Keep Your Sugars in Check: Use the Glycemic Index

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The glycemic index categorizes carbohydrates depending on how rapidly and how elevated blood sugar is raised when evaluated against pure glucose. Foods with a high glycemic index will cause quick spikes in blood sugar, whereas foods with a low glycemic index are digested more slowly. Low glycemic foods create a lower and gentler change in blood sugar. One of the factors that determine what a food’s glycemic index will be is how much it has been processed.

Diets that include increased amounts of high glycemic index foods have been correlated with an enhanced risk for becoming overweight, developing diabetes, and heart disease. There may also be a relationship between this type of diet with ovulatory infertility, colorectal cancer, and age-related macular degeneration. Diets high in low glycemic index foods may help control type 2 diabetes and boost weight loss.

Use the glycemic index as a general guide. Replace highly processed grains, cereals, and sugars with minimally processed whole grain products as much as possible.

Factors that Affect the Glycemic Index

  • Ripeness– Unripe fruits and vegetables have less sugar than ripe fruits and vegetables. Unripe fruits tend to have a lower glycemic index than ripe ones.
  • Fiber content– The carbohydrates located in fiber are difficult for the body to break down because of how they are linked. The more fiber present in a food item, the less digestible the carbohydrate, which leads to less sugar being absorbed by the body.
  • Fat and acid content– Carbohydrates are converted into sugar and absorbed into the bloodstream slower with increased amounts of fat or acid in the food or meal.
  • Type of starch– Starch can be found in several different arrangements, with some easier to break down into sugar molecules than others.
  • Physical Form– Finely ground grain has a quicker digestion process and therefore, has a higher glycemic index than the more coarsely ground grain.
  • Processing– Milled and refined grains, where the bran and germ have been removed, have a higher glycemic index than whole grains.


Key Points

  • Glycemic Index– carbohydrates are ranked on how rapidly and how high blood sugar rises when compared to pure glucose
  • High glycemic index foods– score of 70 or higher = faster rate of absorption
  • Medium glycemic index foods– score of 69 to 56 = medium rate of absorption
  • Low glycemic index foods– score of 55 or below = slow rate of absorption

When a glycemic index is not available and you need to eat, choose unprocessed foods because they tend to have lower glycemic indexes than refined foods

Adding Good Carbohydrate Sources to Meals

Consume food sources like whole wheat bread, whole grain pasta, brown rice, quinoa, whole oats, and bulgur. These food choices can help to protect your body from a range of chronic diseases. Listed below are some suggestions given from The Harvard School of Public Health for including more good carbohydrates into your diet:

  • Start the day with whole grains– If you’re partial to hot cereals, try old-fashioned or steel-cut oats. If you’re a cold cereal person, look for one that lists whole wheat, whole oats, or other whole grain first on the ingredient list.
  • Use whole grain breads for lunch or snacks– Check the label to make sure that whole wheat or another whole grain is the first ingredient listed.
  • Bag the potatoes– Instead, try brown rice or even newly popular, but old sources like bulgur, wheat berries, millet, or hulled barley with your dinner.
  • Pick up some whole grain pasta– If the whole grain products are too chewy for you; look for those that are made with half whole-wheat flour and half white flour.
  • Bring on the beans– Beans are an excellent source of slowly digested carbohydrates as well as a great source of protein.

Glycemic Load

Glycemic Load is the classification of foods that considers both the amount of carbohydrate present in the food item and the affect of that carbohydrate on blood sugar levels.

For good health, choose foods that are grouped into both the low or medium glycemic load categories and limit foods that have a high glycemic load.

Low Glycemic Load (10 or under)

  • High-fiber fruits and vegetables (not including potatoes)
  • Bran cereals (1 oz)
  • Many beans and legumes, including chick peas, kidney beans, black beans, lentils, pinto beans (5 oz cooked, approx. 3/4 cup)

Medium Glycemic Load (11-19)

  • Pearled barley: 1 cup cooked
  • Brown rice: 3/4 cup cooked
  • Oatmeal: 1 cup cooked
  • Bulgur: 3/4 cup cooked
  • Rice cakes: 3 cakes
  • Whole grain breads: 1 slice
  • Whole-grain pasta: 1 1/4 cup cooked
  • No-sugar added fruit juices: 8 oz

High Glycemic Load (20+)

  • Baked potato
  • French fries
  • Refined breakfast cereal: 1 oz
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages: 12 oz
  • Jelly beans: 10 large or 30 small
  • Candy bars: 1 2-oz bar or 3 mini bars
  • Couscous: 1 cup cooked
  • Cranberry juice cocktail: 8 oz
  • White basmati rice: 1 cup cooked
  • White-flour pasta: 1 1/4 cup cooked


References: Harvard School of Public Health, WebMD. Nutrition Education for AUGUST 2010. Produced by Meals on Wheels, Inc. of Tarrant County by Alexis Neal, a nutrition intern for Sherry Simon, R.D./L.D. For questions regarding nutritional information, please contact Sherry Simon, R.D./L.D., Director of Nutrition Services for Meals on Wheels, Inc. of Tarrant County at 817-336-0912 or email: Website: 

Posted in Nutritional Education.

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