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Carbohydrates & Glycemic load (GL) – What is it & how does it impact our health?

Carbohydrates & Glycemic load (GL) – What is it & how does it impact our health?


Did you know that according to the large-scale Nurses’ Health Study (www.nurseshealthstudy.org ), women eating the highest glycemic load diets were much more likely on average to develop type 2 diabetes or heart disease compared to women of the same age with the lowest glycemic load diets ?  This is a pretty startling statistic, especially considering the rapid rise in foods high on the glycemic index — such as table sugar, juices/sodas, refined grains — in the average adult’s diet recently.

We often hear about the exponential increase in obesity and type 2 diabetes among not just older adults, but young adults as well with few of us really knowing what we can do for ourselves & our family to reduce our risk of these lifestyle diseases. In this article we want to empower you with the basics on carbohydrates so you can make better food choices to enhance your health.

Carbohydrates come in simple forms such as sugars & in complex forms such as starches & cellulose. The body breaks down most sugars & starches into glucose, a simple sugar that the body can use as fuel (energy). Although we cannot use cellulose for energy (as we don’t have the enzymes to break it down) it is still very important for us as a major component of dietary fibre. Complex carbohydrates are derived from plants, good sources are vegetables, seeds, nuts, fruits, beans & wholegrains. The differences between a simple & complex carbohydrate is in how quickly it is digested & absorbed, as well as it’s chemical structure.

The Glycemic Load of a food is determined by how much carbohydrate is in an individual serving of that food. The glycemic load score is a predictor of whether or not a food eaten in moderate amounts is healthy or not, making it an important factor in successful weight loss/maintenance, reversing/managing Type 2 diabetes & the prevention of both.

The higher the glycemic load of a food is the less we should consume of it.

High GL = 20 +

Medium GL = 11 to 19

Low GL = 10 or less

Low-GI Foods vs. High-GI Foods

Low-GI Foods:

  • All non-starchy vegetables, such as lettuce and leafy greens, broccoli, spinach, onion, green beans, etc.
  • Most fruits, including stone fruits, apples, berries, cherries, and citrus fruits
  • Nuts, beans, seeds and legumes
  • Plain, unsweetened yogurt and cheeses (choose organic and raw when possible)
  • Minimally processed whole grains, such as steel-cut oats, brown rice, wild rice, sprouted grain breads, granola and muesli, and whole-wheat pasta

High-GI Foods:

  • Refined grains, flours and grain products like most bread, processed breakfast cereals, cookies, cakes, etc.
  • Sweetened beverages, such as soda and bottled juices
  • Table sugar, honey, molasses, etc. A small amount of real, raw honey can be a good option, but in this case less is usually more.
  • Dried fruits, such as raisins, craisins and dates (OK in small amounts, just watch your portion sizes!)
  • Starchy root vegetables, such as white potatoes, winter squash, etc. These are actually healthy options, but again portion control and pairing them with lower-GI foods is key.
  • Also avoid too much caffeine or alcohol
  • Empty calories, including packaged goods that are highly processed and salty & soft drinks
  • Lots of added sugar in condiments, sauces, etc.
  • Fast food and fried foods

Benefits of reducing the glycemic load in your diet-

  • Helps Normalize Blood Sugar Levels

There are many reasons why you should be concerned about living with consistently high blood sugar levels. The first is increased insulin production. When glucose levels in the bloodstream rise, the hormone insulin is produced and secreted. Insulin has the role of bringing glucose out of the bloodstream and into cells in order to be used for energy.

The higher the level of glucose in your blood, the more insulin is released in order to bring things back to balance. Therefore a high amount of insulin being released leads to a sudden and sharp drop in blood glucose levels. This is referred to as hypoglycemia, which can follow high blood sugar spikes, causing symptoms like low energy dips, trouble concentrating, mood swings and sudden hunger. (6) Eating foods lower on the glycemic index helps prevent this from happening, as it results in less amounts of insulin needed by the body in order to maintain homeostasis.

  • Lowers Risk for Insulin Resistance and Type 2 Diabetes

It’s now believed that high glucose levels and excessive insulin production (which go hand in hand with high glucose levels) are precursors to developing dangerous side effects of insulin resistance, including type-2 diabetes. (7) It’s vital to watch what you eat if you want to stay healthy into older age, live a pain- and disease-free life, and reduce your risk for chronic diseases. Those who already have prediabetes or are at risk for diabetes need to pay extra attention to how their diets impacts their blood glucose levels.

  • Keeps Your Energy Levels and Appetite Stable

The University of Sydney states, “Low GI foods have benefits for weight control because they help control appetite and delay hunger.” When it comes to how different carbs make you feel, glycemic loads can make a real difference too.

It’s possible to experience symptoms of both hyperglycemia and hypoglycemia when blood sugar levels aren’t properly managed. Over time, these come with complications and tend to cause many uncomfortable symptoms — including fatigue, sugar cravings, changes in blood pressure, weight loss or gain, nerve damage, and jitteriness or nervousness.

You might notice that when you only eat simple carbs (such as sugary cereal for breakfast) and don’t get enough fiber, you’re quickly tired and hungry afterward. On the other hand, eating balanced meals — such as those that include a healthy complex carb, a source of protein and some healthy fat — helps keep you more satisfied, energized and focused throughout the day.

  • Reduces Your Risk for Diseases Through Lowering Intake of Processed Foods

Processed foods, and especially ultra-process foods, made with lots of added sugar and flour, for example, are usually the highest on the glycemic index. Therefore if you aim to lower the GL of your diet, you’ll automatically cut out lots of empty calories,  which contribute to weight gain so it’s a win win!!.Consume unprocessed or whole grains, but lower intake of flour and white refined grains.

  • Other helpful tips include-

Eat more beans, legumes, nuts and seeds, especially in place of processed grains.

Eat smaller amounts of potatoes, rice, or other grains and bread. Instead consume more veggies to feel just as satisfied.

Reduce or avoid sugary foods like soda, cookies, cakes, candy, other desserts and sweetened drinks

When it comes to deciding which foods are best, keep things simple by using common sense and choosing those that are the least processed. Fruits, whole grains, sweet potatoes, etc., don’t need to be removed from your diet — it’s all about balance, portion sizes and eating real foods.