The Difference Between the Glycemic Index, the Food Insulin Index, and Carb Counting

January 11,2023 |
Person cutting a banana and putting it into a fruit bowl.

There are several ways that people with diabetes track their food intake in order to optimize their overall management plans. While many individuals find that with time, they gain a pretty strong understanding of what foods raise their blood sugar levels, which ones lower them, and what foods are stabilizing, it can take some trial and error. To help reduce the risk of unnecessary complications or spikes/drops in blood glucose levels, many people stick to a low carb diet at first. However, there are ways to learn how certain foods will affect your body before you eat them. Some of these include the glycemic index and the food insulin index. To help you differentiate between the various methods of diabetes management, we’ll go over the differences between the glycemic index, the food insulin index, and carb counting.


What is the Glycemic Index (GI)?

The glycemic index (GI) is a type of food-related scale that is used to provide information on how fast your body converts carbohydrates into glucose. It’s commonly used as a tool when people are trying to manage their blood sugar levels and is particularly beneficial for those living with diabetes.

The rating system goes from zero to 100 and the lower the GI of a food, the less it impacts your blood glucose. Low GI includes foods that are 55 or lower, medium GI incorporates foods between 56 and 69, and high glycemic index foods are those that have a 70 or above. Foods are rated based on how fast they are digested and thus, how much they affect glucose levels.

Some examples of foods with a low GI include:

  • Vegetables - sprouts, romaine, spinach, arugula, zucchini, spaghetti squash, watercress, squash, broccoli, kohlrabi, brussels sprouts, red cabbage, mustard greens, sweet peas, russet potatoes, sweet potatoes, etc.
  • Bran - rice bran, wheat bran, oat bran, etc.
  • Fruit - avocados, bananas, apples, prunes, raisins, figs, orange, etc.
  • Nuts and Seeds - walnuts, almonds, Brazil nuts, pinon nuts, cashews, peanuts, pistachio nuts, pumpkin seeds, flax seeds, chia seeds, sunflower seeds, etc.
  • Whole Grains - popcorn, oats, quinoa, barley, rye flour, wild rice, millet, bulgur, brown rice, etc.
  • Berries - raspberries, elderberries, blackberries, blueberries, strawberries, gooseberries, boysenberries, etc.
  • Beans and Legumes - black beans, lima beans, garbanzo beans, lentils, kidney beans, navy beans, pinto beans, etc.


    Foods that are processed or refined tend to have higher GI ratings while whole foods that are filled with protein, healthy fats, or fiber have a lower GI. Having a high GI means that food is digested and turned into blood sugar quickly, which may result in a spike of blood glucose levels. However, pairing a food that’s high in fiber with a high GI food can help lower the GI of the total meal, thus decreasing the speed of digestion.

    Understanding Glycemic Load (GL)

    The glycemic load (GL) of a food focuses more on the number of carbs in one serving. Since foods that are low in GI can still be high in carbs, it’s important to use both when managing your diabetes. Similarly, if you’d like to eat something with a high glycemic index, that’s okay. By limiting your serving size to a small portion, the glycemic load is smaller, thus reducing your glucose response.


    What is the Food Insulin Index?

    The insulin index is a type of scale that measures blood levels of insulin following a meal. This allows you to better understand your insulin response to certain foods and thus, make a better prediction of when you’ll need to administer diabetes medications. The elevation of insulin concentration is measured based on a two-hour period after the food has been ingested.

    The insulin index is based on the body’s insulin response to white bread, which has a score of 100%. However, there are still foods that may raise insulin more than white bread, which would result in a score that surpasses 100. For example, potatoes tend to have a score of about 121 while oatmeal can have an insulin index of as low as 40.

    Some foods that have an insulin index lower than 100 include:

  • Vegetables – tomatoes, broccoli, carrots, cauliflower, peas, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, spinach, etc.
  • Fruit – apples, avocados, dates, bananas, grapes, oranges, peaches, pears, watermelon, etc.
  • Nuts and Seeds – walnuts, peanuts, etc.
  • Protein – eggs, chicken, pork, ham, beef, white fish, tuna, bass, lamb, etc.
  • Bran and Whole Grains – oats, barley, couscous, bran, brown rice, rice, etc.
  • Beans and Legumes – baked beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils, etc.
  • Diary – brie, cheese, cottage cheese, milk, butter, yogurt, etc.

The insulin index also takes into account food portions and caloric content, but tends to be more effective at diabetes management than the glycemic index. This is because the insulin index takes into consideration how certain foods affect your blood sugar levels, not just their carbohydrate content. Although many foods along the glycemic index and insulin index are correlated, certain high-protein foods can elicit a response regardless of their lack of carbohydrates.

This can help individuals better manage their diabetes and reduce their reliance on diabetes medication over time. The insulin index also takes into consideration how someone feels after they’ve consumed and digested their food. These satiety levels can further help individuals plan for diabetes management success.

The primary limitation with the insulin index scale is that many foods aren’t included in the database. This can make it difficult to rely on as a single-entity resource. If you’re not sure which option to use, talk to your doctor for recommendations based on your lifestyle habits and other diabetes management techniques.


What is Carb Counting for Diabetes?

Many people tend to focus on good, old-fashioned carb counting for diabetes management. Carb counting can help you control your blood glucose levels, but it will depend on the type of carbs you’re consuming. There are three primary types of carbs: starch, sugar, and fiber.


Starch is a type of naturally occurring component in plants, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Beans, legumes, oats, barley, quinoa, squash, and other whole grains have healthy amounts of starch and are usually filled with several beneficial vitamins and minerals. Starches also tend to have some degree of fiber in them. When eating grains, make sure to avoid most of the refined options as these tend to be higher in carbs with the beneficial components removed. Instead, try to focus on products that have been labeled whole grain or whole wheat.


Fiber is another beneficial carbohydrate that can help you with diabetes management. It’s derived from plant-based foods and helps clean out your digestive system. There are several benefits of eating a diet that’s high in fiber if you’re living with diabetes. It can help lower cholesterol levels, stabilize blood glucose, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, and help you maintain a healthy weight. You should be eating about 14 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories you consume. Try to get your fiber from natural sources before turning to supplements. However, if you’re struggling, talk to your doctor about the best fiber supplement to incorporate into your diet.


Sugars are the worst type of carbohydrate for your body. However, naturally derived sugars do provide a degree of benefit, as they can help fuel your muscles and bodily functions. Processed or added sugars, on the other hand, can be extremely dangerous and are associated with a range of health conditions. Foods that are high in added sugars can cause dangerous spikes in your blood sugar levels and increase your risk for several diabetes-related complications. It’s important to limit foods with added sugar and be mindful of the amount of natural sugar you consume during the day.

If you have type 2 diabetes, reducing the amount of sugar you consume can drastically lower your reliance on or need for diabetes medications. In fact, a study found that over 90% of individuals who ate a low carb diet either reduced or completely eliminated their need for additional medications. However, as always, it’s important to work with your doctor and continue to monitor your blood glucose levels to stay safe.


How to Choose the Best Diabetes Management Plan for Your Needs

How you choose to manage your diabetes doesn’t necessarily matter. The important thing is finding something that works for you and is sustainable for your lifestyle. If this means utilizing the glycemic index, great! If you’d prefer to stick to carb counting, that’s fine too. Just make sure that you’re eating a diverse range of foods to help your body get the nutrients it needs to function at its best—especially if you decide to follow the GI. Remember, just because a food has a lower GI doesn’t mean that it’s healthier.

Alternatively, you could focus on following a diabetes-friendly meal plan or diabetes-approved diet. There are several different options, each of which contains notable benefits. Always talk to your doctor prior to changing your diet or beginning a new eating regimen. It’s important to take added precautions when living with diabetes or any other underlying condition to avoid unnecessary complications.

To help you properly manage your diabetes effectively and live a well-rounded life, Byram Healthcare has a range of continuous blood glucose monitors. We also offer diabetes support and educational materials to give you everything you need for comprehensive care.