Understanding the Glycemic Index and Diabetes

September 07,2022 |
Doctor testing a patient's blood sugar.

Managing diabetes can be a difficult endeavor. It requires ongoing awareness of what you’re eating and how different foods and beverages will affect your blood sugar levels. While it can be overwhelming at times, there are several tools in place to help you. One of these tools is the glycemic index. For more information, here’s what you need to know in order to understand the glycemic index and how it affects diabetes.


What is the Glycemic Index?

The glycemic index (GI) is a rating scale that is used to provide information on how fast your body converts carbohydrates into glucose. It’s often used as a tool to help people manage their blood sugar, which is especially important for those living with diabetes. The scale used in the glycemic index goes from zero to 100. The lower the GI of a food, the less it affects your overall blood sugar levels. There are three groups of ratings used in the glycemic index. 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.

Each food is given a rating based on the speed of digestion and the degree to which the macronutrients affect your glucose levels. Typically, foods that are high in protein, healthy fats, and fiber have a low GI, while foods that are more processed or refined (especially processed foods) have a higher GI.

Glycemic index is different than the glycemic load (GL) of food. Glycemic load focuses more on the number of carbs in one serving. Using both the glycemic index and glycemic load of foods can help with overall diabetes management. For example, if you’d like to eat something with a high glycemic index, that’s okay. By limiting your serving size to a small portion, you’ll have less of a glycemic response.


The Benefits of Low Glycemic Foods

Studies have found that adopting a diet that’s filled with primarily low glycemic foods can help reduce overall blood sugar levels and improve diabetes management. Individuals living with type 2 diabetes may even encounter a lower reliance on insulin. However, you should never stop taking your medications or checking your blood sugar levels. Always work with your doctor to maintain your treatment plan and find a healthy diet that works for you. Low glycemic foods can also reduce your risk of experiencing hypoglycemic episodes.

Eating more low glycemic index foods can aid in overall weight loss efforts and help reduce LDL cholesterol. This can, in turn, reduce your risk for heart disease and other diabetes complications.


How Does the Glycemic Index Impact Diabetes?

Type 1 and type 2 diabetes both affect how your body functions. Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder where the body attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Type 2 diabetes is a condition that tends to develop later in life. In type 2 diabetes, the body is unable to metabolize sugar properly due to an insulin resistance that’s developed. Both forms of diabetes require external insulin to ensure that your blood sugar levels remain stable.

Adopting a glycemic index diet can help you control your blood sugar levels throughout the day and therefore, better manage your diabetes. It allows you to increase your understanding of how different carbohydrates impact your body. Diabetes affects your body in hundreds of ways, which is why it’s essential that you utilize healthy lifestyle habits, especially in relation to your diet. In fact, in addition to using continuous glucose monitors and administering insulin, one of the best ways to manage diabetes is to develop healthy eating habits. If you’re struggling to create a healthy diet, the glycemic index can make it easy. However, if you have any questions or aren’t sure where to start, consider working with a dietician or nutritionist for the best outcome.

Adopting the glycemic index is a great way to reduce your risk of diabetes-related complications. It can decrease the chances of developing hyperglycemia, which otherwise increases your risk of nerve damage, heart disease, kidney problems, and more. When you make healthy food choices, like adopting a GI diet, you reduce the risk of uncontrollable changes to your blood glucose levels, which carry several cascading benefits. Losing weight can also contribute to a healthier lifestyle and fewer diabetes-related complications.

Concerns Regarding the Glycemic Index and Diabetes

 There’s been a lot of hype about using the GI scale to help stabilize blood sugar levels, but there are also a lot of issues that can raise cause for concern. For example, carbohydrate intake has the biggest impact on your glucose levels, not just the glycemic index. Just because pasta is lower on the GI scale than watermelon, does not mean that you should avoid eating watermelon and indulge in pasta every night. In fact, doing so could have catastrophic effects on your health.

Similarly, combinations of foods can change the glycemic index of the entire meal, along with how a food is prepared, how ripe it is, and the quantity of food consumed. Glycemic index also doesn’t focus on nutrition at all, so you may be lacking vital nutrients and minerals. A good example of this is if you consider the GI of different types of fried foods. Since fat slows sugar absorption, deep fried foods actually have quite a low GI. However, there are obviously several negative health effects of eating a diet filled with fried foods. Creating a healthy diet requires the consideration of several different factors. If you have any questions or need clarification, talk to your doctor or a registered dietician.


Different Types of Low Glycemic Foods

To create a healthy diabetic meal plan with plenty of low glycemic foods, you’ll need to familiarize yourself with the ratings of each. While it can add a little extra time to your planning, you’ll soon be able to differentiate low and high GI foods with ease. Some common foods that have a low rating include the following:

  • Apples — 38
  • Strawberries — 41
  • Grapefruit — 25
  • Banana — 51
  • Limes — 40
  • Cherries — 20
  • Quinoa — 53
  • Raw Broccoli — 15
  • Cooked Broccoli — 45
  • Raw Carrots — 47
  • Boiled Carrots — 39
  • Spinach — <1
  • Avocados — 15
  • Tomatoes
  • Rolled Oats — 55
  • Lentils — 32
  • Kidney Beans — 24
  • Chicken — 0
  • Beef — 0
  • Pork — 0
  • Tuna — 0
  • Salmon — 0
  • Olive Oil — 0
  • Soy Sauce — 20
  • Chia Seeds — 4
  • Flax Seeds — 35
  • Black Pepper — 15
  • Basil — 5
  • Dijon Mustard — 35
  • Garlic — 30
  • Peanuts — 14


Foods with a high glycemic index can be eaten in moderation, but they should be paired with low GI foods to help reduce the overall effect on blood sugar. You should avoid consuming highly processed foods with large GI numbers, especially cake, donuts, cookies, chocolate, chips, carbonated soda, sports drinks, and other non-nutrient dense foods. Treating yourself once in a while is okay, but always make sure that you’re monitoring your blood sugar to avoid any health issues.


Creating a Balanced Diet Using the Glycemic Index

It’s important to remember that GI ratings aren’t everything. If you focus only on the glycemic index of foods, you can’t guarantee that you’ll be eating a balanced diet with all of the nutrients you need to thrive. Glycemic index only focuses on one aspect of food. Similarly, just because a food has a low glycemic index does not mean that it’s healthy. There are plenty of foods with low GI that are high in fat and calories, which can eventually lead to weight gain and more difficulty managing your diabetes. Gaining weight also increases your risk of heart disease and can worsen the complications of diabetes.

To make sure you’re getting everything you need to stay healthy, it’s better to focus on the overall balance. Eating a low glycemic food with something that has a higher GI can also help slow the digestion and create a happy medium for diabetes management.

Diabetes requires long-term care and management to avoid complications, but it is a possible to live a robust, healthy life. To help, Byram Healthcare carries a wide variety of continuous glucose monitors, diabetes testing strips, and more. Visit our diabetes product guide today or reach out to one of our customer support specialists for further information on diabetes management.