Introduction to the Glycemic Index
In a nutshell, the glycemic index (GI) relates to the fluctuations in our blood sugar levels. This is very important for diabetics because they must control their diets/medication in way to keep a steady blood sugar level. Unfortunately, regular, "healthy" people don't seem to take enough interest in their GI's when they should because it plays a large role in our everyday lives such as food cravings, mood, and energy levels.
How It Works:
When you ingest a food, if it contains any type of carbohydrate whatsoever, your body breaks down that food and absorbs the nutrients into the blood stream as quick as possible. The subsequent "spike" in your blood sugar level is represented by a number on the Glycemic Index based on how quickly that particular food enters the blood stream. Sugars enter the blood at an alarming rate, but when digested with other nutrients such as protein, fats or fiber, the process is slowed down.
Refined foods should be approached with caution. What I mean by this is that refined or cooked foods can have their fibrous structure broken down which increases their GI number. For example, a baked or cooked potato will have a higher number than a raw potato. As you begin to remove the fibrous nature of the carbohydrate, when it is digested, it enters your bloodstream and acts like jet fuel. This is great if you are about to be very active and go exercise/play a sport, but if you are sitting on your computer or watching tv, the effects can be lost (refer to previous blog regarding Strategizing Your Diet). Ingesting high-GI foods gives you that "sugar rush" that can cause short-term energy and awareness, but can also cause you to "crash" just as hard as your insulin levels rise to meet the need of all of that sugar, only to bring your levels tumbling down until you reach the point where your body craves...more sugar!
So What to Watch Out For:
Some of you by this point may start to Google Glycemic Index and think to yourself, "Alright, coffee and Diet Coke are both low on the GI scale...and bananas and carrots are high, I should just stick to drinking those awesome beverages...right?!?" Wrong. What you need to keep in mind is that the GI scale is not the be-all end-all of the diet world. You should still keep to your ratios of macronutrients based on your activity level. For example, if you exercise intensely every single day, your carbohydrates should be high. If you are sedentary or only do light exercise, then your carbs will be lower. Either way, your carbs, fats, and proteins should be mixed in some sort of healthy ratio that suits your lifestyle.
Great, so what about those items that are low on the GI scale? Well, things like bananas and carrots are high on the GI scale, but they also contain fiber and other vital nutrients, you know, the stuff that keeps our bodies healthy and functioning, that essentially cancel-out any negative GI number they carry. Candy on the other hand should be avoided or used only as a rare special treat, and yes, candy includes desserts, etc.
The reason why things such as Diet Coke would be low on the GI scale is that they don't contain any sugar. Sorry, let me rephrase that, they don't contain anything useful for the human body...just a bunch of chemicals you are putting in your body...but that will be left for another day!
One of the main offenders, and diabetics learn this pretty quickly, is refined grains. I am talking about white rice, white bread, white pastas, etc. The refining process combined with cooking these items makes them all but void of any fiber, so their GI numbers are off the charts. The saving grace here is if you eat your bread with meat or cheese or vegetables that contain either fat, protein or fiber that help slow the digestion and absorption process. If at all possible though, eliminate white, refined grains from your diet as much as possible and stick to whole grain as they have more fiber in them eliminated the sugar spike.
Final Things to Remember:
When it comes down to it, an individual with following a balanced diet and an active lifestyle does not need to worry about sugar as much, but should still try and avoid blood sugar spikes as much as possible. The problems we run into are the individuals that consume large quantities of sugar and are sedentary, as these empty calories pack on the body fat in no time! Here are few final key points to remember:
-Items with a high GI number are worse than those with a low GI number
-Natural foods are better than processed, refined foods
-Uncooked is better than cooked
-Fructose (fruits) is better than sucrose (table sugar) which is better than high-fructose corn syrup (not to be confused with natural fructose!
-Fruits and veggies are essentially fine, even if they have a high GI number
-Level of carbs in your diet should reflect your activity level
-Don't drink your calories, people consume so many of their calories through sugary drinks (soda, juice, energy drinks) that are void of fiber, causing major sugar spikes, which in turn cause many cravings