Demystifying the Glycemic Index

Much of the diet buzz in my world of middle-aged friends is about eating according to the Glycemic Index. I have become a true believer myself because the diet gets you off all refined carbohydrates and into eating more fresh food and food full of fiber. Andrew Weil, M.D., has some interesting things to say about this diet in The Healthy Heart Kit Workbook:

Nutrition has a significant effect on your heart and cardiovascular system. Your food and beverage choices influence your cholesterol profile, your blood pressure, your blood sugar levels, your heart rate, and your levels of inflammation. Fortunately you can control what you eat, and making dietary changes is often the first step toward improving cardiovascular health.

You can start by making smarter choices when it comes to carbohydrates. Just avoid high-glycemic load carbs, which cause dramatic spikes in blood-sugar levels, and enjoy low-glycemic load carbs, which break down more slowly. In addition to keeping blood-sugar levels more stable, foods high in low glycemic load carbohydrates from fruits and vegetables contain plenty of vitamins, minerals and other heart-healthy plant compounds. The healthy fiber in oatmeal, whole grains, beans, fruits, and vegetables also block the absorption of cholesterol, slow digestion, and keep you feeling full longer with fewer calories.

The glycemic index (GI) measures how fast the carbohydrate in a food breaks down into sugar in the body. In general, foods with a higher GI should be avoided as they cause spikes in insulin levels. However, some healthy foods like carrots and watermelon have high GI scores, but contain only moderate amounts of quickly digested carbohydrates and a lot of slow-digesting fiber or water. That’s the book’s authors advise paying more attention to a food’s glycemic load (GL), which takes into account both the quality and quantity of carbohydrate in a food.

If you replace high-GL foods with the lower-GL alternatives below, you can reduce triglycerides, raise HDL, and cause less abnormal inflammation.

Low GL (score of 1 to 10): Most vegetables, most beans, most fruits, most dairy products, pasta cooked al dente, nuts, bran cereals, dense and chewy bread like German pumpernickel, barley, popcorn, wheat tortillas, tomato juice, hummus, and soy milk.

Medium GL (11 to 19): Bananas, orange juice, white bread, corn tortilla, oatmeal, corn, brown rice or converted white rice, pretzels, boiled or sweet potato, navy beans, and black-eyed peas.

High GL (20 and up): Bagels, white rice, corn flakes, puffed rice, French-fried or baked potato, couscous, raisins, dates, cranberry juice cocktail and fruit leathers.

Here are five handy substitutions for making your carbs count:

1. Whole grains or dense, chewy varieties for regular bread.

2. Air-popped popcorn instead of potato or tortilla chips.

3. A handful of nuts instead of a bagel with cream cheese.

4. Brown rice, barley, bulgur wheat or sweet potato instead of white rice or potatoes.

5. Oatmeal or low-sugar, whole-grain cold cereal instead of sweetened sugar.

Note: High-fructose com syrup, an artificially manipulated sweetener, presents a bigger challenge to the body than more natural sugars because it’s more readily turned into fat. It raises triglyceride levels and is linked to high blood-sugar levels and high blood pressure.

Adapted from The Healthy Heart Kit Workbook by Andrew Weil, M.D., et al (Sounds True, 2008)

13 comments

William C
William C25 days ago

Thanks.

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W. C
W. C27 days ago

Thank you.

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Alicia N.
Alicia N4 years ago

Thanks!

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Jennifer C.
Past Member 6 years ago

Excellent article. Thanks for the great info.

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Jim M.
Jim M9 years ago

As an Aussie diabetic [T2] - I have kept my BGL under control via the GI Diet for nearly a decade. Are you aware of Sydney Uni's work on a Satiety Index?

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Shanni P.
Shanni P9 years ago

The basic principles of the GI diet are good, but sometimes miss the point.
It's right to stay away from all "whites" like flour and rice and to opt for the whole grains, preferrably in their whole version rather than ground as in flour.
But the GI index is sometimes deceiving. Fructose, for example, as found naturally in fruits and a bit less naturally in fruit juices or sweeteners like agave syrup, has a very low GI value but tends to turn sooner into fat, mainly if consumed without the fiber found in the fresh whole fruit.
In the book I wrote and am now working on translating into English (it was written in Hebrew - any recommendations for a good publisher?), I relate to health issues such as celiac, cardiovascular, diabetics etc. from a nutritional point of view.
It is a bit of a challenge but not impossible to live a wholesome life without gluten or any other limitations. I don't think you need to put so much stress on the GI - Diversity is also important.

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Todd S.
Todd S9 years ago

Yes, I have found Glycemic Index to be MOST important for getting rid of omendum belly fat... I really like the South Beach Diet's GOOD FATS GOOD CARBS GUIDE book as a reference when I want to eat something...

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Patricia S.
Patricia S9 years ago

Go vegan, and eat everything, that is healthy!

(but not white bread, white sugar,or any animal products...)

I am 46, I have no weight problems, no health issues, and I feel FANTASTIC!!!

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Annie Bond
Past Member 9 years ago

HI Diane,
I am also on a gluten-free diet also. Last night I broke down and had brown rice noodles, a whopping 92 on the GI! Help! Quinoa is a good gluten-free flour, about 53 on the GI. I am making myself a bread with rice bran (19 on the GI according to glycemicindex.com), coconut flour (10 on GI according to the U.S. government), and quinoa flour. Both the rice bran and
coconut have huge amounts of fiber (11 grams each of fiber for 1/4 cup of rice bran; 6 grams for 2 tablespoons of coconut flour), and while quinoa has 4 grams of fiber per 1/4 cup it has a whopping 5 grams of protein. Rice bran is also really high in protein, with 11 grams per 1/4 cup. The value of coconut flour is
for it's fiber, not it's protein. The recipe I am using is an Irish Soda Bread. Having recently heard that agave is really low onthe glycemic index (a reader pointed out that it was a 1.9!!), I might add some agave to sweeten up this bread that I have to admit is a bit heavy! But, I love toast in the morning, so this is a way to have it!

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Diane Fraser
Diane F9 years ago

Using the glycemic index as a basis for everyday eating is great. However, my husband and daughter both have celiac disease, and the common grains they CAN eat are quite high on the GI (rice, corn). We do use and buy products made from organic brown rice as much as possible, and limit corn. But being unable to eat anything containing oats, barley, wheat (including bulgur, couscous, durham, kamut, seitan, semolina and spelt), graham, rye, triticale and a few others does make things difficult! Luckily, they both enjoy legumes, veggies and fruit of all kinds, and we have found recipes for gluten-free breads and tortillas. Anyway, all that to say it would be nice if the GI books & websites had a section for people with gluten-free and other special dietary needs.

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