What is the glycemic index? And why should I care?

What is the glycemic index? And why should I care?

You probably already know that not all carbs are created equal.

There are good carbs that work to give you energy and deliver nutrients to your body, and then there are...well, let’s just call them not-so-good carbs. But despite our best efforts, it can be pretty hard to tell them apart.

This is where the glycemic index comes in.

The glycemic index is a pretty good tool to help you distinguish the good from the not-so-good. And understanding what differentiates the two could help you regulate your energy, curve food cravings, and even improve your overall gut health.

So, What Exactly Is the Glycemic Index?

To put it simply, the glycemic index (or GI) measures how quickly your body digests certain types of carbohydrate foods.

Carbs are sugar, sugar is energy, and it all breaks down into a simple sugar called glucose in your body. When blood glucose levels in your bloodstream—a.k.a blood sugar—travels from the blood to your cells, the pancreas produces insulin to prompt the cells to absorb these blood sugars for energy or storage. How quickly or slowly this move happens depends on how quickly insulin will hit your bloodstream in response to food.

The glycemic index ranks food on a scale of 1 to 100 based on how quickly and how much the food raises blood sugar levels after eating. On the scale, foods that rank at 70 or above are considered high on the index, while 56 to 69 is medium, and 55 or less is considered low.

Foods high on the glycemic index (ones with a high glycemic load) can cause blood sugar spikes and, consequently, energy crashes. Imagine kids at a birthday party, and you’ve got the picture. Low GI-foods trigger more of a slow release of glucose into the bloodstream, allowing for more sustained levels of energy.  

High-GI foods include things like white bread, white rice and ice cream—things you might know better as simple carbohydrates. These are the not-so-good ones. And they’re considered simple because they’re mostly composed of sugars, which are quickly used by the body for energy.

Foods that register lower on the scale include whole grains, like brown rice, non-starchy vegetables and most fruits. These foods are considered complex carbohydrates because they have more a more complicated chemical makeup. In addition to sugar, these foods contain nutrients like fiber, vitamins, and essential minerals, which take longer to digest and therefore cause blood sugars to rise more slowly.

Factors that can affect a food’s glycemic index include processing, its physical form and fiber content. Grains that have been heavily milled or refined to remove the bran and germ, for example, have higher GI values than minimally processed grains. High-fiber foods (think bran cereals, lentils and nuts) slow the rate of digestion. Here’s a great database with an international table to search the glycemic index by food choices.

If I’m Not Diabetic, Why Should You Care About this Stuff?

While originally developed as a tool for diabetics by the American Diabetes Association, knowing about the glycemic index can be useful for anyone trying live a healthy lifestyle. Spikes in blood sugar not only cause your energy to peak and crash, they also can leave you feeling hungry after a meal.

Multiple studies have been conducted over the years that suggest eating a diet full of high-glycemic-index foods can lead to weight gain and put people at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes, heart disease and other chronic diseases. It could also lead to an irritated and inflamed gut that has an imbalance of good and bad bacteria.

On the other hand, this study found that people who maintained a low-blood-sugar environment tended to have a better balance of gut bacteria, which in turn has been linked to better health outcomes and anti-inflammatory benefits.

It’s important to note that the glycemic index is only a rough outline of foods and how they affect your blood sugar levels, as every individual processes foods differently. With its emphasis on healthy carbs, whole wheat carbs and whole foods, a low-GI diet is a great way to stick to a cleaner, healthier diet overall and promote sustainable weight loss.

So Are All Sugars Evil?

Well, no. And paying attention to the glycemic index doesn’t mean you have to give up sweet foods altogether. It just means you could make good choices, better choices and then not-so-good choices.

There are lots of sweeteners with low GI values compared with refined white sugar, including maple syrup, palm sugar and brown rice syrup. Then, there’s dates.

Why Dates Rule on the GI Scale and Other Foods Drool

Dates—especially the Medjool varieties—have a glycemic index in the low 40’s to mid 50’s range, or half that of refined white sugar. That makes dates one of the most ideal sugar substitutes for those with a sweet tooth who are trying to avoid high glycemic foods. They’re perfect as a little treat on their own, thrown into smoothies, cooked into jams or made into a syrup. And the list of health benefits are long.

While dates are made up of roughly 80 percent sugar, they register low on the glycemic index because of their high fiber content. As already mentioned, that fiber helps slow the rate at which your body digests the sugar from the dates. As an added bonus, dates also provide a significant source potassium and copper, nutrients that are much needed for optimal gut health.

A 2011 study published in Nutrition Journal found that dates had a significant impact on the blood spikes of diabetic patients, and recommended dates as part of a healthy, balanced diet for that population of people, along with other healthy foods.

Dates, like many fruits, are also an optimal choice because they have a higher fructose content. This matter because sucrose, which is basically cane sugar, and glucose are what cause insulin levels to spike, whereas fructose does not.

Other natural sugars that score low on the glycemic index include maple syrup, agave, and coconut sugar. That’s because in these foods, sucrose is broken down into fructose and glucose. You can read more the hierarchy of sweeteners here.

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