Watching Your Sugar: Diabetes And The Glycemic Index
Weight Management

Watching Your Sugar: Diabetes And The Glycemic Index


28 November 2017


Diabetes maintains its stance as one of the most rampant non communicable disease in any region. A pathology that is both affected by genetic and environmental factors. The genetic factor is something that we have no control over. The environment factor on the other hand is well within our control. The fundamental contributing factors of an environment aspect for this tyrant of a disease, are lifestyle choices such as over-indulgence, lack of proper exercise and food intake which contributes to obesity.

Adapting into a lifestyle of good eating practices is recommended for not only people plagued by diabetes but it also helps the pre-diabetics and non-diabetics. Early adaptation effectively helps with better sugar control in the long run. Bear in mind, you do not have to be a diabetic to adapt a diet that practices mindful sugar intake, and at the end of the day, prevention is always better than cure.

The focus of this article is the glycaemic index of food and its impact on our blood sugar. What is the glycaemic index? The glycemic index (GI) is a measurement scale ranking carbohydrates from a scale of 0-100 based on the extent of blood sugar levels and how quickly they go up after eating. The GI is divided into low GI (≤55) accounting for slow increase in blood sugar, medium GI (56-69) a moderate increase in blood sugar and high GI (≥70) accounts for rapid increase in blood sugar level.

Shifting from the days of basic “carb counting”, GI appears to look at the actual impact of different foods on our blood sugar, because two foods with the same amount of carbohydrates may have different glycaemic indexes. What this means is, a type 2 diabetic can achieve better control of his or her blood sugar by identifying the glycaemic index of the food they eat routinely and making some alterations to their diet.

Here are some examples of food items that fall into these categories:

  • Low GI: dairy products such as yoghurt, non-dairy milks such as soymilk and nut milks, most non starchy vegetables, fruits such as apples, pears, grapes, oranges, oat bran bread, 100% stone ground whole wheat, long grain rice.
  • Medium GI: fruits such as kiwi, banana, pineapples, potato chips, orange juice, brown and white rice, whole wheat bread, raisins, couscous.
  • High GI: mashed potatoes, white bread, doughnuts, pretzels, honey, jelly beans, watermelon.

Note: While watermelon has a high GI, it has a low glycemic load (GL) which takes into consideration the carbohydrate content and is presumed to be a better measure of the impact on blood sugar. In correct portions, watermelon can be acceptable for a diabetic.

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The GI of the same food can however be altered by several factors:

  • Ripeness: the more ripe a fruit or vegetable is, the higher the GI.
  • Cooking time: the longer a food is cooked, the GI tends to be slightly increased.
  • Processing: juice of a fruit has higher index than the fruit itself, mashed potatoes has a higher index than the potato itself.

Why does the GI of a food get affected by these factors? This is due to changes in the starch structures of food and rate of their digestibility. Cooking breaks down the starch structures increasing its propensity to become glucose hence the greater its tendency to raise blood sugar levels. Natural protein, fats and fibers in starch helps block out enzyme action which slows down the process of converting carbohydrates to glucose. Any process which breaks the proteins, fats and fibers such as extreme heating, blending etc., will inadvertently promote the quicker conversion to glucose and cause spikes in our blood glucose levels.

Prolonged storage and ripened fruits cause transformation of the starch structures making them more susceptible to break down, and again causing higher glycaemic indexes. What this means is, baking your potatoes whole versus mashing them causes a difference in their glycaemic index. Steaming your vegetables versus stir frying them under high heat also infers a difference. Freshly harvested vegetables or fruits also have a lower glycaemic index in comparison to the potato you have been keeping in your pantry for prolonged periods.

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Like refined sugar, carbohydrates are readily converted by our bodies into glucose for energy use. Keeping an even blood sugar allows us to maintain satiety which curbs overeating and helps diabetics reach their goal of maintaining their blood glucose levels, not increasing their need and dependence on medication and or insulin, finally, not advancing to end organ damage. Knowing which food provides quick energy can help alter the way a regular person eats

To achieve a balanced diet for both diabetics and non-diabetics, one must look at the bigger picture and take into account all aspects. No measuring system is perfect and GI has its flaws too.

  • Focusing on your GI alone could lead to an unbalanced diet, high in fat and carbohydrate, resulting in weight gain which makes blood glucose levels harder to control.
  • Balance out your meals with a good combination of glycaemic indexes, keeping it low in saturated fats and salt, moulding a diet suitable for your lifestyle and underlying disease i.e. diabetes.
  • Consulting a registered dietician or nutritionist goes a long way in fixing portion sizes and getting accurate measurements for the amount of carbohydrates needed per day, eating according to your lifestyle and discussions on food with various glycaemic indexes.

Our body is after all our temple hence all efforts to protect it goes a long way, contributing to not just longevity but a good quality life. Use of the GI will help “refine” your current dietary regimes, apply it wisely and it will prove beneficial. Remember, enjoying what you eat along with discipline is the main catalyst to ensure compliance to a healthy diet and lifestyle.

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