Understanding the science behind the foods you eat can help improve your overall nutrition. Whether you were just diagnosed with diabetes and are trying to lower your blood sugar or you’re just trying to eat healthier, eating low-glycemic foods can be a great place to start. Here are some of our favorites and precisely how and why they can be beneficial to your diet.
When you look deeper into your nutrition choices, you can refocus on ingredients that have the power to reroute your wellness journey. If you’ve been looking for a way to put yourself on a newer, better path, simply consider the facts below.
The glycemic index is a list of carbohydrates ranked by the effect they have on blood sugar levels. It measures how quickly a food that contains carbohydrates causes the body’s blood sugar levels to rise. Studies show that long-term consumption of low-glycemic index foods can have positive metabolic effects—such as faster weight loss, better blood pressure, a decrease in insulin levels and fasting glucose, and reduced levels of circulating triglycerides.1
A good rule of thumb is that any food with a high-glycemic index will generally raise blood glucose more than a food with a medium or low-glycemic index. Low-glycemic foods are considered those that score a 55 or less on the index, medium glycemic foods score between 56 and 69, and high-glycemic foods score a 70 or more.
As opposed to higher glycemic foods, low-glycemic foods are typically rich in protein, fiber, or fat. Although it is not always the case, more processed or cooked foods are typically higher on the glycemic index. You should keep this in mind when preparing meals.
Some factors that can affect a food’s glycemic index score are:
Low-glycemic foods are digested and absorbed more slowly than those with high or medium rankings—which also means a slower rise in blood sugar levels. While their high-glycemic counterparts can be digested faster and result in significant fluctuations in blood sugar, foods that are low on the GI index can help control blood sugars. This makes them beneficial for people with health problems—or with higher risks of serious health conditions.
Some studies look at the impact that the amount of total dietary carbohydrate and glycemic index have on risk factors for diabetes and cardiovascular disease. They believe that GI can influence a person’s health and are working toward a better understanding of its significance by examining factors like insulin sensitivity, levels of LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, HDL (“good”) cholesterol, systolic blood pressure, and triglycerides.2
Keep in mind, however, that even though low-glycemic foods may help keep blood sugar levels from getting out of control in a natural way, portions do still matter. Moderation is key even for healthful foods. In this case, just because something is a low-GI food doesn’t mean you should eat as much as you want and think it will not affect your blood sugar or other bodily systems.
Additionally, the way foods are paired together can influence how they are digested or absorbed into the body. For instance, foods with a higher glycemic index can be eaten with foods that have a lower glycemic index in order to help balance out blood sugar levels. In the same vein, just because something has a high-glycemic index does not mean it is inherently bad for you. For example, while chocolate may have a lower GI than certain fruits do, fruit in general can provide more nutrients than a tasty chocolate bar can.
For many people, putting a low-glycemic nutritional plan into place can be a good way to start really staying on top of blood sugar levels. Here is a list of low-glycemic foods that you can incorporate into your daily meals to help you consume lower GI foods.
Avocados score a GI rating of 15.3 They are naturally higher in fat—the kind our bodies actually need, not the unhealthy kind. They also contain a good amount of fiber without having very many carbohydrates at all. Interestingly enough, avocados have a nutritional profile that is similar to that of tree nuts, which are said to be good for heart health. (Plus, avocados have less than half of the calorie density of tree nuts!)
Low-glycemic oats are not the kind you typically eat for breakfast. Most breakfast cereals contain highly processed oats that end up having a high-glycemic index. Whole or steel-cut oats, however, contain more fiber and have a GI rating of 55.4
This nutritious legume has a GI rating of 28.5 Chickpeas contain the perfect combination of protein, fiber, and a little bit of the beneficial type of fat to help slow sugar spikes. Hummus, made from chickpeas, has an even lower GI due to added unsaturated fats. You can spread hummus on many different foods or dip in your favorite vegetables to give them a flavorful—and healthy—punch.
Scoring a GI rating of 32, lentils—like chickpeas—are also a healthy legume.6 Lentils are high in fiber and abundant in protein and amino acids. They also have something called polyphenols, which have antioxidant, antifungal, antiviral, antibacterial, cardioprotective, antidiabetic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-obesity properties. Lentils are even said to be useful in the fight against some cancers, including liver and thyroid cancer.
Sweet potatoes have a GI rating of 46 should be boiled for optimal nutrition.7,8 When boiled, this kind of potato actually results in a lower GI than if the sweet potato had been baked. Baking your sweet potato will result in a GI rating of 94—much higher and thus not nearly as beneficial in balancing blood glucose, although still tasty.
Carrots can be a little trickier, as they have a higher glycemic index grading of 50–70 but have a low-glycemic load of 6.9 It’s helpful to know the difference here: The glycemic index looks at how drastically a food can make your blood sugar rise while the glycemic load also takes into account your portion sizes—and thus, how much glucose is present in each serving of what you’re eating. Even though carrots have a high-glycemic index and can be digested rapidly, they don’t actually contain enough carbohydrates to dramatically increase your sugars.
Salmon has a GI rating of 0.10 Salmon does not contain any carbohydrates at all and is simply made up of protein and beneficial fats. Therefore, it will not affect your glucose levels. (Plus, it goes well with many dishes.)
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2. Sacks FM, Carey VJ, Anderson CAM, et al. Effects of High vs Low Glycemic Index of Dietary Carbohydrate on Cardiovascular Disease Risk Factors and Insulin Sensitivity. JAMA. 2014;312(23):2531. doi:10.1001/jama.2014.16658.
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8. Bahado-Singh PS, Riley CK, Wheatley AO, Lowe HIC. Relationship between Processing Method and the Glycemic Indices of Ten Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas) Cultivars Commonly Consumed in Jamaica. Journal of Nutrition and Metabolism. 2011;2011:1-6. doi:10.1155/2011/584832.
9. Foster-Powell K, Holt SH, Brand-Miller JC. International table of glycemic index and glycemic load values: 2002. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2002;76(1):5-56. doi:10.1093/ajcn/76.1.5.
10. Nielsen L, Nyby S, Klingenberg L, et al. Salmon in Combination with High Glycemic Index Carbohydrates Increases Diet-Induced Thermogenesis Compared with Salmon with Low Glycemic Index Carbohydrates–An Acute Randomized Cross-Over Meal Test Study. Nutrients. 2019;11(2):365. doi:10.3390/nu11020365.