you’ve got a nice sweet and spicy side dish!

The best way to prepare sweet potatoes so they’re palatable, digestible, and low on the GI scale, is to boil them. Boiled sweet potatoes have a GI of 41. Simply cut your sweet potatoes into cubes and place in a large pot. Add enough water to cover, bring to a boil and simmer for about 20 minutes. Once done, drain the water and either eat the sweet potatoes as is with your favorite seasoning sprinkled on top or smash them up for some creamy, delicious mashed potatoes. Try adding a drizzle of olive oil, some gloves of garlic, and ground turmeric to make these an anti-inflammatory superfood! 

As with fruits with the skin left on, the same goes for sweet potatoes. The skin of a sweet potato is loaded with antioxidants so eat it up! This is also another great reasonnot to bake your sweet potatoes – nearly all that antioxidant power is lost when you pop them in the oven. 

Other low-GI foods to add to your routine 

  • Chia seeds. They have a whopping GI of 1!
  • Blueberries, with a GI of 53
  • Almonds have zero carbohydrates, which gives them a GI of 0, as well. In fact most raw nuts, made without added sugar, have very low GI numbers.
  • Plums have a GI of 40
  • Apples GI is 39
  • Cherries GI is 20
  • Pears GI is 38
  • Apricot GI is 23
  • Lime GI is 24
  • Figs GI is 60
  • Beans — most beans are low on the GI scale, but kidney beans are one of the lowest, with a GI of 42. Butter beans are next with a GI of 44 and chickpeas round out the top three with a GI of 47.

Turmeric is an excellent, low-GI spice to incorporate into your diet since is contains curcumin, which has so many amazing beneficial properties, including the fact that it’s an inflammation fighter.  

Low GI Snack Options

One area in which people consistently struggle is snacking — what to eat between meals, especially when we are on the go. If you think about the  most common options, especially in a grocery store, mobile mart, or vending machine, our options appear limited — chips, pretzels, cookies, cakes, candy bars… empty calories, processed foods and high GIs. 

So, let us share some low GI Snack Ideas with you:

  • A handful of unsalted nuts
  • A piece of fruit, like an apple, cherries, a plum, or a pear
  • Carrot and celery sticks with hummus
  • A cup of berries or grapes
  • Apple slices with almond butter or peanut butter
  • A hard-boiled egg
  • Dried fruit, especially apricots or dried apples or berries
  • A smoothie made with almond milk or coconut water

Low GI Fruit Smoothie

This is super easy, and won’t spike your blood sugar and insulin levels.

Here’s what you need:

  • 1/2 cup frozen organic blueberries
  • 1/2 cup frozen organic blackberries
  • 1/2 cup frozen organic raspberries
  • 1 cup unsweetened, pure coconut water 
  • 2 or 3 kale leaves
  • 2 tbsp chia seeds

Just throw everything into a high-powered blender, blend until smooth, and enjoy!

Wrap-Up 

Glycemic Index (GI) is what’s it all about. That was the subject of today’s show, which we hope you got a lot out of. Some of the things we talked about included:

  • The Glycemic Index ranks the amount of carbohydrates in food. A low-GI score is below 55, a medium-GI score ranges from 56-69, and a high-GI score is anything above 70.
  • The GI also measures how quickly carbs are converted to sugar in the bloodstream.
  • Foods that are high on the GI include foods high in carbohydrates and refined sugars. These can contribute to diabetes, stroke, obesity, and heart disease.
  • Low-GI foods can actually help prevent pre-diabetes from turning into full-blown diabetes and it can reduce blood sugar levels in diabetes patients. 
  • Foods that have a low-GI score also tend to be anti-inflammatory foods like beans, nuts, lean proteins, berries and leafy greens, and spices like turmeric.

We also shared some top low-GI snack foods, including a low GI Berry Smoothie recipe to keep your energy up and your blood sugar stable!

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