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Low GI Foods And Balancing Blood Sugars

By James – Clinical Nutritionist

Here in the UK, June sees National Diabetes Week and with Jason’s son Christian being type-1 diabetic, it’s a subject close to our hearts. People with diabetes, whether type-1 or type-2, have challenges managing their blood sugars that can lead to serious complications. But we all could benefit from better blood sugar management, in fact, one of the biggest challenges I see with clients in my clinical practice as a nutritionist is how people manage to regulate their blood sugar balance.

Blood sugar levels, blood sugar concentration or blood glucose levels are a measure of the amount of glucose in the blood. The body has systems in place to help regulate blood glucose levels – a little like Goldilocks with the Three Bears, two little blood sugar and too much blood sugar can both cause issues (3). So, getting it ‘just right’ is what we’d like to aim for to help our bodies function optimally.

Maintaining balanced blood sugar levels is crucial, not only for managing conditions like diabetes but also for sustained energy, mood regulation, and overall health – and particularly for women over 40 who may be in perimenopause or the menopause transition.

Poor blood sugar management can also lead to insulin resistance, which in turn is a risk factor for obesity, metabolic syndrome, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), and type 2 diabetes mellitus among others.

To explain, all carbohydrates (and sometimes fats and protein) are converted into glucose that then enters the blood stream to help the body use and store energy, some have naturally higher sugar (and hence glucose) levels and some convert into glucose quicker. Luckily there’s a tool to let us have an idea of how food can affect blood glucose levels, it’s called the Glycaemic Index.

In this article, we’ll look at the roles of important hormones like insulin and glucagon, explain what the Glycaemic index is in more detail, and, most importantly, equip you with practical strategies to incorporate low Glycaemic foods into your and your family’s meals.

Understanding Blood Sugar Balance and Role of Insulin and Glucagon

So, we know that getting our blood sugar ‘just right’ is crucial, but how does that happen? The body has its own glucose management team, primarily made up of two hormones: insulin and glucagon .

Insulin and glucagon work together like an intricate dance duo, each responding to the other’s moves. When we eat, our blood glucose levels rise, and insulin is released. Insulin is like the chaperone at a school dance. It helps glucose move from our blood into our cells where it is used for energy. This process lowers the glucose level in our blood – insulin is lowering the energy of the dance floor.

Glucagon, on the other hand, is the party starter. When we haven’t eaten for a while, and our blood glucose levels are low, glucagon prompts our liver to release stored glucose back into our bloodstream. It’s like turning the music back up and getting everyone back on the dance floor.

Understanding this delicate dance is key to understanding why some foods cause a quick spike in blood sugar (like a fast-paced cha-cha), while others result in a slower, steadier increase (more like a waltz). This rise and fall of blood sugar levels is where the Glycaemic Index comes into play. In the next section, we’ll break down what the Glycaemic Index is and how it can help you manage your blood glucose levels effectively.

What is the Glycaemic Index?

The Glycaemic Index, often referred to as GI, is like a road map for the glucose journey in our bodies. It ranks foods based on how quickly they increase blood sugar levels after consumption. Think of it as a speedometer for glucose: Foods high on the GI scale cause a rapid increase in blood sugar (like hitting the accelerator), while low GI foods cause a slower, steady increase (more like a leisurely Sunday drive).

Each food is assigned a GI value, with glucose (the quickest sugar to enter the bloodstream) given the maximum of 10. Foods with a GI of 55 or less are considered low, 56-69 are medium, and 70 and above are high.

But here’s the catch: GI isn’t the whole story. It doesn’t consider the quantity of carbohydrates in a food portion or the combination of foods you eat in a meal. For instance, watermelon has a high GI, but if you pair it with some almonds (a source of healthy fats and protein), the overall effect on your blood sugar could be slower and more gradual.

This is where the concept of Glycaemic Load, or GL, comes into play. GL takes into account the amount of carbohydrates in a food portion in addition to its GI, giving you a more accurate picture of how a food might impact your blood sugar levels. A food’s GL is calculated by multiplying the GI by the amount of carbohydrates (in grammes) per serving, then dividing by 100. So, a food with a low GL may be better for blood sugar control, even if its GI is higher.

But don’t worry – you don’t have to become a mathematician to eat healthily. For now, just remember that incorporating lower GI foods into your meals can be a helpful strategy for maintaining that ‘just right’ blood sugar balance.

GI Values of Foods

Now that we have a grip on the concepts of GI and GL, let’s put it into perspective by looking at some common foods and where they fall on the Glycaemic Index. Remember, low GI foods (55 or less) can help maintain a steadier blood sugar balance:

Low GI Foods (55 or less)

Whole oats, quinoa, sweet potatoes, most fruits (like apples, oranges, berries), non-starchy vegetables (like broccoli, spinach, bell peppers), legumes (like lentils, kidney beans), and nuts.

Medium GI Foods (56-69)

Whole wheat, rye, basmati rice, pita bread, quick oats, and couscous.

High GI Foods (70 and above)

White bread, most white rices, cornflakes, instant oatmeal, russet potatoes, pretzels, and short-grain rice.

Remember, pairing these foods with proteins and healthy fats can slow the blood sugar response. For instance, if your family loves a potato dish, opt for sweet potatoes (lower GI) or if using regular potatoes (higher GI), pair it with a lean protein like chicken and some veggies for a more balanced effect on your blood sugar.

What is a low GI Diet?

A Low Glycemic Index diet revolves around incorporating foods that have a slower impact on blood sugar levels. By choosing carbohydrates that are digested and absorbed more slowly, the body experiences a gradual rise in blood glucose, providing sustained energy and promoting a sense of fullness. This can be especially beneficial for individuals with diabetes, those looking to manage their weight, or anyone seeking a more balanced and sustainable approach to nutrition.

The Benefits of Low GI Diets Unveiled

Steady Energy Release

Unlike high-GI foods that cause a rapid spike and subsequent crash in energy levels, low-GI foods release energy slowly, providing a sustained and stable source of fuel throughout the day.

Improved Blood Sugar Control

For individuals with diabetes or those at risk, a low GI diet can contribute to better blood sugar management, reducing the risk of insulin resistance.

Weight Management

The sustained energy release from low-GI foods can help control cravings and promote a feeling of fullness, aiding in weight management efforts.

Heart Health

A low-GI diet has been associated with improved heart health by reducing the risk of heart disease and supporting overall cardiovascular well-being.

Practical Strategies for Incorporating Low GI Foods into Your Meals

Incorporating lower GI foods into your family’s meals might seem challenging at first, but with a few practical strategies and a handy low GI food list at hand, it can become a seamless part of your meal planning and preparation:

Choose Whole Over Refined

Opt for whole grains (like quinoa, brown rice, and whole oats) over refined grains (like white rice and white bread). The additional fibre in whole grains slows the absorption of glucose, resulting in a steadier blood sugar rise.

Pair Wisely

Remember our watermelon and almond example? Pair higher GI foods with proteins, healthy fats, or fibre to slow the absorption of glucose.

Don’t Overcook Pasta

Cook pasta ‘al dente’ – firm to bite. Overcooked pasta has a higher GI as the extended cooking breaks down the carbohydrates making them easier to digest and thus faster to raise blood sugar.

Lots of Non-Starchy Veggies

Fill at least half your plate with non-starchy vegetables (like broccoli, spinach, or bell peppers), which typically have a low GI.

Go Nuts for Nuts

Nuts are low in GI and can be added to salads, yoghurt, or consumed as a snack.

Control Portions

Even with low-GI foods, it’s essential to control portion sizes. Overeating any food can lead to weight gain and higher blood glucose levels.

Remember, the goal is not to eliminate all high-GI foods but to create a balance. Life’s all about balance, and our food should follow suit.

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