Posted by: Hil | October 24, 2008

Glycemic Index, Part II –Tips on Lowering the Glycemic Load of Your Diet

In Part I, I did my best to explain the basic ideas behind the glycemic index and why I consider it so important.  So…which foods are low and high GI?  You could look up a chart.  And doing so a few times isn’t a bad idea.  The problem is, charts tend to vary quite a bit.  And who wants to memorize numbers?  So I go with general trends and tips. 

First, the general trends.  There are many exceptions, and the readings vary a lot from chart to chart, but these very general guidelines should give you the basic idea.  There may be errors or debatable inclusions on this list, so please take this with a grain of salt.

Little to no effect on blood sugar:  Meat, eggs, cheese, oil, and tofu.

Low:  Non-starchy vegetables, nuts, most legumes, plain yogurt, citrus fruit, berries, dark chocolate.

Medium:  Winter squash, sweet potato, yam, whole grains, al dente pasta, dense whole grain breads, most fruit, milk.

High:  Refined grains, potatoes, most sweets, most breads and pastries, alcohol, fruit juice.

So what to do about it?  Here are my basic strategies for reducing the glycemic load of your diet.

  • Cut back on sugar and processed grains.  This is my number one suggestion.  Eating a highly processed diet is just second nature to people in this country, but it doesn’t have to be that way.  Gradually shift toward whole grains and toward buying unsweetened foods.  You may become addicted to the really clean, whole grain, unsweetened stuff as I am.  I am a bit of a nut about not allowing any sugar or processed grains into my everyday staples.  (I want to save those for tasty things like fresh naan and chocolate croissants!)  But even if you don’t want to go that far, a small change is still a good one.

  • Choose whole grains.  And I mean actual whole grains, like wheat berries.  Why?  Whole grains are encased in insoluble fiber that slows the body’s absorption of the starch inside.  The more you crush a grain, the more you destroy that protective coating and the higher the food’s GI will become.  Thus, instant oatmeal has a much higher GI than old fashioned oats, which in turn have a higher GI than steel cut oats.  Similarly, most grocery store whole wheat bread has a GI identical to white bread.  The whole wheat will have more fiber and nutrients, but it will give you just as much of a “sugar rush” as eating a piece of Wonder bread.  I was shocked to learn this.  If you want medium to low GI bread, look for heavy, hearty, coarse whole grain breads.  Sprouted grain breads (like Ezekiel) and whole grain pumpernickel are both excellent.  Breads made from stone ground whole grain flour are also good alternatives. 

  • Go for naturally high fiber foods.  Generally, foods high in fiber (especially soluble fiber)  are low on the glycemic index.  Beans, vegetables, and whole grains are wonderful.  Chose whole fruit over fruit juice.  The fruits that are the very highest in fiber usually have edible seeds or peel.

  • Fluffy = high GI.  Pasta and flatbread like pita are lower GI than fluffy bread.  A hot, “floury” baked potato is higher GI than a small, cold, “waxy” new potato in a salad.  Generally speaking, the more swollen a starch grain, the higher the GI.

  • Think about the whole meal.  If you are really craving a high GI food, eat a moderate portion with something that will lower the glycemic load of the meal.  Fat, protein, soluble fiber and acid all lower the glycemic load of a meal.  So if I was craving potatoes, which are extremely high on the glycemic index, I might eat them in a salad Nicoise with some tuna and hard boiled egg (protein), lots of vegetables (fiber) and a lemon vinaigrette (acid and healthy fat).  Or if I want toast in the morning, I chose sprouted grain bread and eat it with peanut butter (protein and fat) and maybe a side of yogurt (protein) and berries (more fiber).  There are no absolute nos…it’s just about balance.

  • Think about your carbohydrate consumption.  One obvious way to cut back on the glycemic load of your diet is to reduce your overall carbohydrate consumption.  I am a big believer that everyone is different in terms of the amount of various nutrients that feels best to them.  If you feel best with a high carbohydrate diet, go for it–just make good choices about where you get your carbohydrates.  But if you are unsure, consider the possibility of a slightly lower carbohydrate diet.  I personally feel the best when I eat a bit more protein and a bit less carbohydrate than the typical recommendations.  I eat my sandwiches open face, I usually don’t eat a starch with dinner…nothing drastic.  I just feel the best when I leave out the carbohydrates in my diet that don’t give me any real pleasure.

If you are eating a truly clean, whole foods-based diet with a respectable amount of protein and fat at each meal, your diet probably has a moderate to low glycemic load already.  If you are particularly sensitive to carbohydrates or are trying to lose weight, you might want to consider trying to lower the glycemic load of your diet further.

I know that following these basic principles has really helped me to understand the way that my body reacts to foods.  I am unusually sensitive to carbohydrates, and the glycemic index has helped me to figure out how to incorporate plenty of carbohydrates into my diet without sending my blood sugar on a roller coaster ride.  It also really helps me to construct meals that keep me satisfied for a long time.  This was particularly helpful when I was losing weight, but is also a great help when you’re just trying to get through a busy day of work or school.  Even if you aren’t as carbohydrate sensitive as me, I hope that this post is informative.  I’m a big believer in making informed decisions about what you put into your body, and this is just one more piece of information that can help with that decision making process.

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Responses

  1. Thanks!

  2. thanks so much for this – you always post such detailed and informed posts that teach me plenty. i did know about the GI and have been very aware of it, but it’s still great to be reminded. so thank you!

  3. Another awesome post 🙂 This is so cool. I just forwarded this link to my family. And I’m telling Bobby that he should eat brown rice.

    I don’t usually eat a typical starch with dinner either – though I do always have fruit with or after dinner. But I don’t usually have something like bread or rice or pasta at night. Not sure why. Just the way I like to feel I guess 🙂

  4. Great post! Very informative.

    I actually learned a lot from your posting – especially about the breads. Thanks so much for a great post!

  5. Very interesting. This is definitely what I am striving for – this month and always!

  6. This is a great post. I’ve always thought about trying to lower the GI of my diet but have never really put that plan into action – it always seemed to complicated. Two questions:

    1) Are you an apple or a pear? and

    2) What percentage of calories in your diet do you think come from carbohydrates generally?

    Thanks!

  7. BeeElle:

    1. Hmm. Nobody’s body really fits perfectly into one category, but I would have to say I’m closer to an apple. That label is usually associated with central obesity, and I am at a healthy weight, but I’m definitely not a pear.

    2. I haven’t the faintest idea. I’m not a numbers person–I don’t even know how many calories I consume these days. When I was losing weight I tried SparkPeople a few times to make sure I was covering all my nutritional bases, and my vague memory is that I was consistently right on the low end of their fairly wide recommended carbohydrate intake range. But I’m pretty sure I’m eating more calories and carbohydrates than I used to, so I’m not sure.


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