Choosing Low-GI Foods Without Having to Do the Math

Recent research has cast doubt on the precise numbers many people rely on to keep the glycemic index (GI) of their diets low. The glycemic index measures how rapidly foods containing carbohydrates raise your blood sugar, using a 100-point scale. But scientists have found that the actual blood-sugar effects of common foods vary widely from one person to another—and even for the same individual, depending on other elements of a meal.

But the general principles of a low-GI diet still can help you eat more healthfully—you just don’t have to fret as much about the numbers if you make good food choices.

“By choosing more whole foods and avoiding highly processed foods, people can lower the glycemic index of their diet without having to calculate the exact GI or glycemic load of meals—something that is really tedious and even dietitians don’t do,” says Rachel Lustgarten, a registered dietitian nutritionist at Weill Cornell Medicine.

“A lower-glycemic diet—one that includes more whole foods and less processed foods—has many benefits,” she explains. For instance, “A low-GI diet helps control blood sugar in diabetics, but even those without impaired fasting glucose will notice eating this way helps control hunger and may decrease cravings for carbohydrates.”

Health and Weight Loss

Besides blood-sugar benefits, a low-GI diet may help improve cholesterol and reduce markers of inflammation and risk of heart disease. Research even has suggested that people who consume lower-GI diets are less likely to develop certain types of cancer. Carbohydrate quality and a low glycemic index also have been linked with lower risk of advanced macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness among older Americans.

It may be that these benefits are derived simply from switching to healthier, less-processed fare and eating less white bread, starchy foods, and sugary desserts rather than the direct effects of modulating blood-sugar impacts.

“A popular application of a lower glycemic diet is the Mediterranean diet, which has been shown to have cardiovascular health benefits and aid in weight control,” Lustgarten points out.

A review of data from three long-term studies of health professionals, totaling 120,000 men and women followed for more than 16 years, found that diets with a higher glycemic index were associated with more weight gain over time.

GI Factors

To lower the glycemic index of your diet without worrying about a list of (maybe not very reliable) numbers, it helps to understand what affects a carbohydrate-containing food’s blood-sugar impact. Keep these factors—some of which you can easily control—in mind:

The type of starch: Foods higher in amylose, also called “resistant starch,” take longer to digest and so have a lower GI. Examples include oats and legumes.

The type of sugar: Fructose, found naturally in fruits, has by far the lowest glycemic index of all sugars. (Honey, on the other hand, is similar to table sugar.)

Ripeness: As fruits ripen, their complex carbohydrates break down into sugars, increasing GI.

Processing: Grinding and finely cutting foods make them digest faster. This is one reason, for example, to prefer coarser steel-cut to rolled oats or instant oatmeal. Juicing also speeds up blood-sugar effects, while leaving healthy fiber behind; it’s better to eat a whole orange than to drink a glass of OJ.

Other nutrients: Healthy unsaturated fats and natural acids slow down digestion, so you can blunt the impact of higher-GI foods by adding a little olive oil or lemon juice.

Cooking time: Long cooking times break down foods, increasing GI.

Of course, having a lower glycemic index doesn’t automatically mean a food is nutritious. You still need to select foods that contain plenty of vitamins, minerals, protein, and fiber for the amount of calories consumed. There also are many relatively low-GI foods that are less healthy because they are high in saturated fat, sugar, and calories, such as ice cream. French fries have a lower GI than baked or mashed potatoes, but that doesn’t make them a healthier choice.


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