Glycemic Index

Glycemic index graphGlucose levels after eating low and high GI foods.

You want your blood sugar as stable as possible. Diabetes related complications and hypoglycemia come from prolonged blood sugar swings.

The Glycemic Index number lets you know how fast carbs are absorbed in the blood. In other words, it indicates the quality of carbohydrates.

It's a good general indicator to protect yourself from those raised glucose levels. In the practical sense however the glycemic load makes a better reference.

Foods with a low glycemic index are slowly absorbed limiting those feared spikes.

The indicator is not as restrictive as you may think. A lot of foods have a low to medium GI giving ample food variation. Lets not forget companies producing diabetic friendly food products.

The Right Number

The GI ranges from 0 to 100. Anything below 55 is considered to have a low glycemic index. From 56 to 70 is moderate and above 70 is high.

But what matters here is the glycemic load (GL) of foods. You still need to know the amount of carbohydrates because the index number alone does not take in account calories nor carbs.

It's easier if you take a food portion to estimate its glycemic load. How much and how fast glucose enters the blood after eating.

By knowing this number you could prepare dishes with acceptable amounts of carbohydrates indirectly. 

For this purpose, GL tables or a good app help make an estimation. Watermelon has a high glycemic index of 80, but one serving is very low in carbohydrates so the glycemic load is going to be very low as well.

Careful though, it doesn't mean you're allowed to eat a whole watermelon.

Roughly taken, a GL between 10 and 20 is moderate. Below the range is low and above is considered high.

The glycemic load lets you know how much effect a food portion will have on the blood glucose.

Simple vs Complex

All absorbable carbohydrate types will raise blood glucose. It's commonly misunderstood that sugar alone causes a raise or that it's responsible for diabetes related complications.

Moreover, studies in Canada and Australia, found that what has been considered complex carbohydrates like potatoes, rice and bread, can actually spike glucose levels too.

The reasoning here is that since they were seen as complex carbs they expected a moderate blood sugar raise.

On the other hand, because refined sugar is considered a simple carbohydrate, they were once prohibited for diabetics. That way of thinking is no longer valid. Simple and complex are more intertwined than we thought.

Many starchy foods, as whole as they may be, can actually be absorbed quickly. Often times quicker than ordinary table sugar.

The same research showed that refined sugar, as we know it today, has only a moderate effect on blood glucose. 

Our Body Fuel

Whether they're simple or complex carbs it's all broken down to glucose. You can't live without it ...literally! If all sugar disappeared from the body you'd be dead.

Very rare but this is actually possible with severe hypoglycemia.

The brain together with the muscles are the biggest consumer of energy. The body constantly uses energy even when you're sleeping. It goes to show how important carbohydrates are for living.

With this thought, we could include desserts in our diet in a moderate manner. Even better would be diabetic dessert recipes.

So if all carbs raise the concentration of blood glucose and it's not well processed, a diabetic needs to monitor and control themselves besides maintaining an adequate diet...

...consisting of low/moderate glycemic and health foods as much as possible.

 Glycemic Index
is not a Hero

Maintaining a diet is much like a balancing act. It takes time to know how your body reacts to different food types.

One diabetic may react differently to another when they have cooked rice. It can spike blood glucose while others experience less dramatic changes.

Unfortunately this is not the only problem! It's very difficult to know the exact glycemic index of foods. Too many factors have an influence. Factors that change food composition.

Some of these are:

  • The fibres that may be part of a meal or snack. It slows the effects of digestive enzymes thus slowing the absorbtion of starches.
  • The amount of fats included with the carbs. Fats also slow the stomach emptying its content.
  • The sugar type. Cane sugar is moderately absorbed compared to pure glucose. Glucose spikes blood sugar very quick.
  • How foods are made. Cooking times, processing and concentration of ingredients.

Thanks to modern technology diabetics can find some relief with calculators/tables on websites and apps. See Glycemic Index/Load Search.

Apps for tablets / smartphones:

  • Fooducate
  • Glooko
  • Glucosio
  • Glycemic Index and Load Diet Aid

This is just a sample of the many useful applications.

These aiding sofware should not be taken as a replacement of doctors. Only they can diagnose and properly treat patients.

Final Thoughts

Calculating carbohydrates and GI numbers to see what one could eat is sometimes considered old school. It does help set up a diet plan but today there are other solutions as we saw above.

Some companies specialize in producing diabetic friendly food products and offer swap tables as a guide. Food products with a high Glycemic Index can be replaced with a much better alternative.

However, a measured portion of high GI food low in carbohydrates is allowed.

While keeping your body sugar at bay through diets, it is still necessary to monitor (self-test) glucose levels. This is actually essential to a diabetic's health.

The human body is submitted to variables (sickness, activity, water, metabolism, etc...) out of our control. Hence the importance of self-testing. This is as important as changing lifestyle habits and correctly using medication.

So even though low GI diets can stabilize blood sugar, it is certainly not a set and forget plan.

How well you're doing as a diabetic is where doctors/dieticians come in. They can let you know if the chosen path should be continued or where to make adjustments.

Of course, how much involvement there is, is up to a diabetic's understanding of life quality.