There are many, many dietary strategies to choose from nowadays and while there isn't one 'right' diet for everyone, sometimes the excess of choice can be a detriment. I often wonder how many of us have a huge pile of trendy cookbooks that we bought because they were 'the next big thing', only to discover that the diet was too restrictive or unsustainable. Whenever I find myself lost in the culinary noise, I tend to come back to a fundamental: the glycemic index and low glycemic eating.
What Is the Glycemic Index?
The glycemic index (GI) ranks carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent they raise blood sugar levels after eating. Foods with a high GI are those that are rapidly digested and absorbed, and result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels. High-GI foods tend to be:
- sweet fruits
- refined and processed grains (white rice, white bread)
- foods low in protein, fat and/or fibre
- sugary foods (pastries, refined sugars, candy, cake, etc.)
Spikes in blood sugar levels also result in spikes in insulin levels, which can lead to metabolic risks down the road. Low-GI foods, on the opposite side of the scale, are those that are slower to digest and also have a slower rate of sugar absorption. They give us longer, more sustained and even energy levels.
Why Does the Glycemic Index Matter?
High glycemic foods are immediately digested and hit the bloodstream quickly. Our blood sugar levels rise (that's the sugar rush) and what goes up, must come down. That means our pancreas pumps out insulin to get that sugar into our cells. Once that happens, our blood sugar levels drop dramatically and our adrenal glands kick in and secrete adrenaline to pick us back up.
In sum: we ride high, high, high and then crash into puddles of crankiness, irritability, complete exhaustion and sweet cravings. Here are some clues that your diet is high on the glycemic index and you may be addicted to sugar. Check any and all that apply:
- Intense cravings for sweets
- Mood swings
- Weight gain around mid-section
- Poor concentration
- Poor memory
- Binge eating
- Sudden drop in energy
- Brain fog
- Constant worrying
- Fits of anger
- Fatigue after eating
- Shakiness/Light Headed
- Wake up suddenly for no apparent reason
- Night sweats
What About Glycemic Load?
The glycemic index doesn't describe the full picture of a food's impact on blood sugar levels. There is also the glycemic load, which takes the quality and quantity of the carbohydrate into consideration. Blood sugar levels are also impacted by the amount of fibre, fat and protein in a particular food or meal.
It's easy to get confused or obsessed with the numbers, yet focusing on low glycemic foods is a great way to ensure your blood sugar levels stay stable and it's a solid strategy to support your overall health.
Health Benefits of Low Glycemic Diets
Low glycemic diets can support our health in a variety of ways.
High glycemic diets are associated with an increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke, while low glycemic diets are linked to a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, improved HDL concentrations and lower inflammation. Another analysis concluded that low-GI diets yield better outcomes for our hearts than low-fat diets.
Type 2 Diabetes
A large meta-analysis that followed hundreds of thousands of men and women showed that high GI and high GL diets led to an increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. Other meta-analyses found that low-glycemic diets reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and improve insulin resistance, while further studies have concluded that low-GI diets have a more positive effect on blood sugar levels.
Obesity and Metabolic Syndrome
As our culture began to fear fat in the 20th century, we began to include more refined carbohydrates and overall carbohydrates in our diets. High glycemic foods, however, have led to obesity and metabolic syndrome, a collection of conditions that includes high blood sugar, obesity and cardiovascular risks like high blood pressure.
Brain + Mood
Low glycemic diets can help improve mood, and are associated with fewer symptoms of depression, while high glycemic diets are considered a risk factor for depression. Low glycemic diets can also improve our cognitive performance.
Low glycemic diets may reduce our risk of certain cancers such as breast, prostate and colon.
Is The Glycemic Index a Relevant Measure for Health?
I believe that the glycemic index remains a helpful measure and can serve as a guide for many people as they seek to improve their health and wellbeing. One thing to keep in mind is that the glycemic index is just one tool. In my experience working with a multitude of students over the years, low-GI eating can be extremely useful and simple and it's just one of the many things we can draw on to support our health. There is no one tool or dietary strategy that is a magic panacea. It's important to eat low-sugar foods, but also to sleep well, have regular bowel movements, drink water, have a non-toxic home, eat sustainable animal products and organic food, the list goes on.
There are many low carb, low sugar diets out there that are challenging to follow and so instead, I invite you to explore low-glycemic eating without becoming too obsessed with the minutiae and focus on:
- Eating meals that are rich in complex carbohydrates, fibre, protein and healthy fat
- Eat lots of fruits and vegetables
- Eat gluten-free grains, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes
- Eat sustainable animal products (meat, fish, eggs) if you choose
When we think of the glycemic index this way, isn't it a lot more delicious and fun?
12 Low Glycemic Index Recipes
Buckwheat Sweet Potato Burgers
A mixed veggie and grain burger that works well with a drippy tahini sauce, protein-rich hummus or fat-filled guacamole.
Coconut Curry with Cod
A kid-friendly one-pot meal that has become one of my go-tos for the family. For a vegan option, use beans or tempeh.
The Best Banana Pancakes with Chickpea Flour
This recipe's only sweetener is banana, and the chickpea flour – which is rich in protein and fibre – helps to make this one low-glycemic. Skip the maple syrup and drizzle with nut butter, seed butter or melted coconut butter.
Simple Kale Salad
A super easy kale salad that works as a side, or you can bulk up to a full meal if desired with extra nuts, eggs, chicken or tofu.
Yellow Split Pea Dahl
A warm, heart and immune-boosting low glycemic meal.
Crispy Crunchy Chickpeas
A great alternative snack to starchy potato chips, and you can season these any way you'd like.
Gluten-Free Chicken Fingers with Cashew Coating
From scratch chicken fingers that are low glycemic and super healthful.
Easy Thai Red Curry
This recipe has both vegan and Paleo options and will satisfy anyone's taste buds.
Lemon Lentil Vegetable Soup
This classic recipe of mine never gets old.
Chia Chocolate Pudding
If you're going to have chocolate on a low glycemic index diet, this is one of the best ways to do it!
Vegan Shepherd's Pie
Cauliflower stands in for mashed potato in this comforting meal that's easy to prep ahead of time.
Immune Power Bone Broth
Bone broth is a nourishing liquid to add to soups, stews, one-pot meals and sauces, or to have on its own as a low-glycemic snack.
Photo Credit: iStock Happy Lark