The Glycemic Index Made Easy

With so much information out there, it’s hard to know the right thing to do when it comes to our healthy. Glycemic Index is something we’ve all heard about, but what is it and why should we care? The simple answer is it’s another tool to help with making healthy food choices. Here’s how it works.

What is the Glycemic Index?

The Glycemic Index, GI, ranks carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to how much they will raise blood sugar. Glycemic is taken from the medical term glycemia, meaning the presence of sugar in the blood. A carbohydrate is a large biological molecule, or macromolecule, consisting of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen atoms, usually with a hydrogen:oxygen atom ratio of 2:1. I know, that’s a pretty fancy explanation. Simply put, it is fuel for the body. The most common carbohydrate is sugar. It’s found in bread, popcorn, milk, so on and so forth. Most foods contain carbohydrates in the form of sugar, fiber or starch. The primary purpose of carbs is to provide fuel to your cells.

With the Glycemic Index, the higher the GI rating, the higher your blood sugar levels will rise.

How is a Food’s Glycemic Index Determined?

There was a whole scientific experiment to determine the GI of various foods. Essentially, scientists measured the glucose level of a healthy group of people, then fed them various foods, and measured their glucose levels afterward.

Why Does the Glycemic Index Matter?

There are simple carbohydrate (white sugar) and complex carbohydrates (fruit). Simple carbs are processed by the body very quickly, while complex carbs take longer to break down. Simple carbs are dumped into the bloodstream and cause the sugar level to spike. We know this as a sugar high. That sugar, because it isn’t needed by the body, becomes stored as fat. Complex carbs, such as an apple, breaks down over a longer period of time. The body releases that sugar into the bloodstream at a slower rate. This sustains energy levels, thus avoiding the dreaded sugar crash.

When sugar is present in the blood, the body releases insulin. The insulin is meant to escort sugar from the body while extracting its energy. Type II diabetes occurs when our bodies become insulin resistant, meaning not enough insulin is released to control the glucose. Then sugar levels rise.

If you are trying to lose weight, gain more energy, or control type II diabetes, knowing the GI of food can be helpful.

How to Use the Glycemic Index

Here’s the tricky part, a food consumed in different states can have different GI levels. For example, a 120-gram apple has a GI of 36. But 250ml of unsweetened 100% apple juice has a GI of 41. Why wouldn’t it be the same? Because the fiber has been stripped away. Nature, in its wisdom, provided the fiber in fruits and vegetables to ensure the body will break it down more slowly thus providing steady energy levels over a longer period of time. This is why nutritionists advise against drinking fruit juice. Without the fiber, the sugar goes straight into the bloodstream making it no different from a can of soda.

How ripe food is can effect its GI as well. The riper a banana, the higher the GI. You can also mix high GI foods with low ones to produce a more balanced effect.

Use the Glycemic Index as a guide. Good-for-us foods can have a high GI and should be used in moderation. And not all low GI foods are good for us.  Check out Harvard Medical School’s site for more information about the Glycemic Index and a list of foods. (Note: I have no affiliation with Harvard Medical School, it’s just a great resource).

Another factor to take into consideration is glycemic load. The index will tell you how quickly your blood sugar will rise, the load tells you by how much. A glycemic load of 10 or less is low; 20 or above is high. The load is calculated by multiplying a single serving of a food’s carbohydrates in grams by the glycemic index, then dividing by 100. For example, to determine the glycemic load of a 120-gram apple containing roughly 17g of carbohydrates, multiply the 17g by 36 (its GI index), then divide by 100. This gives you 6.12, a low glycemic load. Meaning, an apple will have a low impact on your sugar levels. Watermelon has a high GI of 80, but so little carbohydrates that its impact on blood glucose levels (glycemic load) is only 5.

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Nile Harris
Nile Harris, the Chief Chick, is a word weaver and dream believer with 20 years of experience in healthcare, finance, and education. This aspiring motivational speaker, TED presenter and LinkedIn Influencer is committed to valuing people, driving healthcare access and innovation, and weaving words that move people to action. Her views are her own.
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