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3 reasons you should pay attention to sugar and glycemic load

 

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With so much nutrition information and diet fads out there, it can be hard to know what to focus on when choosing what to eat every day. Many of my patients come to me for advice on this very issue. This week’s post focuses on why sugar (and by association, glycemic index and load) should be a primary target. First, let’s review glycemic index and glycemic load in case you’ve heard these terms but are not familiar with what they mean:

  • The glycemic index (GI) of a given food refers to the effect that the food has on the body’s blood sugar levels. Different carbohydrates affect blood sugar levels differently, and the GI tells us how much each food will raise the blood sugar level.
  • The glycemic load (GL) of a food takes into account the amount of carbohydrate in a serving (it multiplies the GI by the grams of carbohydrate in one serving), making it an even more accurate tool to assess the impact of different foods on blood sugar levels. 

So why should you pay attention to GI/GL?

  1. Fatigue: when you eat something high glycemic, your pancreas releases extra insulin to remove the sugar from the blood and shuttle it into your body’s cells. The higher the blood sugar spike, the higher the insulin release, and the deeper the subsequent drop in blood sugar as the insulin does its job. This roller-coaster of blood sugar levels leaves you with a very brief “quick fix” of energy, followed by pronounced fatigue. A low glycemic food, on the other hand, leads to steady blood sugar levels and prolonged energy (a “slow burn”) so you can enjoy doing the things you love!
  2. Weight gain: when insulin clears high sugar from your blood stream, the resulting sharp drop in blood sugar leads to (you guessed it) more cravings for sugar – a vicious cycle!  This leads to you consuming more calories than you would otherwise need, and an excess of sugars in your cells. If you’re not using it, your body stores it as fat. Eating a low glycemic food, on the other hand, will leave you more satisfied, and will better match your body’s need for energy, leading to decreased fat storage.
  3. Diabetes risk: with your pancreas working overtime to get enough insulin out to deal with that high blood sugar from high glycemic foods, your pancreas can get burnt-out, and your cellular insulin receptors can also decrease their sensitivity over time – both of which can lead to Type 2 diabetes. When this happens, your body becomes unable to clear high blood sugar levels, and the sugar in the bloodstream wreaks havoc on your eyes, kidneys, heart and blood vessels, and nerves. Eating lower glycemic spares your pancreas, something you’ll want to be functioning for a long time!

How do you use GL to choose what foods to eat through the day:

  • Choose your foods according to the spectrum, in order to keep your score as low as possible (berries instead of raisins, beans instead of white rice, carrots instead of potatoes)
  • Low GL (a score less than 10) – make these your staple foods, in each meal
  • Medium GL (a score of 10-19) – eat these occasionally (one per day)
  • high GL (a score greater than 20) – eat as a special treat only, and eat them alongside fiber, fats and protein when possible, to reduce the spike in blood sugar (that’s how ice cream keeps its score so low!)

low

What are examples of low GL meals?

  • Breakfast:
    • scrambled eggs or tofu with vegetables and salsa (instead of ketchup) – skip the toast
    • Breakfast smoothie (berries, dairy/substitute (unsweetened!), protein powder, avocado) – skip the banana and juice
    • Sausage (veggie or meat) – skip the maple syrup or ketchup
    • Seed cereal (2 Tbsp each of ground flax, chia and hemp seeds, along with coconut and blueberries and ½ cup dairy/substitute – let soak 15 minutes and enjoy)
    • Almond-flax breakfast muffins
    • Seed bread
  • Lunch:
    • Vegetable soups – so many to choose from (watch for sugar content for canned soups)
    • Salads with nuts/cheese/meats/tofu/seeds – again many protein options to choose from!
    • Any of the snack options below
    • Supper leftovers from the night before
  • Supper:
    • Focus on protein and vegetables – if you need a grain with your supper, choose ½ cup brown rice or quinoa, instead of white pasta, white rice, or potato
      • Stir-fry – make your own sauce if possible without a sweetener, or just use tamari
      • Grilled or baked wild fish and vegetables – skip the potato
      • Bean dishes – many to choose from
      • Frittata
  • Snacks:
    • Handful of nuts – skip the dried fruit
    • One piece of fruit – choose berries, grapefruit, apples over bananas and dried fruit
    • Organic cheese and crackers – choose just a few crackers, and more slices of cheese
    • Smoked tofu (choose organic soy whenever possible)
    • Veggie pate
    • Vegetables and hummus or other bean dip/refried beans
    • Vegetables with nut butter (celery with almond butter, skip the raisins – make sure your nut butters are sugar-free)
    • Plain organic yogurt with berries (avoid the options with fruit already added – so much sugar!)
    • Protein smoothie (berries, dairy/unsweetened substitute, protein powder)
    • Simply Bar (high protein, low sugar)
    • Protein balls
  • Treats:
    • If choosing something sweet, eat it combined with something with healthy fats in it to help slow the rise (and subsequent drop in blood sugar)

Sources:

  • http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthy-eating/glycemic_index_and_glycemic_load_for_100_foods
  • ht.wisc.edu/sites/default/files/webfm-uploads/documents/outreach/im/handout_glycemic_index_patient.pdf
  • http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/suppl/2008/09/18/dc08-1239.DC1/TableA1_1.pdf

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