By Syreeta McDonald, Extension Intern
Carbohydrates, or carbs, are an essential part of our diet. Carbs are broken down into glucose, which is the primary source of energy for our bodies. Knowing the different types of carbohydrates and how they affect the blood sugar is beneficial to all of us, and necessary for someone with diabetes. The different types of carbohydrates can be evaluated by a measurement known as the glycemic index.
The glycemic index (GI) measures the total rise in blood glucose over time after carbohydrates have been converted to glucose for use in the body. The GI ranks foods from 0 to 100; a grapefruit has a GI of 25, an apple has an average score of 39, compare that to a white bagel which has a score of 72. Foods with a higher GI typically cause the blood sugar to rise quickly. However, this is not a one size fits all rule, there are multiple variables when considering the insulin response to food such as natural or highly processed foods, how food is cooked and prepared, and portion sizes.
Understanding glycemic load (GL) is just as important as knowing the glycemic index. GL is a more useful measure to focus on because it considers the quality of the carbohydrate in the total serving of food. A piece of fruit with a high glycemic index is not a “bad” food. Fruit contains phytonutrients that have protective and healing qualities. If you only pay attention to GL, you could be missing out on other key nutrients like fiber. Fiber is the part of plant foods that your body is not able to digest or absorb. Instead, dietary fiber can help lower blood cholesterol and support a healthy digestive system.
The key take-away here is, it is important to understand both glycemic index and glycemic load so that you make informed dietary choices. Consider for example, having a glass of unsweetened apple juice with breakfast. That juice has a GI of 44. Remember that apple we mentioned earlier? Its GI also averages about 40, however, the apple juice has a GL of 30 while the apple has GL of 6, better to have that apple and get all those additional nutrients. Some days, you might just like to have a bagel. Rather than a white bagel, try a whole wheat bagel or bagel thins and spread some nut butter or other healthy fat on top which will help decrease its glycemic load.
In the long term, understanding both glycemic index and glycemic load will help with making healthier dietary choices. Choosing the highest quality of carbs more often have proven benefits of better blood sugar stabilization, weight management, and reducing risk of heart disease.