The glycemic index is a tool that assigns a value to foods based on the degree to which they increase blood sugar. Many people use the glycemic index as a way to manage their blood sugar.
Paying attention to the glycemic index of foods can improve your overall health by enhancing weight loss, boosting energy, and reducing overall disease risk.
This article will explain what the glycemic index is, how to use it, and how it can benefit your health.
What is the Glycemic Index?
The glycemic index (GI) is a value assigned to different foods to measure how quickly these foods cause blood sugar to rise.
The GI ranks foods on a scale of zero to 100, meaning that foods lower on the scale cause a slower rise in blood sugar, while foods higher on the scale cause a more rapid rise in blood sugar.
The foods that are higher on the scale tend to be those that are high in simple carbohydrates and added sugars. Foods lower on the scale are more likely to contain complex carbohydrates along with fiber, protein, and/or fat which allows for slower digestion and absorption.
Foods that don’t contain any carbohydrates are not given a GI, such as meat, fish, poultry, and oils for example.
What Happens When You Eat High Glycemic Index Foods?
When people eat high glycemic index foods, blood sugar will rise more rapidly compared to other low GI foods.
A rapid increase in blood sugar often coincides with a blood sugar crash. This is because a spike in blood sugar causes a rapid increase in insulin production to help shuttle glucose into our body’s cells. This causes blood sugar levels to fall, sometimes too rapidly, leading to a sudden drop in energy levels, also known as a sugar crash.
The Body’s Response to Low GI Foods
On the other hand, when people eat low GI foods, the body reacts with a more subtle and steady rise in blood sugar.
As a result of a smaller spike in blood sugar, the body also produces less insulin, which translates to less inflammation and more stable energy levels. Plus, the more gradual rise in blood sugar allows your body to feel more satiated after a meal or snack.
How Does the Glycemic Index Play a Role in Health and Fitness?
Paying attention to the glycemic index of foods can be a valuable way to improve your health and fitness goals. This next section will explain various ways that the glycemic index plays a role in health and fitness.
Consistently eating foods with a high glycemic index will lead to frequent spikes and crashes in blood sugar. Excess insulin and blood sugar triggers the body to put the excess sugar in storage, which is often in the form of fat. This is why over time a diet rich in high GI foods can lead to weight gain.
Consistently eating a diet of low GI foods may play a vital role in weight management and perhaps weight loss.
While more research is needed in this area, research suggests that low GI foods might contribute to weight management due to the higher fiber content in these foods, which helps you better regulate your appetite and cravings.
Eating foods with a lower GI is correlated to a more consistent and stable appetite. When blood sugar levels spike and crash, people are more likely to feel hungry sooner and consume more calories compared to those who have more gradual blood sugar trends.
Low GI foods are more likely to provide consistent energy to keep people feeling energized throughout the day, while high GI foods are more likely to cause a sugar crash leading to feelings of fatigue. After all, blood sugar levels play an important role in how energized you feel. High GI foods lead to a quick burst of energy that often leads to a crash, while low GI foods allow for more sustained energy.
Utilizing the glycemic index as a tool when it comes to your food choices can also have long-term health benefits.
Improved blood sugar regulation as a result of eating low GI foods can be an important dietary intervention for those with diabetes.
Additionally, following a low GI diet may also help reduce cholesterol levels, which can lower the risk for developing heart disease.
Who Can Benefit From High Glycemic Index Foods?
Of note, high glycemic index foods aren’t necessarily a bad thing, nor does eating them mean you will automatically have poor health.
Some people can benefit from consuming high GI carbohydrates. For example, athletes often need quick forms of energy to power through a workout, or to quickly replenish their body after exercise.
If you’re someone who's trying to gain weight, eating more high GI foods can be helpful. High GI foods tend to be less filling, meaning it’s easier to eat more volume and more caloric density without uncomfortable fullness being a barrier.
For example, athletes looking to increase their overall energy intake may find consuming high GI foods to be a helpful way to do so.
Should You Avoid High Glycemic Index Foods?
There is no need to completely avoid any particular food unless you have an allergy.
It’s important to think about the big picture when it comes to your nutrition and lifestyle habits.
Diet quality is ultimately about the overall patterns and eating habits you maintain over the long run.
No one food or choice is going to derail your progress. In fact, including all foods in your diet and honoring your preferences can be a helpful way to foster a positive relationship with food and your body.
However, thinking about the glycemic index can be a helpful way for you to make informed decisions about your eating. There’s no need to have an all-or-nothing mentality around food. Nor is there a need to fear or completely avoid high GI foods. However, aiming to incorporate many low GI foods can be a great way to support your health and fitness goals.
Examples of Low Glycemic Index Carbs
Here’s a list of carbohydrates that are considered low glycemic index foods:
- Breads: whole grain, rye, multigrain
- Cereals: oatmeal, bran cereal, granola
- Grains: brown rice, black rice, whole grain pasta, quinoa, farro
- Fruits: apples, berries, stone fruits, kiwis
- Vegetables: sweet potatoes, leafy greens, broccoli, and cauliflower
- Legumes: chickpeas, black beans, lentils, kidney beans
- Dairy: milk, greek yogurt, cheese
This list is not all-inclusive and there are many other low GI foods that are not listed above. Here are more comprehensive lists from Harvard Health and the American Diabetes Association.
However, here’s a starting point with some ideas for low GI carbohydrates. Keep in mind that there are other foods like meats, fish, poultry, eggs, and soy products that can be included in a low GI diet.
However, since these foods don’t contain carbohydrates they are not assigned a GI value.
It’s important to understand that you can pair a high GI food with other foods such as a side of high-fiber veggies and/or a piece of fish or meat to lower the glycemic index of the meal. Protein and fiber will slow sugar absorption, helping to dull the body’s blood sugar response.
The glycemic index is a tool that assigns a value to foods based on how quickly foods spike blood sugar. Focusing on foods that have lower GI values can be helpful for better blood sugar management, more stable energy levels, appetite regulation, and keeping the body healthy and disease free.
Consuming high GI foods can be particularly helpful for athletes looking for a quick energy boost or for those looking to put on weight.
When making food choices, thinking about the glycemic index can be a helpful way to support your health and fitness goals.