I used to tell people that I ate a low carbohydrate diet. I actually believed this up until I had a recent realization. My diet is actually high in carbs -- oatmeal, beans and lots of non-starchy vegetables. All these foods are rich in carbs, and surprisingly non-starchy vegetables are almost half carbohydrate.
But the carbs I eat are low on the glycemic index (GI). This means I don't suffer the blood sugar fluctuations or weight gain of a typical high carb diet that contains high glycemic index foods.
The glycemic index is a ranking system given to carbohydrates based on their effect raising blood sugar. The ranking goes from 0 to 100; the closer to zero the less impact the food has on your blood sugar. Foods with a GI index under 55 are considered low GI, between 56 and 69 intermediate GI and above 70 high GI.
A high carb/low glycemic index diet is a great way to keep your energy steady since it keeps your blood sugars fairly level throughout the day. In contrast, a high carb/high glycemic index diet produces those crazy, jangly "you-on-speed" episodes from quick high blood sugars followed by exhausting crashes and physical and mental fatigue from your blood sugar plummeting soon after.
Low GI fruit reduces blood sugar
I began thinking about my diet because a study was released of 152 people with type 2 diabetes who followed a low GI diet, including low GI fruit. The study concluded that the increase in low GI fruit predicted reductions in Hemoglobin A1c, (measure indicating average blood glucose over the past two to three months) blood pressure and coronary heart disease.
Physician Larry Gottlieb, who has type 2 diabetes himself, said, "It stands to reason that if a low GI diet is used, with low GI fruit, you will have lower blood sugar more of the time and a lower A1C."
Low glycemic index foods
That said, low glycemic index foods benefit everyone. They contain less calories, sugar and fat, are more filling and don't set off cravings for fat, sugar and salt the way high GI foods do.
Low glycemic index foods tend to be those we know as "complex carbohydrates" like 100 percent whole grains, non-starchy vegetables, beans, nuts, yogurt, whole wheat pasta and many fruits.
A diet of largely low glycemic index foods reduces the risk of heart disease and diabetes and since they help you feel full it's easier to sustain weight loss. If you do have diabetes, choosing lower GI-foods more often gives you lower blood glucose levels after meals.
Certified diabetes educator Gary Scheiner writes in "Strike the Spike II" that for people who have diabetes and an A1C lower than 7.5 percent, post-meal blood sugars are actually owed more credit than pre-meal blood sugars.
High glycemic index foods
High glycemic index foods tend to be refined carbohydrates most of which also have a lot of fat and salt, like doughnuts, French fries, cold breakfast cereals, white bread, white rice, pasta, bagels, baked potato, parsnips and sugary foods like cake, candy, cookies, soda, fruit juice and syrups. These foods contain more calories and keep you craving more.
High glycemic index foods produce greater fluctuations in blood glucose and require more insulin to ferry the larger load of glucose in your bloodstream to where it's needed. Over time this demand for more insulin tends to compromise insulin-producing beta cells, contributing to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Glycemic Index Food Chart
Here's a snapshot of some foods and their glycemic index. Remember 100 is the highest GI food:
French baguette 95
Corn Flakes 84
Instant mashed potato 74
Oatmeal cookie 55
Whole grain bread 40
Chocolate Milk 34
Kidney beans 27
Broccoli, caluliflower, celery 10-25
Nonfat, plain yogurt 14
As someone with type 1 diabetes, I can tell you from personal experience eating a high carbohydrate/low GI diet for the last several years has helped keep my blood sugars more level, my weight constant and my blood pressure and triglycerides on the low end of normal.
8 Tips for eating lower GI foods
One way to introduce lower GI foods into your diet is to substitute them for some foods you're eating now.
• Use Half & Half instead of milk in your coffee and tea
• Replace ordinary pasta with whole wheat or Dreamfields pasta
• Buy breads that are 100 percent whole grain
• Eat breakfast cereals based on oats, barley and bran
• Have baked sweet potatoes instead of baked white potatoes
• Eat fruit instead of drinking fruit juice
• Replace chips and pretzels with popcorn
• Snack on soybeans and nuts
Carbs are everywhere, but you don't have to give them up. Just choose them a little more wisely a little more often.
Many people now also factor into their diet the glycemic load of a food. Glycemic load is a way to look at carbohydrates' impact on blood sugar that also considers portion size. I'll be writing about that too in the near future.
Riva is the author of 50 Diabetes Myths That Can Ruin Your Life and the 50 Diabetes Truths That Can Save It and The ABC's Of Loving Yourself With Diabetes and blogs on her web site DiabetesStories.com.