Best Low Glycemic Index Foods For People With Diabetes
The glycemic index (GI) measurement scale determines how foods impact your blood sugar level. Eating foods with lower GI ratings reduces your overall blood sugar, lowers your risk of heart disease, and helps prevent or mitigate type 2 diabetes.
The scale attracts a fair amount of criticism, with skeptics claiming that it’s an unreliable method for determining the healthfulness of certain foods. But glycemic index is still a powerful metric for determining your ideal diet, especially if you are diabetic.
Patients with type 2 diabetes consider their diets carefully, and new ways to measure healthfulness in food are the key to unlocking better lifestyles for them.
Let’s talk about the glycemic index and diabetes. Find out about the details, workings, and limitations of the GI index and other related concepts to give yourself a better grasp on living and eating as an individual with type 2 diabetes.
Understanding Carbohydrates, the Foundation of GI
We first need to talk about carbohydrates, as the glycemic index bases its values on them. Carbohydrates, or carbs, are found in bread, fruit, vegetables, and dairy products. As a diabetic, you may have been told before to avoid carbs, as they are often linked with obesity and the symptoms of type 2.
Even today there is still debate over how much of the human diet should be carbs. They are still nonetheless a large part of the modern diet alongside fats and proteins.
The digestive system breaks down carbohydrates into simple sugars, which in turn enter the bloodstream before heading to your cells for use as energy. The body can also process carbs into fat for energy for later use.
The Types of Carbohydrates
Nutritionists typically think of three types of carbohydrates, each of which has its own impact on blood glucose levels.
There are also sugar alcohols, but they are not a significant source of calories. The type of carbohydrate determines its glycemic index value. But just as important is whether the carbohydrates are whole or refined.
Whole Vs. Refined Carbs: Which is Better for Diabetes Control?
Whole carbs are unprocessed, meaning that they still contain their natural fiber. These foods include vegetables, barley, potatoes, and whole grains. For obvious reasons, you want to stick to these carbs in your diet.
Refined carbs are processed, where the natural fiber within them is changed or removed. Examples of refined carbohydrates include sugary beverages and white bread. They can trigger spikes in blood sugar and are often linked with diabetes. Refined carbs also do not contain many essential nutrients, making them “empty” calories.
Ever been recommended by your doctor to eat brown rice instead of white rice or whole wheat instead of white bread? This is why.
Why Carbs Aren't the Enemy in Diabetes Management
You’ve probably heard of low carb diets. Keto diets, for instance, are designed for people with diabetes to persuade the body into using fat for energy rather than carbohydrates. While carbs are not for everyone, they can still be a positive addition to your diet.
Some low-carb diets can work well for weight loss, but recent studies have shown that long-term cardiovascular health was not significantly impacted under a low-carb diet. Other studies have even correlated low-carb diets with premature death from conditions like cancer and coronary heart disease.
Contrary to general belief, carbs do not directly cause obesity either. Many healthy cultures eat plenty of carbohydrates; the main issue is the use of refined carbs in processed foods. What we should aim for then is to avoid the “bad” carbs rather than avoiding carbs entirely, which leads us into the GI scale.
What Is the Glycemic Index?
We should start by saying that not all foods have an associated GI value. Only ones with a non-negligible amount of carbohydrates do, meaning that fish, chicken, beef, and eggs are among the exclusions to the GI scale.
The Glycemic Index was invented by Canadian professor Dr. David Jenkins in the 1980s. GI ranks food based on how much it raises your blood sugar relative to 50 grams of pure glucose. Glucose is considered the benchmark, as it has a GI value of 100.
Under the index, foods with a rating of 55 or lower are considered “low”; 56 to 69 are “medium”; and 70 or more are “high.”
A low GI diet is preferred, as these foods are digested and absorbed slowly, resulting in small changes in blood sugar. Higher GI foods digest and absorb quickly to create rapid changes in blood sugar.
What Factors Impact the GI Rating of Foods?
What exactly makes carbohydrates adopt higher or lower glycemic indices? Some of the factors involved are:
Glycemic index, however, is not the only measurement system we use to determine the healthfulness of carb foods.
The Difference Between Glycemic Load and Glycemic Index
A major weakness of the glycemic index is that it fails to take into account the serving size or amount of carbohydrates you are eating. That’s where glycemic load (GL) comes from.
This scale measures how carbs impact your blood sugar levels based on its glycemic index and quantity (grams per serving). A GL value of 10 or fewer is considered “low,” 11 to 19 is “medium,” and 20 or more is high.
One striking way to illustrate the differences between GI and GL is how watermelon is analyzed. Its glycemic index is rather high at 80, but the fruit’s low carbohydrate content results in a glycemic load of only 5.
Many health organizations recommend using both GI and GL together to determine optimal diets. Using only GI does not tell you the true impact on your blood glucose levels.
What Are the Health Benefits of Low GI Diets?
Several studies and reviews have demonstrated the relationship between low glycemic index diets and good health among diabetic populations. Some of these studies directly look at the relationship between the index and diabetes.
- This diet reduces blood sugar in people with diabetes and in turn the risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, kidney damage, and stroke.
- A 2019 review of 54 studies shows that these diets reduce body weight and improve blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes.
- High GI diets are linked with an elevated risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
- Another study showed that raising a diet by 5 points on the GI scale increases the risk of type 2 diabetes by 8%.
- This diet also helps improve birth outcomes for pregnant women with diabetes. For instance, the risk of macrosomia, a complication where the child is born with an unnaturally high weight, is reduced by 73%.
- High glycemic foods cause hormone changes at the level of your pores that lead to acne.
Going further than diabetes, lowering the glycemic index of your diet also optimizes your cholesterol levels. Specifically, it lowers LDL cholesterol, which is linked with heart disease and stroke. Some studies even suggest a link between lower GI and lower risk of certain cancers.
We finally must mention the index’s impact on weight loss. High-GI foods are poor for appetite management, and you will become hungry quickly after consuming them. That’s why overeating is so common for people with high-GI diets.
Eating too many refined carbs will cause your blood sugar levels to drop shortly after eating and stimulate the part of your brain that generates hunger. This short-term craving cycle is what leads to overeating, as proven by several long-term studies.
Potential Drawbacks of Relying Only on Glycemic Index
Not all nutritionists agree with the glycemic index scale. Many point their evidence toward how the scale fails to capture the complete picture. GI does not tell you, for example, the amount of protein, fat, or fiber of a certain food. There are additionally many unhealthful foods that happen to have good GI values, such as candy bars.
GI also focuses on individual foods, so analyzing mixed meals can be a challenge under the scale. And finally, GI does not take into account the number of carbs consumed. Watermelon is an example of a food with a fairly high GI despite low carb content and thus low impact on blood sugar levels.
Nonetheless, GI still stands as a useful metric for diabetics, and adopting low index foods still generally improves your health as a diabetic.
Top Best Low GI Foods to Include in Your Diabetes Diet
If you have type 2 diabetes, counting calories should not be a priority. Rather, search for foods with low glycemic indices to replace high GI foods. Some examples include:
- Wholegrain or rye breads
- Vegetables like carrots, broccoli, and celery
- Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and yams
- Pasta and noodles
- Brown rice
- Dairy products including cheese, milk, and yogurt
A few foods have moderate glycemic indices (usually around 56 to 69) and thus are acceptable in moderation.
- Breakfast cereals like Cream of Wheat
- White potatoes
- Rye bread
Remember that foods without many carbs do not have a GI rating. Ones that don’t but can still be included in a positive diet are:
- Fish and seafood
- Beef, chicken, and pork
- Fats and oils (olive oil and avocados for example)
- Herbs and spices
Snack enthusiasts will be happy to know that snacking is allowed in this diet. Some suggestions are unsalted nuts, hummus, Greek yogurt, fruit slices, and hard-boiled eggs.
Foods to Avoid: High Glycemic Index Foods That Spike Blood Sugar
Diets that avoid high GI foods do not have to ban them entirely, but look to eat less of:
- White bread (including French baguettes and naan)
- Processed cereals like Corn Flakes and Froot Loops
- “Instant” foods like instant noodles, oats, and mashed potatoes
- White rice
- Sweets like cupcakes, cookies, and jelly beans
The next time you go shopping, replace white rice with brown rice or instant oatmeal with steel-cut oatmeal. Start buying whole-grain bread instead of white bread.
Look for ways to combine your favorites too. For example, combine milk with fruit in a smoothie or add it to a morning oat porridge. Blueberries and cherries are excellent garnishes for breakfast dishes. Add soy milk to any meal if you prefer a plant-based alternative to regular milk. The beverage is also a great source of protein.
Practical Tips for Transitioning to a Low Glycemic Diet
Updating your choices is easy once you find alternatives to foods with high glycemic indices. But what are some small things you can do to accelerate the transition?
- Do not overcook. Remember that cooking raises the glycemic index the next time you boil pasta.
- Go for high-fiber options. Fiber takes longer to digest and minimizes the resulting change in blood glucose.
- Minimize high GI foods. This diet does not ban foods with high glycemic indices. In fact, there’s nothing wrong with a few of them in limited portions. If you believe they will help you adhere to the diet better, go for them.
- Eat low GI foods alongside any high GI foods. You can partly counter the impact of high-GI options with low GI foods in your meals. Add some olive oil to roasted potatoes or put chicken on a bed of brown rice.
- Incorporate a Meal Plan: Having a structured meal plan can make it easier to stick to low-GI foods. Plan your meals and snacks in advance to ensure you're making the best choices for your blood sugar levels.
Discover More About Low Glycemic Index Foods With Curalife
Making smarter decisions over what you eat is a large step towards a healthier lifestyle as a diabetic, and the glycemic index is one way to ensure you stay on the right track.
Want to learn more about the glycemic index and other useful concepts for those with type 2 diabetes? Join our Winning Type 2 Diabetes Together community today to connect with other diabetics, and see what low GI foods they are using in their diets.