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What is the glycemic index anyways?

By Nancy Ernst, CD, CDE, RD, Gundersen Nutrition Therapy

You may have heard claims about using the glycemic index of foods for weight control or to control blood sugars. What is the glycemic index and is it beneficial?

All foods that contain carbohydrates affect blood sugars, but not all in the same way. The effect of carbohydrates on blood sugar depends on what you eat, how much you eat and how you move your body. The glycemic index (GI) gives each food a ranking based on how much it increases blood sugar after eating that food.

Foods are ranked on a scale of one to 100. The more your blood sugar rises, the higher the GI. The less your blood sugar rises, the lower the GI. The GI alone does not give all the information about food; the portions in your meal and what other foods you eat with each meal also determine the impact on your fullness and blood sugar.

High GI foods vs. Low GI foods

Studies have associated diets with a high GI (higher process foods) and high glycemic load (larger portions) with an increased risk of developing diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Data suggests that eating low-GI foods (whole foods, less processed foods) controls blood sugar and insulin levels. This may help reduce the risk of blood vessel and nerve damage. The slower digestion of foods with a lower GI may control hunger pains and help with weight control.

Foods with a high GI are not bad foods, but should be eaten in moderation. You may simplify the glycemic index by choosing more whole foods and eating highly processed foods in less frequently or in smaller amounts. The GI may be a helpful tool to choose healthier foods, but the total amount of carbohydrates you eat is most important. Fill ¼ of your plate with starches, ½ your plate with fruits and vegetables from the lower glycemic choices below.

Include these low glycemic foods regularly:

  • Whole grains breads, barley and buckwheat, whole-grain cereals
  • Oatmeal and bran cereals
  • Whole fruits- especially firm bananas, apples, cherries, peaches, grapefruit, pears, plums, oranges berries
  • Dried beans, peas and lentils
  • Nuts- peanuts, walnuts, pecans, almonds
  • Seeds- sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds
  • Non-starchy vegetables- avocados, broccoli, yam, sweet potatoes
  • Milk, yogurt and soy drinks
  • Whole-grain pasta and basmati rice
  • Dark chocolate

Use high glycemic foods less frequently and in smaller amounts or along with other foods:

  • White bread, rice cakes, bagels, croissants and donuts
  • Watermelon, pineapple, cantaloupe and ripe bananas
  • White potatoes and white rice
  • Soda and sugar-sweetened sports drinks, teas and energy drinks
  • Low-fiber cereals
  • Sugar and candy
  • Low-fat ice cream and frozen yogurt
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