Diet With High Glycemic Index Tied to Cardiovascular Disease

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Diet With High Glycemic Index Tied to Cardiovascular Disease

Eating foods with a high glycemic index is linked to a higher rate of major cardiovascular events — like heart attacks and strokes — as well as a higher rate of overall death, according to a new study published in The New England Journal of Medicine.

A food’s glycemic index is a measure of how much it leads to an increase in blood glucose levels, on a scale of 0 to 100. Avoiding high-glycemic-index foods may be especially important for people with diabetes, who typically can’t produce enough insulin to adequately lower blood glucose in response to spikes caused by these foods. A food’s glycemic index isn’t based on how much carbohydrate it contains — instead, it’s based on how people’s blood glucose responds to the same dose of carbohydrate in different foods. Some higher-glycemic-index foods don’t actually contain much carbohydrate in a typical serving, and are unlikely to spike your glucose levels.

As noted in an article from Harvard Medical School, foods with a higher glycemic index include both white and whole wheat bread, corn flakes, instant oatmeal, boiled or mashed potatoes, watermelon and rice crackers. Foods with a lower glycemic index include both white and whole-wheat pasta, corn tortillas, apples, oranges, cooked carrots, unsweetened dairy products, and legumes like beans, chickpeas and lentils.

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Impact of the glycemic index on cardiovascular risk

In the latest study, researchers looked at data from 137,851 participants, ages 35 to 70, who lived on five different continents. They were followed for an average of 9.5 years, during which there were 8,780 deaths and 8,252 major cardiovascular events. The researchers used country-specific food questionnaires to estimate the glycemic index of foods in participants’ diet and their overall intake of those foods. Based on the overall glycemic index of their diet, participants were placed in five groups of equal size, from the lowest to the highest glycemic index.

The researchers found that compared with the lowest-glycemic-index group, members of the highest-glycemic-index group were more likely to have a major cardiovascular event or to die — both among participants with preexisting cardiovascular disease (a 51% risk increase) and in those without cardiovascular disease at the beginning of the study (a 21% risk increase). A higher-glycemic-index diet was also linked to death specifically from cardiovascular causes. The researchers found similar results when they looked at glycemic load, or the overall impact of foods on glucose levels based on their glycemic index and serving size.

This study’s results show that “consumption of poor quality of carbohydrates [is] likely to be more adverse than the consumption of most fats in the diet,” said study author Salim Yusuf, a professor of medicine at McMaster University in Canada, in a news release. “This calls for a fundamental shift in our thinking of what types of diet are likely to be harmful and what types neutral or beneficial.”

Want to learn more about eating well with diabetes? Read “Improving Your Recipes: One Step at a Time,” “Top Tips for Healthier Eating” and “Cooking With Herbs and Spices.”

Living with type 2 diabetes? Check out our free type 2 e-course!

Quinn Phillips

Quinn Phillips

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A freelance health writer and editor based in Wisconsin, Phillips has a degree from Harvard University. He is a former Editorial Assistant for Diabetes Self-Management and has years of experience covering diabetes and related health conditions. Phillips writes on a variety of topics, but is especially interested in the intersection of health and public policy.

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