How Important is the Glycemic Index?

The glycemic index (GI) is a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels after ingestion. Different carbohydrate-containing foods (sugars and starches) vary in their effect on blood sugar levels.

Foods with a high GI are those which are rapidly digested and absorbed and result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels. A high glycemic index food item would be ranked between 70 and 100; medium, between 50 and 70; and low, under 50. One of the foods that is often used as a reference is white bread. It has a relatively high glycemic index of 70.

You may be wondering “does it really matter, as long as I’m eating whole, unprocessed carbohydrates, like beans, potatoes, brown rice and such?” Recent studies from the Harvard School of Public Health indicate that the risks of diseases such as type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease are strongly related to the GI of the overall diet. In 1999, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recommended that people in industrialized countries base their diets on low-GI foods in order to prevent the most common diseases of affluence, such as coronary heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Low-GI foods, by virtue of their slow digestion and absorption, produce gradual rises in blood sugar and insulin levels, and have proven benefits for health. Low GI diets have been shown to improve both glucose and lipid levels in people with diabetes (type 1 and type 2). They have benefits for weight control because they help control appetite and delay hunger.

The higher the rise in glucose in the blood stream, the more insulin is produced to store it. Over time this can lead to higher insulin levels and can result in inflammation, weight gain and insulin resistance. The end result can be the progression to type II diabetes. Low GI diets help reduce insulin levels and insulin resistance.

If you feel very attracted to the “white foods” (sugar, white bread, white rice, etc.), struggle with portion control when eating carbohydrates, have hypoglycemia, diabetes or high triglyceride and cholesterol levels, considering the glycemic index in your food choices may be helpful.

Extensive scientific research has shown that low GI foods have significant benefits in addition to reducing the risk of developing diabetes and heart disease. Low GI foods can help:

• Fill you up, keep you satisfied longer and help you avoid overeating
• Burn fat more easily, making it less likely to be stored
• Improve cholesterol levels by lowering LDL (the bad cholesterol) levels and raising HDL (the good
cholesterol) levels
• Manage blood glucose levels
• Reduce your risk of developing some cancers
• Improve cognitive performance
• Reduce acne and
• Sustain energy levels for longer periods of time.

If you think that it would be helpful to consider the glycemic index in your food choices, here are a few guidelines to follow:

1.To familiarize yourself with the GI of particular foods, visit www.glycemicindex.com and print-out the GI listing for common foods.

2.Pay attention to hunger cues. Begin eating when you feel true hunger signals. If your hunger signals tend to be subtle, try to begin eating within 1 ½ hours of waking, whether or not you feel hungry. Then refuel every 3-4 hours thereafter. Eat smaller, more frequent meals. This will help regulate your appetite and balance your blood sugar.

3.Pay attention to fullness signals. Try to stop eating when you feel the first, subtle signal of fullness, called the “stretch sensation.” If you have difficulty stopping there, try to stop before you are very full. Best to eat slowly and without distraction. This may mean that you’ll leave a little food on your plate. Don’t worry about those starving children in China!

4.If you include grains in your eating plan, choose low and medium whole GI foods like barley, quinoa, corn (organic and non-gmo) oat groats, bulgur, and brown rice. If you eat cereal, choose one with a low GI, such as oatmeal. Avoid high GI cereals like cornflakes and grapenuts. Reduce or eliminate your intake of high GI processed grain foods like bread, bagels, pretzels, waffles and muffins.

5.Increase your intake of low GI legumes and potatoes. This category includes beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas and sweet potatoes and yams. Consider centering your meal with beans and lentils; you can also add them to salads and soups. Sweet potatoes and yams really satisfy a sweet/starch tooth!

6.Focus on lower GI fruits like apples, pears, berries, and citrus more than higher GI fruits like watermelon pineapple and raisins.

7.Increase your intake of nutrient-dense green vegetables such as kale, chard, romaine lettuce, mustard greens, collards, spinach and broccoli. Eat plenty of dark yellow and orange starchy vegetables like carrots and squash. Try building a meal around starchy vegetables such as winter squash. These A+ foods are packed with the nutrients your body requires daily.

Though frightening, the diseases brought about through chronically high blood sugar and insulin levels can easily be avoided by minimizing the consumption of processed carbohydrates. And the rapidly growing awareness of the consequences of elevated blood sugar have led manufacturers to label the GI score on many packaged products, so if you’re having difficulty releasing processed carbohydrates from your eating plan, see if you can select lower GI ones.

You can truly transform your health by using the glycemic index. Avoid high glycemic index foods, in general, and you’ll avoid many, if not most of the modern-day ills associated with diet.

Posted by Julie M Simon, MA, MBA, MFT, psychotherapist and life coach, certified personal trainer, founder and director of The 12 Week Emotional Eating Recovery Program and author of The Emotional Eater’s Repair Manual: A Practical Mind-Body-Spirit Guide for putting an End to Overeating and Dieting. If you have a question or topic you’d like to see addressed in this blog, go to http://www.overeatingrecovery.com.

Image courtesy of Idea go/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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