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Glycemic Index and Diabetes

written by Vidya Sury April 9, 2014
Glycemic Index and diabetes Vidya Sury 1

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Glycemic Index and Diabetes

I am sure you’ve heard of low GI and high GI foods in relation to healthy eating and especially with reference to diabetics. The phrase glycemic index gets thrown around a lot and until I was diagnosed with the condition, I didn’t really dig deep. And when I did, it made a lot of sense to me.

Let’s talk about the Glycemic Index today and why it is worth paying attention to – for anyone interested in healthy weight management and of course, for diabetics.

Glycemic Index and diabetes Vidya Sury 1

What is the Glycemic Index?

The Glycemic Index is a ranking system – for carbohydrate-containing foods based on the effect of a specific food we eat on our blood glucose. This ranges from a scale of 0 to 100 and the reference point is pure glucose which has a GI of 100. The higher the food’s GI, the rapider the rise in blood sugar.

Glycemic Index and diabetes Vidya Sury 1

What Affects the Glycemic Index of a Food?

We can go by the standard rule that the more you cook and process a food, the higher its GI, but there are exceptions. Fat and fiber lower the food’s GI. Here are some common examples of what affects a food’s GI:

  • The riper the fruit or vegetable, the higher the GI
  • Compared to whole fruits, juices have a higher GI thanks to the processing.
  • Compared to a whole baked potato, mashed potato has a higher GI
  • GI also depends on cooking method and time.

GI values may show the type of carbohydrates in the food, but it is important to still worry about portion control especially because healthy weight is one of the criteria for managing blood glucose.

Also, the GI of a food can vary depending on how you eat it – when it is the only thing you eat and when you combine it with other foods. So, if you eat a high GI food, combine it with a low GI food to balance its effect on your blood glucose levels.

Ironically a number of nutritious foods are high GI compared to low nutrition foods which are low GI. Oatmeal, which is healthy, has a higher GI than chocolate. So can you choose chocolate? Hmm no! Point is, there is more to eating healthy than only considering the GI even though GI is a major aspect for blood sugar control.

So should you count carbs or go with GI?

As I said earlier there is no standard one size fits all diabetes diet. Meal plans must be customized to your personal needs and lifestyle so that you achieve your blood sugar, cholesterol and triglyceride level goals even as you maintain your blood pressure and a healthy weight. GI helps you fine tune your blood glucose management.

Our bodies work best when the blood sugar is stable. When it drops to low, we feel lethargic and feel hungrier. If it shoots up our pancreas go on overdrive to release more insulin. The insulin brings blood sugar back down by converting the extra sugar into stored fat. So as your blood sugar rapidly increases, the greater the production of insulin, running the risk of your blood sugar becoming too low.glycemic index

So when you eat foods that cause a rapid glycemic response (when you eat a high GI food), there’s a quick rise in energy and your mood with a rise in blood sugar. But this is quickly followed by the sequence of more fat storage, lethargy and hunger.

Bad enough about the increased fat storage, but in the case of diabetics, this is a bigger problem. Because their insulin production or processing is impaired, their blood sugar may rise too high resulting in a number of other issues.

You should therefore care about the glycemic index as you can use it to minimize insulin-related problems – by recognizing and avoiding foods that are likely to mess up your blood sugar levels.

Which brings us to the question – should we avoid all high GI foods?

Not if you are not diabetic. Sometimes you may need a quick blood sugar and insulin high especially after an extensive work out as insulin helps push glucose into the muscles where it has the job of repairing tissues. This is why athletes use sports drinks – high GI – as soon as they exercise to recover.

Another thing to remember is – glycemic index is not solely responsible for raising blood sugar. Portion control matters. You’ll come across something called “glycemic load” which is the glycemic index plus amount of food consumed. For instance, if you eat a high GI bit of candy, your body’s response will be low, simply because it depends on the type as well as amount of carbohydrate. This is called glycemic load. So you can control your body’s glycemic response by paying attention to low GI foods and curbing your carbohydrate consumption.

To summarize, our body needs energy to be active. This comes from carbs that are broken down into glucose and absorbed by the blood. But too much or too little can cause problems. Also, there are two types of carbohydrates: simple and complex. Simple such as sugar, honey, jaggery, maple syrup should be minimized and complex such as whole grains, legumes, starchy vegetables must be maximized.

So, choose low GI foods to control blood sugar and blood cholesterol levels, control your appetite and reduce your risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

In general, a healthy diet that has whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes and dairy products in the right quantities can ensure low GI for diabetics. High fiber foods are a must, while minimizing on processed foods. Sugar, soft drinks, potatoes, breads made of white flour, sweet desserts and candy bars must be avoided.

A food’s GI wont change with serving size, but overeating a specific food can raise your blood sugar and take some time to become normal.

How to go low GI?

By making healthy choices. Here are some tips:

  • Swap high GI foods for low GI foods
  • Eat one serving of low GI carbohydrate food with each meal
  • Choose low GI snacks
  • Practice portion control.

The following plate is recommended as a reference:

Glycemic Index and diabetes Vidya Sury 1

  • Fill half the plate with vegetables, salads, quarter low GI carbs and the remaining quarter with lean protein.
  • Eat your colors and get at least five servings of vegetables every day.
  • For protein, consider lean meat, skinless chicken, fish, seafood, eggs, milk, yogurt, cheese, legumes and tofu
  • Low GI carbs include slow cooked pasta, low GI white rice, quinoa
  • Go for whole grain breads
  • Rather than processed breakfast cereals, choose natural muesli, porridge oats or cereals that have the GI symbol.
  • Include lots of legumes like beans lentils, chickpeas at least 2-3 a week. I eat them every day as I am a vegetarian.
  • No need to be sad about cutting out high GI foods. Combine them with low GI foods to balance them. Using vinegar on your salads, yogurt with your cereals and lemon juice on your veg can lower the GI.
  • Snack smart by going for fresh fruit, nuts and yogurt. Which means refined flour items like cookies, biscuits and crackers are preferably avoided.
  • Make water your best friend. When you are tempted to grab a fizzy sugary drink, bypass it and choose water. And drink at least eight glasses of water every day, unless otherwise advised by your doctor.

Here is a an exhaustive downloadable resource that lists the GI of various foods.

And here is the Glycemic Index wheel app which is more fun to refer to!

Stay healthy!

Day 7 of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge

Living with type 2 diabetes – the Glycemic Index

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Corinne Rodrigues April 9, 2014 at 3:36 pm

This is such an important bit of the ‘what to eat’ diabetes puzzle, is it not? In case I haven’t told you before, this series is fabulous! 🙂

Ananya April 9, 2014 at 10:04 pm

Everytime I visit your blog, I realize where I am going wrong.Thanks for this useful information Vidya.

Damaria Senne April 10, 2014 at 12:07 am

Thank you for the glycemic index document. I downloaded it and a quick glance through it was very reassuring. Most of the food we eat fall into the low to medium categories, so that was very reassuring.

But there are some items that are in the gray area – for example, I usually bake our bread (mix of wholewheat and white flour) and make our plain yogurt (2% milk), so I think we’re safe but I’m not 100% sure. I think it helps when you eat as few pre-packaged foods as possible though.

I’m planning to study the document more closely later.


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