The glycemic index is a decades-old tool used to aid in blood sugar management. The index lists foods and scores them based on how quickly they release glucose. With this information, individuals can make choices about meals and even alter an entire outlook on food and nutrition. Learn more about this food scoring system, whether it’s a good tool for you, and if so, how to use it.
What is glycemic index?
The glycemic index deals with carbohydrate foods. When you eat a carbohydrate, it breaks down into glucose or sugar. The glycemic index is a number that helps predict how fast this process occurs. In theory the faster your food breaks down, the higher your blood sugar will spike. Using the glycemic index as a guide encourages individuals to focus on foods that rank lower and have less impact on blood sugar. It’s also recommended to limit high-glycemic foods as these tend to increase blood sugar quicker.
The glycemic index scores foods between zero and 100.
- Low = 0-55
- Medium = 56-69
- High = 70-100
Some foods that fall into these categories include:
- Low glycemic index = fruits, vegetables, beans, minimally processed grains, pasta, low-fat dairy and nuts
- Moderate glycemic index = white and sweet potatoes, corn, white rice, couscous and some breakfast cereals
- High glycemic index = white rice, rice cakes, crackers, bagels, cakes, doughnuts, croissants and some cereals
How to use glycemic index
To properly use the glycemic index, familiarize yourself with the values of carbohydrate foods that you commonly eat. If your favorite foods have a higher glycemic index, find alternatives that are lower on the scale.
Who should use the glycemic index?
The tool was created in 1981 by physicians David Jenkins and Thomas Wolever. It is geared toward those seeking better blood sugar management, specifically people with prediabetes, diabetes or other endocrine disorders like polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). These physicians also found it helpful in populations with hyperlipidemia seeking to lower triglycerides and cholesterol.
But using the glycemic index encourages more whole food choices, making it a positive tool for anyone. While “food as medicine” has grown in popularity over recent years, some may still not realize the true impact food can have on health. The glycemic index is a concrete example of food as medicine. When used properly, it shows the impact food can play on lab values and medical conditions.
The pros and cons of the glycemic index
The glycemic index can be a useful tool for those seeking a solution for controlling blood sugar. It provides ideas for food swaps that are easy to understand based off of a numerical value. It may bring more awareness to the impact that food choices have on medical conditions.
The glycemic index compares all foods based off a certain weight. This doesn’t factor in what a typical serving size may be, which may lead to a value that is lower or higher than what people actually experience.
Some feel the biggest con of the glycemic index is that it doesn’t factor nutritional qualities. For example, potato chips have a similar glycemic index to oatmeal, but oatmeal provides a higher nutrition quality. Oatmeal’s soluble fiber content has been shown to help lower cholesterol. Chips are often deep fried in oil and higher in unhealthy saturated fats. When considering the big picture of nutrition, oatmeal would be recommended over chips. If you’re solely following the glycemic index, you miss out on that bigger picture.
Another con to the glycemic index is that it is based off the effects of eating a singular carbohydrate food rather than as part of a meal or snack. When carbohydrates are consumed with other foods, like fats or proteins, your body digests the carbohydrates differently. In this way, the glycemic index may not accurately depict how your body processes the carbohydrates.
Using the glycemic index for you
The glycemic index has been around for just over forty years. While some find it to be confusing, others see it as a helpful tool in meal planning and blood sugar management. If you need more personalized dietary advice, a registered dietitian or certified diabetes educator can help with meal planning and product guidance to assist you with better blood sugar management.