Insights & Actions for Healthy Living
Choosing Our Food for the Health of It – Understanding and Using the Glycemic Index

Choosing Our Food for the Health of It – Understanding and Using the Glycemic Index

People across the country are trying to become healthier.

The more we learn about the foods we choose to eat, the more we realize that we could be doing better.

Getting healthier by losing weight is a topic of conversation no matter where we go.

Everyone seems to want to lose weight so that they can be healthy, play with their kids, look good at a reunion, fit into certain clothes — or all of the above.

There are some people for whom losing weight could mean the difference between managing a chronic disease like diabetes and being unwell and therefore unable to enjoy life.

People who are diabetic or those who are trying to manage their blood sugar to prevent diabetes can improve their health by paying attention to the foods they eat especially the carbohydrates that they choose.

Carbohydrates in Our Diets

Carbohydrates are macronutrients that are important in our diets because they provide our bodies with the fuel it needs to function properly.

Carbohydrates give us energy!

Carbohydrate foods include:

  • Grains such as oats, wheat, barley, and rice
    • Bread
    • Cereals
    • Crackers
    • Pasta
    • Rice
  • Vegetables such as potatoes, corn, peas, and beans
  • Milk and milk products
  • Fruit and fruit juice
  • Sugar, honey, soda, syrup and foods with added sugars
  • Foods made with flour such as baked goods like cake and cookies, gravies

Because carbohydrates can be found in most of the foods we eat, making the best choices from this broad list is important to staying in balance.

Glycemic Index

The foods and drinks we consume provide us with the nutrients that we need to keep our bodies functioning properly. They also give us calories in the form of carbohydrates.

We need calories to fuel all of our systems but an excess of calories can lead to weight gain. It is important to be aware of the calories you ingest if you are trying to lose weight so that you can be sure you are in energy balance and the carbohydrates you eat to manage blood sugar.

One way to consider the calorie load our foods provide is by learning their glycemic index. What is glycemic index?

According to a definition by the Sydney University Glycemic Index Research Service, 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 eating.”

The greater the number, the greater the rise in blood sugar produced by that food.

People with diabetes or pre-diabetes can manage their blood sugar when they consider the glycemic index (GI) of the carbohydrates they choose. Foods are ranked as low, medium or high glycemic index based on their number.

The American Diabetes Association recommends that those following a carbohydrate controlled diet can use the glycemic index to manage blood sugar if they plan their meals balancing GI foods eaten.

Choosing Food Using the Glycemic Index

Choose primarily foods with low or medium GI numbers. If you eat a high GI food, pair it with a low GI food to achieve balance. Meat and fat do not contain enough carbohydrate to have a GI rank.

Low GI foods scoring 55 or less – stone ground wheat or pumpernickel bread, pasta, beans, rolled or steel cut oatmeal, non-starchy vegetables, fruits, sweet potato

Medium GI foods scoring 45-69 – quick oats, brown rice, couscous, whole wheat bread, rye bread

High GI foods scoring 70 or more – white bread and rolls, instant oatmeal, cornflakes, puffed rice cereal, white rice, boxed mac and cheese, melons, pineapple, crackers, popcorn, russet potato

Often the more processed a food, the higher the GI score. Fiber usually lowers the GI number. The more ripe a fruit, the higher the GI score. Cooking foods like pasta longer will increase its GI score as more of the starch is converted to glucose as it cooks.

Healthy Changes

It is important to choose the healthiest forms of carbohydrates you can to make the most out of your carbohydrate load.

  • Control your portions of carbohydrate no matter their source! Overeating the most nutritious food leads to excess calories!
  • Eating foods made from whole grains in place of refined flour products
  • Choosing whole fruits instead of fruit juices
  • Eliminate sugar sweetened beverages from your diet using water and non-caloric beverages
  • Try wheat pasta and other grains like quinoa and brown rice in place of more refined grains
  • Incorporate more variety such as beans in place of potatoes and vegetables you don’t usually select such as zucchini or cabbage in place of starchy vegetables
  • Pick a high fiber cereal in place of sugar sweetened cereals
  • Avoid processed and refined foods in favor of whole, fresh foods

Check the nutrition fact panel on the foods you buy and compare with other products to be sure you are getting fiber and lower total carbohydrates per serving when you make your selections. You might be surprised at the difference in the carbohydrate content between what you use most often now and the other options available. (For example: Cheerios = 15 gm Carb per ¾ c serving, Honey Nut Cheerios = 22 gm Carb per ¾ c serving)

No matter how you manage your diet to keep your blood sugar in control and your weight at an appropriate level for your health, having a personalized meal plan that works for you is the most effective way to succeed.

If you need help with a healthy meal plan, seek out the advice of a registered dietitian who is trained to work with you and your lifestyle to create a meal plan that you can live with not just today but every day to control your diabetes and weight.

Following a meal plan is not always easy and controlling blood sugar requires planning that can become frustrating. Having guidance and a strategy for making your food selections will make staying healthy a part of your life instead of a dreaded task!

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