The Glycemic Index Explained

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Counting carbs is out; the glycemic index is in. But is the glycemic index just another dose of diet hype, or can it really help?

In fact, if used properly, the glycemic index (and even better, the glycemic load) may actually help you to improve your diet and make better food choices. It can also be a great tool for people with diabetes. Just don’t count on it for weight control, though.

Read on to learn more about how to use the glycemic index and the glycemic load, and check out your favourite foods on our glycemic ratings table.

What is the glycemic index?

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Counting carbs is not just a matter of adding two and two together. Other factors also have to be taken into consideration, such as how fast the carbohydrate is digested, and how much it causes your blood sugar levels to rise.

The glycemic index (GI) takes these factors into account when rating a carbohydrate food. A food with a low-GI rating will cause a small, slow rise in blood sugar levels, while a high GI food will cause a fast and dramatic spike. The GI rating of a food is based on glucose – the fastest releasing carbohydrate – having a rating of 100 . A food that releases glucose at half the rate of pure glucose has a GI of 50; a food with a quarter the rate of glucose release has a GI of 25, and so on.

High GI foods, such as white bread, white rice, and jelly beans, have a GI of 70 or more. Medium GI foods, such as bananas, cherries and ice cream have a GI between 56 and 69. Low-GI foods, including mixed-grain breads, legumes, milk and yoghurt, and most fruits, have a GI of 55 or less.

What is the glycemic load?

The glycemic load (GL) goes a step further than the GI by taking into account the amount of carbohydrate in a food. A weak point of the GI is that it fails to do this.

For example, pumpkin has a high GI of 75, but you would have to eat a lot of pumpkin for there to be a steep rise in blood sugar. Because pumpkin has a high GI number, it seems like it is a food to avoid, whereas in fact it is full of excellent nutrients and, when eaten in normal proportions, is unlikely to cause a dramatic influx of blood sugar levels. The GL provides a more practical way of evaluating the effect of carbohydrates on blood sugar by combining both quantity and quality of carbohydrate into one number. Foods low in carbohydrates, such as pumpkin which has only 8g carbs per 100g, do not have much ‘power’ to raise your blood sugar levels. According to the GL system, therefore, pumpkin is given a relatively low rating of 4.

A GL of 20 or more is high, a GL of 11-19 is medium, and a GL of 10 or less is low. Almost all foods with a low GI will also have a low GL, but foods with an intermediate or high GI often have a low GL.

GL is calculated by dividing the GI of a food by 100 and then multiplying by the food’s available carbohydrate (i.e. not including fibre) in grams. For example, the GI of an apple is 38 and its carbohydrate content is 16. Therefore: 0.38 X 16 = 6.08. So an apple has a GL of around 6.

Food GI Rating GL Rating
Watermelon 72 4
Coca Cola 53 14
Corn on the cob 48 5

Does a low GI/GL diet help you to lose weight?

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There are some reasons why a low GI diet can contribute to weight loss. For example, many low GI foods are bulky, high in fibre, and more satiating than high GI foods because they take longer for the body to process, e.g. legumes take longer to process than bread. Consuming these foods therefore helps people to feel fuller for longer and means they are less likely to overindulge. Low GI foods also produce less insulin, and low insulin levels help people to burn fat instead of carbohydrate.

However, following a low GI or GL diet does not automatically mean that you will lose weight. These indexes only measure the carbohydrate content of foods and do not account for calories, fat, and other nutrients. It is vital to consider overall calorie and fat intake, as well as carbohydrate intake, for effective weight management. It is also easy to make unhealthy choices based on GI or GL rating alone. For example, chocolate has a low GI compared to a slice of white bread, but bread has more nutrients and less calories and fat than chocolate, and is therefore a much better option.

According to Jennie Brand-Miller, Professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Sydney and a leading researcher in the development of the GI, the GI/GL is essentially about making smart carbohydrate choices and should be thought about in terms of swaps: “People should not think that chocolate is a good swap for watermelon!” she warns.

Portion control also remains vital for weight loss when using the GI or GL. A low GI or GL rating should never suggest free reign on portion sizes. This is as important to those who are controlling their blood sugar levels as it is to those who are controlling their weight.

It is good to keep in mind that GI and GL are really research tools for analysing carbohydrates in foods. Calculating the GI or GL of every carbohydrate food before you eat it is neither practical nor sensible. However, being familiar with the GI/GL rating of foods can help you improve the quality of your carbohydrate choices, whether for insulin moderation or weight loss purposes.

Can the GI and the GL be used to manage or prevent diabetes?

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People who have diabetes do not produce enough insulin in their bodies to effectively manage glucose and maintain their blood sugar levels. Consequently, it is very important for people with diabetes to manage their glucose intake carefully. Low GI and GL diets are believed to be helpful to people with diabetes because low GI and GL foods release glucose into the bloodstream slowly and more evenly than high GI and GL foods, making glucose levels easier to regulate.

Brand-Miller says that “choosing low GI sources of carbohydrate is a natural way of keeping blood glucose levels on an even keel, which helps people avoid marked fluctuations.” However, the GI or GL should clearly not be the only point of reference in managing carbohydrate intake; instead they should be used as tools.

A low GI diet may also help to prevent Type 2 diabetes. A report on GI, GL, and the risk of Type 2 diabetes in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (July, 2002) found that diets high in both high glycemic index and high glycemic load foods have been associated with a greater risk of type 2 diabetes in both men and women.

Researchers agree that larger studies and clinical trials are needed to definitively answer the question of whether there is a link between a diet of high GI foods and the development of diabetes. But as it stands, the current research gives a fairly strong indication that a low GI/GL diet is a wise choice for both managing and preventing diabetes.

What are you eating? Glycemic ratings of common foods

SLOWER ACTING CARBOHYDRATE

Low GI (55 or less)

Low GL (10 or less)

Food Item Glycemic Index

Glucose = 100

Glycemic Load

Per serving

Serving Size

(g)

Fruit and Fruit Products: Apples 32 5 120g
Grapefruit 25 2 120g
Oranges 40 4 120g
Peaches 28 2 120g
Pears 34 4 120g
Plums 24 2 120g
Mangos 51 8 120g
Apricots, dried 30 8 60g
Vegetables: Carrots, boiled 41 2 80g
Corn on cob, boiled 48 5 50g
Legumes and Nuts: Butter beans, canned 36 4 75g
Chickpeas, canned 38 4 70g
Hummus 6 1 30g
Red Kidney Beans, canned 36 5 75g
Soya Beans, boiled 20 1 150g
Split Peas, boiled 32 4 150g
Cashew nuts, salted 22 3 50g
Peanuts 13 1 50g
Grains and Breads: Tortilla, wheat 30 6 50g
All-bran, Kellogg’s 30 6 30g
Toasted Muesli 43 7 30g
Popcorn, plain, microwave 55 4 20g
Mixed-Grain Bread 34 4 30g
Wheat crispbread 55 9 25g
Miscellaneous: Honey, Yellow box 35 7 25g
Honey, Iron Bark 48 10 25g
Nutella 33 4 20g
Fruche 34 7 150g
Milo, made with full-cream milk 35 8 258g
Pizza Hut, Super Supreme, pan pizza 36 8 100g
MEDIUM ACTING CARBOHYDRATE

Medium GI (56 to 69)

Medium GL (11 to 19)

Food Item Glycemic Index

Glucose = 100

Glycemic Load

Per serving

Serving Size

(g)

Fruit and Fruit Products: Banana 58 14 120g
Grapes, black 59 11 120g
Apple juice 44 12 262g
Vegetables: Potato, boiled 56 11 150g
Sweet potato, boiled 44 11 150g
Grains and Breads: Corn chips 42 11 50g
Cereals: Froot Loops, Kellogg’s 69 18 30g
Just Right, Kellogg’s 60 12 30g
Special K, Kellogg’s 54 11 30g
Miscellaneous: Milk Chocolate, Dove 45 14 50g
FAST ACTING CARBOHYDRATES

High GI (70 or more)

High GL (20 or more)

Food Item Glycemic Index

Glucose = 100

Glycemic Load

Per serving

Serving Size

(g)

Fruit and Fruit Products: Dates, dried 103 42 60g
Sultanas 56 25 60g
Vegetable Products: French Fries, frozen, reheated 75 50 150g
Grains and Breads: Basmati rice 58 24 150g
Jasmine rice 109 46 150g
Gluten-free Rice & Corn Pasta 76 34 180g
Corn Thins 87 17 25g
White Bread 70 9 30g
Cereals: Corn Flakes 77 19 30g
Coco Pops, Kellogg’s 77 20 30g
Weet-Bix, Sanitarium 69 13 30g
Instant Oats, Uncle Toby’s, cooked with water 82 28 60g (dry)
Miscellaneous: Jelly Beans 80 20 30g
Skittles lollies 70 21 30g

Putting the glycemic index into practice

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Low GI, high GL, swapping rice for sweet potato… All of these figures and rankings can seem a little confusing at first. It’s important to remember that GI and GL are simply tools to use for controlling your blood sugar levels and carbohydrate intake.

Try our tips for some simple ways to make the switch to low GI foods:

  • Don’t worry about exact GI values. Instead consider whether the food falls into the low, medium or high GI category. For example, a food with a GI of 40 is as suitable a choice as a food with a GI of 30 – they’re both low GI
  • Consider which food will give you the most nutritional value, as well as the GI rating
  • Remember portion size – low GI foods can still be high in fat
  • It’s okay to eat some moderate and high GI foods. Try to combine them with low GI foods to reduce the overall GI rating of the meal
  • Use the GI ratings to make food swaps. Swap a high GI food for a low GI food – such as sweet potatoes instead of potato, basmati rice instead of white rice, and so on

References :

This article was compiled in consultation with CalorieKing.com.au experts and in reference to the following sources:

____ ‘Carbohydrates and Sugars,’ American Heart Association , American Heart Organization

____ ‘Diet, Glycemic Index, and Health,’ Harvard Women’s Health Watch, Feb. 2002

Brand-Miller, Foster, Powell, ‘International Table of Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load Values:2002,’ American Journal of Clinical Nutrition , July 2002: pp 5-56

Brand-Miller, Hayne, Petocz, Colagiuri, ‘Low-Glycemic Index Diets in the Management of Diabetes: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials,’ Diabetes Care: 26:2261-2267, 2003

The Glycemic Index, http://www.glycemicindex.com/

‘The Glycemic Load Concept’, The Glycemic Index Foundation of South Africa

Willet, Manson and Liu, ‘Glycemic Index, Glycemic Load, and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes,’ American Journal of Clinical Nutrition:76 (1) 274s-80s, July 2002

Calorie King
CalorieKing's mission is to provide the best information, tools and education to Australians to help them conquer their weight.

CalorieKing is the brainchild of Allan Borushek, registered dietitian, co-found here at food.com.au and author of "Allan Borushek's Pocket Calorie & Fat Counter", Australia's best-selling calorie counter for over 30 years.

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