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Is the Glycemic Index Diet Right for You?

By Steve Edwards
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"Not to have control over the senses is like sailing in a rudderless ship, bound to break to pieces on coming in contact with the very first rock." Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi

Steve  Edwards

Nutritionists can be cruel. Atkins goes bankrupt and before you can even drop "no carb" from your vocabulary, you're being told it's not carbs but something called the "glycemic index" that really matters. What the . . . ?

Don't worry. It's not as confusing as it sounds. In fact, it's downright simple. So relax, grab a cup of joe (hey, it's low on the glycemic index), and we'll have you in the know in no time at all.

Just what the heck is the glycemic index anyway?

In a nutshell, it's a way of measuring how foods affect your blood sugar levels. This is particularly important if you are diabetic, but lately it's been shown that blood sugar fluctuations affect all sorts of factors in everyone. These include things like your moods, cravings, and energy levels. And while it gets much deeper and more serious for diabetics, the basic pattern is that spikes, and subsequent drops, in blood sugar levels are bad. On the GI scale, a high number assigned to a food is bad, and a low number is good.

Where the confusion begins

Glycemic index refers to how fast glycogen, or sugar, is absorbedThe glycemic index refers to how fast glycogen, or sugar, is absorbed into your blood. By itself, sugar enters extremely fast, but if you mix it with fiber, fat, or protein, that absorption slows.

It's commonly assumed that sugar causes blood sugar spikes, which is pretty much true. But when looking at the numbers on a GI chart, you may get confused when fructose, a sugar, has a low number, like 26, sucrose, table sugar, is near 100, and a baked potato, a complex carbohydrate, is higher than both. This is because the state of the food source needs to be accounted for. Refining and cooking many complex carbohydrates, like starches, break down their fibrous structures and increase their GI number to the point that many of them enter your bloodstream like a nitrous injection. This could be good if you're playing a sport because your blood sugar is being tapped, but it's bad if you're sitting at a desk trying to concentrate. It's what we refer to as a "sugar rush."

The Glycemic Index Diet

Healthy ratio of proteins, carbohydrates and fatsJust when you're starting to figure out that you need a healthy ratio of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, a diet comes along that gives every food a number—more than one number, in fact. There are many books now with the words "glycemic" or "glucose" in their titles. And all of 'em are after the same thing: somehow, you are supposed to keep these numbers straight so that your diet balances somewhere in a middle zone in order to keep your blood sugar levels constant. You probably like the sound of regulating your blood sugar levels. You may not like the sound of trying to remember the GI number of every morsel of food you pop in your mouth. I know I don't. If I had diabetes I would do it. But I don't. And even though type 2 diabetes (the diet-induced kind) is increasing at an alarming rate, most of you don't have it either. So let's figure out how to avoid using the numbers.

Nutrients in food are important in the Glycemic Index dietFirst off, the glycemic index is not the only indicator you should consider. What's actually in the food—its nutrients—is far more important. This is why I used the coffee example earlier. You probably know that your diet needs a bit more than coffee, no matter where it sits on the GI scale. So you can't just look at numbers and, say, use Diet Coke to replace some carrots just because it has a lower GI number and expect to stay healthy. So the glycemic index doesn't really change the ratio of proteins, fats, and carbs that you eat. That ratio should be determined by your level of activity.

Luckily, most foods follow a similar pattern on the GI scale. Plain sugary stuff, like candy, is high on the index. Proteins and fats are low. Veggies tend to be low and fruits higher, but this varies quite a lot depending on the sugar and fiber ratio—essentially, you don't really have to consider them much. For example, ripe bananas and carrots are unusually high on the index, but these are healthy foods without a lot of calories and not very offensive in the overall scheme of your diet.

Starches are the big offenders in the Glycemic Index dietThe big—and not so obvious—offenders are the starches. Most grains are cooked before we eat them, which causes their GI number to skyrocket. Add a bit of manufacturing—like what's done to make white rice and pastas—and you have almost off-the-chart numbers and a perfect diet to induce the famed sugar rush in cycles so harsh you may feel like you're manic-depressive. For this reason, these foods should be limited and perhaps in severe cases cut out completely. Then again, most of us don't eat pasta alone and combining foods has an equalizing effect. So pasta with a lot of meat and fat won't shock your system the same way pasta alone will. Therefore, if your diet is balanced, it's really not that big a concern.

The bottom line

  • The bottom line on the Glycemic Index dietOn the GI scale, high numbers are bad and low numbers are good.

  • Natural foods have a lower GI than processed foods.

  • Uncooked is better than cooked.

  • Whole grains have a lower GI than processed grains.

  • Table sugar (sucrose) is worse than natural sugar (fructose—not to be confused with high-fructose corn syrup, which is more processed and worse than sucrose).

  • Fruits and veggies are pretty much fine, even if their GI number is high.

  • And no matter what you eat, your diet should reflect your activity level. Does this sound familiar? If not, you probably haven't read your diet guide.

In essence, the glycemic index is a tool you can use to keep your diet in check that basically champions the slogan that the more natural your diet is, the better it will be.

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