You may hear about people "counting their carbs" as a way to lose weight, control their blood sugar or eat more healthfully. There are three kinds of carbohydrates -sugar, starch and fiber. Carbohydrates break down in the body to increase your blood sugar and give you energy. The Glycemic Index (GI) measures how carbohydrates in food affect your blood sugar level and this in turn helps us choose foods for good health and improved energy.
The GI includes carbohydrate foods ranked from 1-100. Foods with a higher GI produce the greatest increases in blood sugar. A ranking of 70 or above is considered high, and foods ranked at 55 or less are low on the index. Including low GI foods in our diets helps us feel full longer, decreases insulin production and stabilizes blood sugar levels.
Pure sugar, white and wheat bread, boxed cold cereals and certain fruits and vegetables including pineapple, melons and white potatoes are examples of foods with a high GI number. The GI value can change - al dente pasta is low GI; whereas overcooked pasta is a high GI. On the flip side, foods guaranteed to be low on the index include beans, peas, lentils, old-fashioned oatmeal, many dairy products, most fruit and converted rice.
Balance is the key. For best results pair foods with a high GI with foods that have a low GI rating to average out the impact.
As an example, if you choose to have a pumpkin muffin for breakfast (high), you can add a glass of milk (low) for balance. Eating this way helps regulate blood sugar levels and makes you less likely to snack and overeat throughout the day.
The GI is not a requirement on food labeling. You can learn the ratings for foods you commonly eat by checking them at glycemicindex.com.
There are also books and classes that can teach you strategies for using the GI to get the best results.
Managing blood sugar levels is the best way for people with diabetes to reduce the likelihood of developing complications from their condition such as vision problems, high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke and numbness in the legs or feet.
Paying attention to where foods are ranked on the GI to make smarter eating choices may enable a person with diabetes to keep blood sugar levels in a healthy range.
Studies show that people with diabetes can reduce their A1C number, a reading that reflects average blood sugar levels for the previous two to three months, by half a point when low GI choices are a part of meals and snacks most days of the week.
Kathryn McKernan is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and certified diabetes educator for Susquehanna Health's Diabetes & Nutrition Care Center. She has lived with Type 1 diabetes for 35 years and is passionate about the role nutrition and diabetes education play in disease prevention, management and overall wellness.