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Your Guide to Understanding the Glycemic Index

Updated on August 29, 2011

The Glycemic Index

Science has long suspected that not all carbohydrates are created equally. With the inception of the glycemic index, science is now able to quantify that inequality. The glycemic index measures how much and how quickly carbohydrate-based foods raise the blood glucose (blood sugar) level. But a food's glycemic index number is only part of the story; to thoroughly understand the impact a particular food will have on your blood glucose level, you also need to know the glycemic load.

The glycemic index measures a particular food's effects on blood sugar levels against glucose or white bread's effects. Once that relationship is determined, the food is assigned a glycemic index number.

The glycemic load of a particular food is based upon the grams of carbohydrate in a portion of that food and its glycemic index. Glycemic index and glycemic load were developed together to describe the quality and quantity in a meal or diet of its carbohydrates.


Video: What Is the Glycemic Index?

What Is the Importance of the Glycemic Index?

You might consider the information about the glycemic index to be all well and good for people with diabetes, but you're not one of them, so why should you be concerned? If you are overweight or obese, there is a good chance that you have developed insulin resistance. Insulin resistance, along with increased weight makes you an excellent candidate to develop type 2 diabetes--the chronic disease that is effecting more and more people who adhere to the standard Western diet. Beginning to moderate your eating habits by making informed decisions about the food you eat is the first step to taking control of your long-term health.

Carbohydrate-based foods are broken down by the digestive processes into the basic energy substance, glucose. In response to the presence of glucose in the blood stream, the beta cells of the pancreas release insulin. Insulin is the gatekeeper to cell walls; it must be present for glucose to move from the circulating blood into the individual cells of your body. When insufficient insulin is produced--or the body requires more insulin than normal to perform the same tasks (as in insulin resistance)--too much glucose remains in your blood stream, causing your blood glucose levels to rise.

Just as putting sugar in your car's gas tank would gum up the works, so does excess glucose in the blood stream. "Sticky" blood--elevated blood glucose--can cause build-up in your blood vessels. This build-up is called arteriosclerosis. Such build-up in the arteries supplying blood to your heart muscle results in coronary artery disease, the leading cause of myocardial infarctions. The kidneys become affected over time through filtering blood with elevated glucose levels. Your body begins to heal more slowly. And if all this isn't enough, you cannot lose weight effectively when your blood glucose levels are altered.

Where Do I Find Information on the Glycemic Index of Food?

There are many resources available both online and offline that provide the glycemic index of carbohydrate-based foods. The most comprehensive online resource that provides the glycemic index of more than 1,600 foods is provided by the University of Sydney. Here you can enter specific foods to learn their glycemic index, you can search broad food terms to receive a list of foods ranked by their glycemic index and you can also find glycemic load values of food.

After you begin to familiarize yourself with the glycemic values of foods, you'll begin to see patterns in some values such as breads and pastas made from whole grain will have lower glycemic values than those made from white flour. The lower the glycemic index of a food, the less it will spike your blood glucose levels. You don't have to avoid all foods with higher glycemic levels all the time; the key is moderation and information. Once you take advantage of the information available, you can make choices based on that information.

The most important person in your health care team is you.


Research Related to the Glycemic Index

The study titled "The Possible Benefits of Nuts in Type 2 Diabetes" published in the Sept. 1, 2008 publication "Journal of Nutrition" examined the potential benefits different types of nuts may play in helping to regulate blood glucose levels. It is accepted by the scientific community that nuts may have positive effects on lipids in the blood and one study has demonstrated that the addition of nuts to the diet reduced the incidence of coronary heart disease in study participants.

The Mediterranean diet, now a model of a healthy diet whose proponents include the American Heart Association, includes small portions of nuts in its daily eating plans. This diet first came into popularity when researchers discovered the good health and longevity of a group of people living in a region of Greece whose lifestyle includes this diet and regular physical activity. Scientists, in working to determine the health benefits of this eating plan, are studying all its potential health benefits.

In this study, researchers noted that when nuts where eaten in the same meal as carbohydrate-based foods, the blood glucose levels after the meal were lower than when the same meal was eaten without the addition of the nuts. This is a preliminary finding that will require more scientific-based studies before it can be positively concluded that nuts may help to regulate after-meal blood sugar levels. Even so, this study's researchers point to the known nutritional benefits of nuts in the diet as a reason for them to be included in the diet of those with diabetes.

It can be reasoned that if nuts are healthy and are to be included in a diabetic diet, they are also a good inclusion in the diets of people who do not have diabetes to aid in the prevention of insulin resistance, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes by helping to moderate blood glucose levels.


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    • L.L. Woodard profile image

      L.L. Woodard 5 years ago from Oklahoma City

      Rajan Jolly, thanks for the read and the comment. I agree with you that the glycemic index and the glycemic load of a food or food product only tells part of the nutritional story. High fat foods may not necessarily have a high GL or GI, but they are certainly loaded with calories.

      Thank you for Sharing.

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 5 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      Very useful and informative. There is a lot of stress being laid on the fact that high GI foods are bad without referring to their GL. I think we should be more concerned with GL and another factor, the calories contained in foods, than GI alone.

      Voted up & useful.

      Sharing this on G+1.

    • L.L. Woodard profile image

      L.L. Woodard 6 years ago from Oklahoma City

      Alocsin, I'm glad to have been able to add to your knowledge base. I know you are well-versed in nutrition and health.

      Thanks for SHARING.

    • alocsin profile image

      alocsin 6 years ago from Orange County, CA

      I'd heard about this before but didn't know what it was until your hub. Thanks for the info and why non-diabetics should be concerned about this. Voting this Up and Useful.

    • L.L. Woodard profile image

      L.L. Woodard 7 years ago from Oklahoma City

      Toknow, glad you found the information to be useful. There is so much health and nutrition info to be found on the Internet it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. I make sure I use the most recent scientific sources for topics that affect people's health and well-being.

    • toknowinfo profile image

      toknowinfo 7 years ago

      Great article. I will bookmark this, since there is so much valuable info here. Thanks for putting this together and for sharing your knowledge. Rated up and useful.

    • L.L. Woodard profile image

      L.L. Woodard 7 years ago from Oklahoma City

      Hi Tim, thanks for dropping by and the comment. I think even healthy people can benefit from knowing about how foods affect our blood sugar levels. It also stands to reason that most foods with a high glycemic index/glycemic load provide a lot of calories per portion, so in watching one number, a person can kill two birds with one stone so to speak.

    • profile image

      kerbey25 7 years ago

      Very informative article. I'm board diabetic right now.

      Thanks.... Tim