10 Best Low Glycemic Index Foods for Diabetics
Following an optimal nutrition plan is an important part of managing your diabetes. Working with your doctor and a nutritionist, you’ll learn what foods to incorporate into your diet, and what foods to avoid.
While there is no cure for diabetes, the foods you eat can affect your blood sugar levels. Making healthy choices, including adding low glycemic index foods into your daily meals and snacks, can help you lower your risk for serious diabetes complications.
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People diagnosed with diabetes have higher-than-normal levels of glucose in their blood. Blood glucose (blood sugar) is high when the sugar you take in from carbohydrates is unable to reach your cells. When glucose can’t enter the cells, it accumulates in your bloodstream and causes health issues.
Insulin, a hormone released from the pancreas, helps the migration of glucose to the cells. If your body fails to produce insulin (Type 1) or can’t properly use it (Type 2), you can develop diabetes.
The American Diabetes Association stresses two key contributors to managing Type 2 diabetes: daily activity and a healthy diet. In 1987, researchers studied how long it took for blood glucose levels to rise after participants consumed 50 g of specific foods. They compared the results to foods known to spike glucose levels, such as white bread, and then ranked each food according to its impact on blood sugar.
This became known as the glycemic index or GI. Proponents of this index claim this tool can help people manage blood glucose, control appetite and lose weight.
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What is the Glycemic Index?
Harvard Health Publishing defines the glycemic index as “a value assigned to foods based on how quickly and how high those foods cause increases in blood glucose levels.”
The glycemic index is a method of analyzing carbohydrate food sources with respect to how quickly they are absorbed and the consequential blood sugar fluctuations. A food item with a high glycemic index is digested rapidly. Food associated with a low GI is digested more slowly and generates gradual fluctuations.
Here are the ranges used to define the GI level of certain foods:
- Low glycemic index: up to and including 55
- Medium glycemic index: 56 through 69
- High glycemic index: 70 or above
Effect of High Glycemic Index Foods on Diabetes
If you have diabetes, your body cannot manufacture insulin or is resistant to insulin. The absence of insufficient amounts of insulin impedes the transport of glucose into the cells. If you eat foods that lead to a faster release of glucose, your blood sugar level will rise rapidly.
The Mayo Clinic describes symptoms of extreme elevations in blood sugar, a condition known as hyperglycemia:
- Increasing thirst and frequent urination
- Shortness of breath and a fruity breath odor
- Parched mouth and rapid heartbeat
- Stomach pain, nausea and vomiting
If you have diabetes, high or low blood sugar for an extended period can cause you to go into a diabetic coma, a potentially fatal situation requiring emergency medical attention.
Glycemic Load and a Healthy Diet
One drawback of the glycemic index is that it does not address serving sizes. A food may have a high GI but with minimal impact when eaten in small amounts. Watermelon is an example. It has a GI of 80 but with relatively little digestible carbohydrates in a standard serving.
Glycemic load (GL) is a measurement designed to address this issue by analyzing carbohydrates with portion sizes taken into account. GL is calculated by multiplying the available carbohydrates (carbs less fiber) in a portion size by the GI value, and then dividing that number by 100.
Following are the glycemic load ranges:
- Low glycemic load: up to and including 10
- Medium glycemic load: 11 through 19
- High glycemic load: 20 or above
A food is not necessarily healthy because it has a low GI or GL. It is only one way of looking at food for purposes of projecting blood sugar spikes. For a healthy diet, it’s important to also look at fat, fiber, method of cooking and how much of the food has been processed.
Best Low-glycemic Index Food Chart
If you are searching for a glycemic index chart, here are a few suggestions:
- Explore the international tables of glycemic index and glycemic load values 2021, which is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and serves as a reference for health science researchers.
- Browse the University of Sydney searchable GI database, capable of filtering data by GI, GL and serving size.
- Download the Oregon State University user-friendly glycemic index chart, which lists the GI, grams per serving and the GL per serving.
Food Substitutions for a Diabetic Diet
If you want to follow the best diet for diabetes you should consider shifting from foods with a high-glycemic index to foods with a lower-glycemic index.
Here are some ideas to help get you started, with the approximate GI for each food:*
Higher GI foods
- Regular pasta = 55
- Watermelon = 80
- Corn flakes = 82
- Corn = 52
- White rice = 72
- White bread = 71
- Maple syrup = 54
- White potatoes = 82
- Milk chocolate = 42
- Sour cream = 56
Lower GI food substitutions
- Whole wheat pasta = 37
- Cantaloupe = 65
- Oat muesli = 49
- Broccoli = 15
- Brown rice = 50
- Whole wheat bread = 50
- Agave syrup = 17
- Sweet potatoes = 54
- Dark chocolate = 23
- Plain Greek yogurt = 11
*NOTE: The exact GI for each food depends on the serving size, how it’s prepared, and if you are topping it off with sauce, gravy, or other flavorings.
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Making Healthy Food and Nutrition Choices
The consensus among nutrition science experts is to eat more functional foods, and less processed foods, and fill your plate mostly with fruit and vegetables. Low-glycemic foods may be an important component of a diabetic diet. However, a low glycemic index diet may include small amounts of foods that are not that healthy.
For example, ice cream has a low glycemic index and a medium glycemic load. A typical serving of ice cream has about 14 g of fat and 8 g of saturated fat. Because the body has to break down the fat, the glucose release is slower.
If you are on a diabetes diet, using the glycemic index to lean toward low glycemic foods can help you manage your blood sugar levels. However, pay close attention to how the food is prepared, processed and accompanied by other foods. Along with the glycemic index, building a recipe collection of easy meals to prepare at home can be another instrument in your toolkit for healthy living.
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