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The Glycemic Index – Good Carb, Bad Carb

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If you’re one of those people who can’t handle all the counting, tracking, adding up and recording that some diets require, you might find refuge in a simple numerical scale: the glycemic index. On the other hand, you might find that it’s another annoying way to complicate the simple act of eating.

The glycemic index is a measure of the quality of carbohydrate-containing foods. It’s kind of a good carbs/bad carbs thing based on how they affect your blood sugar. While not new, it got a lot of press when the anti-carb movement took hold.

Here’s how it works: On the glycemic index, pure glucose is randomly assigned a score of 100; it means nothing special; It’s just a solid reference point for how it affected blood sugar about two hours after eating. Then all the other foods in the index are given a number related to glucose and how it affects blood sugar.

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Foods with a low index are usually broken down slowly and do not cause drastic fluctuations in blood sugar. High index foods usually do this. For example, green peas have an index of 39, while corn flakes have an index of 92.

Originally developed to help people – especially diabetics – control their blood sugar, the index mainly includes carbohydrate foods, as protein and fat have no direct effect on blood sugar.

But assigning numbers to different foods based on their glycemic impact results in a scaled list of foods that ultimately is also a very useful tool for people dealing with obesity and other health issues. That’s because simply maintaining a low-glycemic index diet will lead people to healthier eating and weight loss, even if that’s not their specific goal.

Consider this: Type II diabetes, as well as various cancers and cardiovascular diseases, are all strongly correlated with high-index diets. There is plenty of research showing that lowering the overall glycemic index also reduces the risks of these problems.

That’s because, almost by default, a low-index diet includes more fresh fruits and vegetables, more fiber, more dairy, and any foods that contain essential nutrients that tend to be lower in calories and tend to keep the body full longer, warding off the next hunger pang . All of this usually adds up to weight loss, no matter the program.

Proponents of the index say it’s more helpful than counting calories or grams of fat or carbs and actually offers a simplified approach to learning how to eat better, but some experts warn that people shouldn’t get too caught up in the should deal with exact numbers. Instead, they urge people to pay attention to whether the foods they eat are low, medium, or high index.

That’s because, as with any rule, there are exceptions to the fairly consistent physiological rules underlying the index. For example, watermelon has a fairly high glycemic index, around 75, which is even higher than table sugar. Does that make you bad? no Because despite its high index, watermelon actually has a fairly low glycemic load. That’s a measure based on the amount of food you would actually consume, not just an arbitrary amount used in testing like the Index.

A food’s glycemic load can be determined by taking the glycemic index number for a food, divided by 100 and multiplied by the available carbohydrates you would eat. For most foods, a low index is consistent with low exposure, but there are quirky exceptions. Of course, finding them again would require you to do a lot of math, and that’s just not the way people usually eat.

For this reason, doctors and nutritionists encourage people trying to eat healthily not to get caught up in the numbers game and to look more generally at the foods in the index and gravitate towards those at the lower end. Anything over 70 is considered high index, 55 to 69 is medium, and under 55 are low glycemic index foods.

And look at what’s included in these groups: High-index foods include most breakfast cereals, white bread and other processed baked goods, most potatoes, ice cream, candy, and table sugar, your real Atkins nightmare.

Lower index foods include cherries, grapefruit, broccoli, legumes like lentils and beans, most whole grain baked goods, and most dairy products. So even without counting calories or keeping track of specific index numbers, you can see that navigating your diet towards the lower end of the index will do you good.

We encourage patients to think of the glycemic index and glycemic load as just two other tools that can be helpful in developing healthier thinking and planning eating habits.

One last thing to remember: there is no standardized one glycemic index The list and most indexes include branded items that people buy on a typical shopping spree, as well as more general items such as vegetables and fruits. This is one of the more helpful aspects of the lists, but only if you get one related to where you live.

If your average Southwest Florida resident were to look at an index prepared in Australia, that wouldn’t be of much help because really, when was the last time you drank a couple of Golden Pikelets with a nice glass of Milo?


Fruits tend to have a high glycemic index, so I recommend people take their fruit with a meal or with some protein like cottage cheese or regular cheese. These sources of protein help mitigate the fruit’s glycemic effect. Don’t let a high index number keep you from your apple for a day.

Thanks to Caroline Cederquist

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