Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load

September 14, 2015

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For those of us managing our weight, understanding what we should or should not eat can get very confusing. This is especially true of carbohydrates. “Carbs are good!” says one study while another screams, “Carbs are bad!” How in the world are we supposed to know what to do? One set of tools that may serve as a useful guide are the Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load.

Before reviewing what these tools are and do, it’s worth it to state upfront that completely cutting out carbohydrates from your daily nutrition is a bad idea. Carbs are the body’s primary source of energy. Without them, we’d all be lying around like slugs. However, not all carbs are created alike, which is where the Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load come into play.

If you’ve studied Latin, you know that “glyc” is the root meaning “sweet.” Therefore, it should come as no surprise that the Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load were designed to help us assess the impact that specific foods have on our blood sugar levels.

Glycemic Index

The index has classifications for food based upon how quickly blood sugar levels spike after they are consumed. Using a ranking scale of 0 to 100, here’s how the index breaks down:

Low:                0-55

Medium:        56-69

High:               70-100

Foods with high glycemic indexes cause rapid spikes in blood sugar, followed by a rapid fall, creating a cycle of hunger and fatigue. On the flipside, foods with low glycemic indexes are digested more slowly, causing a lower and more even change in blood sugar.

Glycemic Load

The Glycemic Load is similar to the Glycemic Index, but takes the assessment of individual foods a step further. It uses a food’s Glycemic Index rating and the amount of carbs in an average serving to determine its load level.

Low:                10 or below

Medium:        11-19

High:               20 or more

Describing the difference between the Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load may best be captured in an example. Let’s use watermelon…

Watermelon has a glycemic rating of 72, which is considered high on the Glycemic Index. However, it is made up mostly of water and contains relatively few carbohydrates, so it falls between 4 and 7 on the Glycemic Load scale. In other words, watermelon may cause your blood sugar to increase rapidly compared to other foods, but it shouldn’t go up very much since there are too few carbs in it to be converted into sugar in the first place.

On the other hand, half a bagel has a similar Glycemic Index rating as watermelon, but a much higher glycemic load of almost 26! This can be interpreted to mean that the bagel places a much more significant load on your body in managing blood sugar levels.

While the Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load are not the definitive guides in determine the full health profile of specific foods, but they can serve as excellent guides in helping you make wiser food choices. On a very high level, choosing foods on the lower end of each scale can help prevent weight gain and obesity, which in turn contributes to other conditions like Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, chronic pain, and a host of other serious health issues. That should help to at least remove some of the confusion about carbohydrates.

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