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What are the health effects of foods with a high glycemic index?
Eating lots of foods with a high glycemic index can keep your blood sugar levels elevated. This can cause you to become resistant to insulin, the hormone that converts blood sugar into energy for cells. Insulin resistance will result in type 2 diabetes. Two large United States population studies found a diet containing high glycemic index foods and high fat content can double the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Foods with a high glycemic index also have been linked to cardiovascular disease. In fact, a low glycemic index diet can have a more positive impact on cardiovascular health than any other dietary factor. A 2012 review of available scientific evidence found that a high glycemic index diet increases the risk of cardiovascular disease by 23 percent. The risk ran higher for women than men.
A high glycemic index diet also is associated with obesity. People who eat foods with a high glycemic index tend to have a higher body mass index. Conversely, people who eat low glycemic index food tend to lose weight and gain a healthier BMI. However, portion sizes do matter -- eating a lot of low glycemic index food will cause you to gain weight if you take in more calories than you burn.
How can I plan my meals using the glycemic index?
So how can you use the glycemic index to plan meals and improve your health? It isn't easy. According to Ginn-Meadow, dietitians find that it is most helpful to calculate a meal's total "glycemic load" to determine the overall effect that it will have on your blood sugar levels.
"Instead of consuming all foods high in carbohydrates at one meal, we also incorporate protein and heart-healthy oil," says Ginn-Meadow. "When we do that, we're able to lower that glycemic load."
To best use the glycemic index to guide your dietary decisions, you should:
- Generally stick to foods with low or medium glycemic index values.
- Include a mix of healthy foods with low and high glycemic index values when planning meals.
- Keep in mind that many nutritious foods have a higher glycemic index than foods with little nutritional value. Oatmeal has a higher glycemic index than chocolate, for example.
- Take portion sizes into account. The number of calories you eat matters just as much as the glycemic index of the food.
"If someone is trying to improve their meal quality, it can be a tool to use," says Ginn-Meadow. "That doesn't mean you can't have something high in glycemic index. It just means you should eat [foods with a low glycemic index] more often." As is often seen in most complicated biological systems, too much or too little of a dietary component is not good for the system; moderation of a dietary component, even one as important as glucose, is the better choice.
Medically reviewed by Avrom Simon, MD; Board Certified Preventative Medicine with Subspecialty in Occupational Medicine
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Harvard Medical School: "Glycemic index and glycemic load for 100+ foods."
Ginn-Meadow, Angela RD, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Joslin Diabetes Center: "Glycemic Index and Diabetes."
Ma, X. Atherosclerosis. August 2012.
Wong, J. "Obesity Prevention." Chapter 17.