What’s the Deal With the Glycemic Index?

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When it comes to your diet, chances are you’re already paying attention to your intake of vitamins and nutrients, fats, and added sugars. Now you’re hearing buzz about how eating foods low on the glycemic index (GI) may boost your energy and your efforts to maintain a healthy weight. But what, exactly, does this scale mean—and how can you figure out how certain foods rank?

The GI measures how foods affect your blood sugar levels. It’s tested by feeding people a portion of food that has 50 grams of carbohydrates and then seeing how much that raises their blood sugar levels, say Willow Jarosh, RD, and Stephanie Clarke, RD, co-owners of C&J Nutrition. This is given a value on a scale of 0 to 100. A greater GI score means that food causes a higher spike in your blood sugar.

For people with diabetes, the GI may be helpful in keeping blood sugar levels steady. But people without diabetes might find it a helpful tool in their own diets, too.

How Going Low May Boost Your Health 

With low-glycemic foods, sugars enter the body more slowly. This keeps your blood sugar levels steady, which can keep you feeling full. Although research is mixed, some studies have found that eating a diet rich in low-GI foods may encourage weight loss. It may also help reduce the risk of heart disease—one study of more than 75,000 women showed that those who had high glycemic loads were nearly twice as likely to develop heart disease than those who had the lowest. But before you go all-in on a low-GI diet, a review of 15 studies found just a slight association between high GI diets and heart disease.

All the same, high-glycemic foods are often more processed, i.e., cookies and bread made with white flour, and processing removes many nutrients. “Lower-GI foods tend to be higher in fiber, protein, and/or fat,” Jarosh and Clarke say. That means eating a low-glycemic diet can mean fewer processed foods and more produce, fiber-rich whole grains, and protein. This may help boost your energy, weight loss efforts, and health.

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