Being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes meant I had to come to terms with what had to change in my diet. A dietitian telling me about the glycemic index sent me on a research binge. What was a glycemic index and why did I have to care about it?
Where the glycemic index came from
Back in the 1980s, a group of researchers wanted to classify carbohydrates beyond just labeling them as “simple” or “complex.” Since it is primarily carbohydrates that impact blood glucose levels, they felt that measuring the “glycemic index” — how much each carbohydrate-containing food affects blood glucose — would improve our chances of picking the best carbohydrates for managing diabetes.
They gave pure glucose the highest number — 100. Then they tried to give every other carbohydrate-containing food a ranking based on how it affected blood glucose levels compared to pure glucose. Things like corn syrup and white rice were considered high glycemic because they have a significant impact on blood glucose levels.
Why not just stop eating carbohydrates?
It occurred to me that leaving carbohydrates out of my diet altogether would end the need for a glycemic index. What would be wrong with that?
Well, first of all, my body rebelled. I found I could not live happily on the other two food groups alone. Also, my research led me to discover the world of antioxidants, those wonderworkers that help prevent cell damage in the body.
Where are most of the antioxidants? In carbohydrate-containing foods, of course — things like berries, avocados, and spinach, to name a few.
So I had to make peace with the glycemic index. This turned out well, because it has helped me choose carbohydrates wisely.
High- versus low-glycemic foods
The idea of “good guy” carbs and “bad guy” carbs probably began with the glycemic index. The doctors decided that a value of 70 or higher meant a food was high glycemic.
This group includes items such as a variety of sweet treats, most foods made with refined grains, and many types of potato.
The worst news for me was the fruits that are high glycemic — things like watermelons and dates.
The medium-glycemic foods were given numbers from 56 to 69. Some of them are boiled white potatoes, oranges, spaghetti, rye, beets, and corn. Finding a potato in this group made it easier to accept the glycemic index.
The low-glycemic foods are all those with an index below 55, and this group is huge. Most of the fruits and vegetables, including beans, are here. At least one grain is low glycemic, too: steel-cut oats.
It was a relief to see that nuts are way down on the glycemic index, some as low as 13. They are high in calories but full of fiber and good fats.
What the index taught me
From the glycemic index, I learned that fiber slows down the impact of carbohydrates, which means less insulin will be required. It also showed me the importance of good fats in things like nuts and avocados.
Both fiber and good fats slow down digestion, which is wonderful news for people with impaired insulin response from diabetes. Of course, protein digests slowly, too. It is primarily carbohydrate that increases our insulin needs.
Understanding this made it much easier to decide what carbohydrates to eat, and why fast foods are so bad for us: With most of the fiber removed and things like hidden sugars and salt added, processed meals are out.
It is a good idea to bring common sense to everything you learn about eating well with diabetes. This is not just a diet. It is a way of life, so my advice is to eat what you like. Some diabetes recipes will appeal to you, while others include things you have never heard of and will never try.
Learning a better way to eat for those of us with diabetes takes time and effort, and there are always new rules and new ideas that might help.
If you have diabetes, the glycemic index was made for you, so you might find it useful. After I got over my battle with the index, I actually came to appreciate it. Maybe you will, too.