Diabetes : understanding the low glycemic diet
Dec 13, 2019
When you are diabetic, blood sugar levels are very important and are determined by what you eat. The glycemic index indicates how much of an effect a particular food has on blood sugar levels and is the base of the low-glycemic ("low-GI") diet. What is the low-GI diet? What are its advantages and limits? Read our explainer guide and leave your opinion in the comments!
What is the glycemic index?
The glycemic index is defined as the speed with which a particular food can alter an individual’s blood sugar level. The glycemic value of each food is compared against glucose (sugar), the highest value on the index.
The glycemic index value allows us to classify foods that contain glucose on a scale between 0 and 100, depending on the glucose content. Foods below 55 are considered to be low-GI, medium-GI foods fall between 55 and 70, while high-GI foods are above 70 on the scale. For example, grapefruit is a low-GI food, white rice is a medium-GI food and potatoes have a high rating on the glycemic index. Blood sugar levels rise more slowly when we eat a grapefruit than when we tuck into a plate of potatoes!
It is important to note that GI is independent of the amount of a particular food we consume and doesn’t apply to foods that are glucose-free.
You can get an idea of what sorts of foods are low, medium or high GI by looking at this glycemic Index Table here: Glycemic Index Table.
How does a low-glycemic diet (“low-GI diet”) work?
When following a low-GI diet, a patient chooses lower-GI foods over higher-GI foods to limit fluctuations in blood sugar levels.
Avoid processed foods
Certain factors can affect a food’s GI value including the form in which it’s consumed (liquid/solid), how it’s cooked and whether it’s high in fiber or fat. In general, it’s better to favor whole foods and avoid over-processed ones, or foods with added sugars like fruit juices, fruit purees, jams, mass-produced white and whole breads and cereals, etc. Industrial heat treatments also raise GI values which is why raw fruits and vegetables, or those home-cooked using steam or boiling, are preferable to baked or fried ones.
A varied and balanced diet
Fiber, protein and fats can help stop or slow down the absorption of glucose and lower a food’s glycemic index. Eating a balanced diet, one that contains sugars, fats and proteins, can help stabilize blood sugar levels. Of course, portion size also plays a part.
Physical activity after meals, such as a half-hour brisk walk, will also help to lower one’s blood sugar levels.
What are the limits of a low-GI diet?
One of the principal drawbacks of the low-GI diet is that it doesn’t account for how much of a particular food should be consumed. Even low-IG foods should be eaten in moderation!
Besides that, foods are classified only by their glucose content, which can be problematic for certain foods like eggs, avocadoes or cheese, which are low GI, but high-fat. This concerns type-2 diabetes patients particularly since they generally need to control or lose weight and cut high-fat foods out of their diets.
On the other hand, a low GI diet doesn’t present any particular health-risks as long as a patient continues to take their treatment as directed and keep regular track of their blood sugar levels.
Now that you mentioned it…how are diabetes and diet connected?
Diabetes, both Type 1 and Type 2, is an auto-immune disease that results from a number of factors. However, being overweight or obese and sedentary are often among the initial causes of diabetes. Diet plays a very important role, both for diabetes prevention and controlling diabetes symptoms. For any individual, a diet plan should assure that they’re getting the nutrients they need, but for diabetic patients, another specific factor comes into play: controlling blood sugar levels. The goal is to avoid hyperglycemia (high blood sugar) which can cause complications from diabetes to become more severe or longer-lasting.
Furthermore, even if medical treatments can help limit blood sugar, pairing them with a balanced and well-tailored diet is essential to keeping diabetes under control. Another advantage is that many low IG foods are also rich in fiber, which is essential for good digestion.
Type 2 Diabetes: a balanced diet can delay insulin resistance
For patients living with Type 2 diabetes, the goal is to increase physical activity and avoid foods containing too much sugar and/or fat. Diet has a very important role is getting diabetes under control, since it is directly responsible for blood sugar levels. When a patient eats something sugary, its absorption by the body causes a spike in glucose levels and the secretion of physiological insulin. When a patient’s diet contains too many high-GI foods, it brings on frequent glucose spikes and excessive insulin secretion. After a certain point, the patient’s cells become desensitised to insulin which can no longer serve its original purpose (glucose reduction) and the patient becomes “insulin resistant”. This is the final stage of diabetes where oral treatments are no longer effective and must be replaced with insulin therapy (injections).
Pre-diabetic: delaying diabetes diagnosis with diet changes
A low-GI diet may also be prescribed for pre-diabetic patients – in the stage just before diabetes. Pre-diabetic patients show high blood glucose levels when tested on an empty stomach, but not high enough to be considered hyperglycemic. A low-GI diet allows them to keep diabetes at bay for as long as possible.
Warning: This article is a general overview and does not replace medical advice given by a health-care professional. It does not take into account individual patient cases which may vary. Each patient is different, always take your physician before beginning or altering your treatment!
Article written by Louise-B with Camille Dauvergne, 4th-year pharmacy student.