A Guide to a Low Glycemic Diet

by Dr. Ahmed Zayed
Published on July 8, 2020 and last updated for accuracy on July 9, 2020

Weight loss, weight maintenance, management of various health conditions, and general wellbeing require certain lifestyle modifications. A healthier diet is one of them! Nowadays, we have the option to adopt a certain diet, adhere to it, and experience its benefits. Options are truly endless, but for many diets out there, those benefits are nonexistent. 

Diet fads pop up like mushrooms after rain, and although their popularity skyrockets, the actual benefits are generally lacking. Some diets, on the other hand, do lead to noticeable results. A low glycemic diet is a popular choice for many men and women in the world. 

So is it a proper diet or just another fad? 

How does it work? 

What are its benefits, and how to start? 

You’ll get answers to these questions in the post below.

What is a low glycemic diet?

The low glycemic diet is based on the concept of the glycemic index (GI). The glycemic index a value assigned to foods according to how slowly or quickly they elevate blood glucose levels (1). Foods with low glycemic index release glucose slowly and steadily, unlike their counterparts with a high glycemic load.

The biggest appeal of a low glycemic diet is that, unlike many other dietary patterns, it doesn’t require people to ditch carbohydrates. A low glycemic diet doesn’t restrict carbohydrate intake altogether. Instead, people who follow this eating pattern need to abide by the glycemic index. The GI assigns a number from 0 to 100 to carbohydrates based on their effect on blood sugar levels. Foods with rate 55 or lower are considered to have a low GI, while scores 56 to 69 are considered medium GI. Foods ranking 70 or higher are high GI. 

As you can presume, low GI foods should be consumed more frequently than others, while high glycemic load foods should be avoided as much as possible.

The main concept of a low glycemic diet is to enrich your menu with low glycemic load food in order to achieve desired results and protect your health.

Who could benefit from a low glycemic diet?

An increasing number of men and women consider trying out a low glycemic diet. People who could benefit the most from this eating pattern include those who (2):

  • Want to lose weight
  • Look for a way to keep their weight in a healthy range.
  • Have diabetes and need help maintaining blood sugar levels
  • Need help planning and eating healthier meals

Benefits of low glycemic diet

When you decide to follow some diet, you do so because of certain benefits and effects you want to experience. That’s perfectly natural; we all adhere to some eating plan because we want to improve our health, lose weight, or achieve some other result. A low glycemic diet could be helpful for different people, but in this section, we’re going to focus more on the benefits of this eating pattern. What could happen if you decide to opt for a low glycemic diet? 

Diabetes management

People who have diabetes aren’t able to process sugars properly. As a result, it’s difficult for them to maintain blood glucose levels in a healthy range. Diabetes is not something we can eliminate entirely by taking a pill. The treatment revolves around managing blood glucose levels and other symptoms in order to prevent the risk of potentially severe complications. Complications associated with diabetes include stroke, heart disease, damage to the nerves in kidneys and eyes, just to name a few.

If you have diabetes or know someone who does, then you’re well aware that managing blood glucose levels is not the easiest task in the world.

This is where low glycemic diet steps in. 

Evidence shows that low glycemic diets decrease blood sugar levels in people with diabetes (3, 4, 5). Additionally, people who eat high glycemic foods are more likely to develop diabetes, studies confirmed (6).

Since diet modifications are crucial for men and women with diabetes, opting for a low glycemic diet could be the step in the right direction.

Weight loss

The rates of overweight and obesity keep increasing with a wider prevalence of sedentary lifestyle and unhealthy diet-related choices. Excess weight and diabetes tend to go hand in hand. Weight management is important for patients with diabetes, but at the same time, weight loss for overweight men and women is crucial in order to reduce diabetes risk.

An important benefit of a low glycemic diet is its potential to promote weight loss. Evidence confirms that a low glycemic diet could help promote weight loss in people with prediabetes and diabetes (5). Long-term compliance with a low glycemic diet could induce favorable metabolic effects; studies show (7). The metabolic effects involve a lot of things ranging from cholesterol to your weight. In other words, adhering to a low glycemic diet could help promote healthy weight and thereby make it easier for you to manage diabetes. 

What makes a low glycemic diet beneficial for people who want to lose weight is the straightforward mechanism of action. This diet doesn’t come with a complicated set of rules. You just need to learn glycemic values of different foods and strive to consume those with low glycemic loads. This gives you more liberty to consume different types of foods that you can use to make delicious meals.

When it comes to weight management, high-protein and low glycemic diet could be the most beneficial. A low glycemic diet could help you slim down by managing hunger, promoting fat burning, and speeding up your metabolism (8).

Improved cholesterol levels

Cholesterol is a waxy substance found in the blood, but it’s largely misunderstood. To most people, all cholesterol is bad, but that’s not true. The body needs cholesterol to build healthy cells. That being said, high levels of cholesterol are bad for your health. When we say it’s bad for your health, we mean high levels of LDL or bad cholesterol. 

Yet another important advantage of low glycemic food is its potential to improve your cholesterol levels. One study found that low glycemic diets decrease total cholesterol by 9.6% and LDL cholesterol by 8.6% (9).

Healthier heart 

A healthy heart requires a healthy lifestyle. It’s that simple, yet it’s easier said than done. One way to keep your heart healthy is to give a low glycemic diet a try. Evidence shows that a low glycemic diet is independently associated with a lower risk of various chronic diseases, including heart disease (9).

A low glycemic diet improves heart health by helping to decrease post-meal blood sugar levels and improving the elasticity of blood walls. This also improves blood flow on which your heart health depends since a low glycemic diet can aid the management of cholesterol levels, the risk of atherosclerosis decreases, which translates to a healthier heart.

Other benefits of low glycemic diet

Besides the above-mentioned benefits, low glycemic diet also offers the following:

  • Healthy pregnancy
  • Sustained energy levels
  • Increased mental performance
  • Improved athletic performance
  • Acne management
  • Lower risk of age-related macular degeneration and improved eye health

Factors affecting the GI of your food

As mentioned above, the glycemic index refers to the values ascribed to different foods. Some foods have low while others moderate or high glycemic index. These values are largely influenced by various factors, such as (11):

  • Type of sugar in the food – a common misconception is that all sugars have a high glycemic index. But the reality is that GI of fructose is 23 and maltose up to 105. Therefore, the glycemic index of your food is greatly influenced by the type of sugar found in it, so you need to pay attention to the labels and ingredients
  • Starch structure – starch is composed of two molecules called amylose and amylopectin. The latter is easier to digest than amylose. Therefore, foods with higher amylose levels tend to have a lower glycemic index (12)
  • Cooking method – cooking and preparation techniques also contribute to the GI value of the food. The longer the food is cooked, the faster the sugars are absorbed and digested, hence the higher GI
  • Refined carbs – processing methods of carbs also influence the GI value of the food. The more processed the food is, the higher GI
  • Ripeness – the riper the fruit, the higher its glycemic load. That happens because unripe fruit contains complex carbs that break down into sugars as the fruit ripens (13)
  • Nutrient composition – adding a source of protein or healthy fat to a meal can slow down digestion and reduce glycemic response to that specific meal (14)

When you’re planning meals on a low glycemic diet, it’s crucial to consider the above-listed factors. 

How to start: Principles of low glycemic diet 

Unlike many other eating patterns that come with a long list of rules to follow, a low glycemic diet has more liberty, but it still has some basic principles to keep in mind. These principles include (15):

  • Eat and chew slowly; stop when you’re full.
  • Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast. Strive to eat three meals and one or two snacks a day
  • Choose foods with healthy fats, but eat them in moderation. Try to limit saturated fats from dairy and other animal-based products. 
  • Eat plenty of protein. 
  • Limit consumption of concentrated sweets, including high-calorie foods with low GI. Avoid drinking more than one-half a cup of fruit juice a day. Avoid sugar-laden beverages entirely.
  • While you don’t have to avoid white potatoes and refined grain products like white pasta and bread, you should eat them as side dishes rather than main meals.
  • Strive to eat grains in the least processed way
  • Focus on eating plenty of non-starchy vegetables and fruits

Foods to eat on a low glycemic diet

At this point, you probably have a picture in your mind about foods that you should consume on this diet. But we’re going to list them below. On a low glycemic diet, you should strive to consume the following.

  • Bread (whole grain, multigrain, sourdough)
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Dairy and dairy supplements
  • Fruit (strawberries, apples, apricots, peach, plum, pear, just to name a few)
  • Grains
  • Legumes
  • Pasta and noodles 
  • Rice
  • Starchy vegetables
  • Vegetables (broccoli, carrot, cauliflower, zucchini, celery)

Of course, when preparing meals, you should focus on their GI and plan accordingly. 

It’s also useful to mention that some foods contain little to no carbs and therefore do not have a glycemic value. These foods include fish and seafood, other animal products, nuts, fats and oils, and herbs and spices. They are generally safe to eat on a low glycemic diet.

Keep in mind that in a low glycemic diet, like in other diets, eating in moderation is crucial.

Foods to avoid on the low glycemic diet

Foods you should strive to avoid when following low glycemic diet include:

  • Bread (white, naan, Turkish bread, French baguette, etc.)
  • Breakfast cereals (froot loops, corn flakes, and similar kinds)
  • Cakes and sweets
  • Dairy supplements such as rice milk and oat milk 
  • Fruits such as watermelon
  • Instant mash potatoes, Red Pontiac potatoes, Desiree potatoes
  • Instant noodles and corn pasta
  • Medium-grain white rice, Arborio rice 
  • Savory snacks

It’s useful to remember that in a low glycemic diet, no food is forbidden. However, to lose weight and manage diabetes, you need to cut down the consumption of high GI foods or avoid them entirely. 

Are there any drawbacks?

Besides many benefits, low glycemic food has several shortcomings as well. The diet may be difficult to maintain in the long run and could be a temporary solution for most people. 

Additionally, the GI of some food doesn’t provide a complete nutritional picture. Some foods have a high GI but may not necessarily be unhealthy for you.

Also, GI doesn’t take into account the number of carbs you consume. This is not overly practical if we bear in mind that carbs are crucial for blood sugar levels and their management. 

Conclusion

A low glycemic diet is simple and straightforward. While this diet has various health benefits, it has some drawbacks too. If you plan to adhere to this diet for diabetes management, make sure to consult your doctor first. 

References 

  1. https://www.health.harvard.edu/diseases-and-conditions/glycemic-index-and-glycemic-load-for-100-foods
  2. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/glycemic-index-diet/art-20048478
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5872791/
  4. https://jandonline.org/article/S2212-2672(14)01509-3/fulltext
  5. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31374573/
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4144100/
  7. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2654909/
  8. https://www.gisymbol.com/why-follow-a-low-gi-diet/
  9. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/british-journal-of-nutrition/article/beneficial-effects-of-a-5week-lowglycaemic-index-regimen-on-weight-control-and-cardiovascular-risk-factors-in-overweight-nondiabetic-subjects/9F874F4969E6E179E040ACEB15A53BB0/core-reader
  10. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/87/3/627/4633329
  11. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/low-glycemic-diet#factors-affecting-gi
  12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4579564/
  13. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4837723/
  14. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5525124/
  15. https://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/8-principles-of-low-glycemic-eating

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