What is glycemic index, and does it even matter?

Plus: 9 restaurants to avoid if you care about your blood sugar.

Tuesday. It’s National Grilled Cheese Sandwich Day on Friday. Don’t believe me? It’s true (SEE IT HERE). You’ve been forewarned—you have the next few days to get your favorite bread and cheese together. I am personally a sourdough and sharp cheddar type of person myself. I wonder what a grilled cheese sandwich will do to your blood sugar. Probably nothing good. 

Which brings us to THIS LIST of 9 restaurants to avoid if you care about your blood sugar. Some of these are more obvious than others, but long story short, a grilled cheese sandwich once a year isn’t going to kill you. But regular visits to Panera or Panda Express? That’s a different story. (GET THE LIST

Continuing on this topic of blood sugar, you’ve probably heard of the glycemic index. So, what is it, and is it useful? Let’s dive in.

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How Useful Is The Glycemic Index?

Understanding how different foods affect our blood sugar levels is crucial, especially given the increasing prevalence of diabetes and other chronic metabolic conditions. The glycemic index (GI) is one tool used to help people manage their blood sugar by ranking different types of carbs based on how quickly they raise blood sugar levels compared to pure glucose. 

This might sound straightforward, but it's a bit more complicated than it seems (of course it is). 

The glycemic index measures how fast 50 grams of carbohydrates from a food raises blood glucose levels, with glucose itself having a GI of 100. Foods with a high GI, like white bread, quickly spike blood sugar, which can be harmful over time. On the other hand, low-GI foods like lentils cause a slower, more gradual increase in blood sugar. 

Knowing which foods have low or high GI values can help people make healthier choices that could prevent the sharp spikes in blood sugar that contribute to insulin resistance and, eventually, diabetes and all sorts of conditions you want to avoid. 

However, the GI doesn't consider the quantity of food eaten or the combination of foods in a typical meal, which can alter the blood sugar impact significantly. For example, watermelon has a high GI, but the actual amount of carbohydrates in a standard serving is relatively low, so its effect on blood sugar is minimal compared to a serving of pasta. You have to eat a lot more watermelon than pasta to get those 50 grams of carbs. 

The solution? This limitation led to the development of the glycemic load (GL), which considers the GI in the context of the serving size of the food. GL gives a more realistic understanding of how a typical food serving affects blood sugar levels. For instance, while a donut and a slice of watermelon might have similar GIs, their GLs are different because the typical serving size of watermelon contains far fewer carbohydrates. I’m not sure anyone needs GI or GL to realize that watermelon is healthier than a donut, but you get the point. 

While GI and GL can be valuable tools, they should not be the only factors considered when assessing the impact of foods on blood sugar. The type of carbohydrate and the presence of other nutrients like fiber, protein, and fat also influence the overall effect on blood sugar levels. For instance, adding protein or fat can slow the absorption of carbohydrates, reducing the glycemic impact. This is why you want to avoid any meal or snack that is primarily just carbs. 

On top of that, individual responses to carbohydrates can vary widely based on factors such as genetics, gut microbiota, and overall health. In practice, focusing on a diet rich in whole, minimally processed foods and balancing carbohydrate intake with fiber, protein, and healthy fats is a practical approach everyone can benefit from. Pairing higher GI foods with foods rich in fiber and protein can also help mitigate the immediate impact those foods have on blood sugar levels.

And, of course, physical activity plays a crucial role in managing blood sugar. Exercise helps muscles absorb glucose from the bloodstream and use it for energy, reducing blood sugar spikes after meals. Even just a brisk walk after a meal can have a significant impact on how much your blood sugar spikes after some carbs. There is more validity to “walking off lunch” than you might have thought. 

The key takeaway? While the glycemic index and glycemic load provide helpful information about how foods might affect blood sugar levels, they are just part of the picture. Sometimes, obsessing over things like GI and GL could just leave you more confused than you were to begin with. 

Instead, a holistic approach that includes a balanced diet and regular physical activity can provide a more comprehensive strategy for managing blood sugar and promoting overall health. Who would have thought? 

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