Low Glycemic Foods

A Healthy Diet of Low Glycemic Foods:
so much is riding on your blood sugar

If you heard your mother say anything about low glycemic foods when you were a child, I would be really surprised, even if she did lecture you on eating those vegetables and laying off the candy! We just didn’t know that much about glycemic load and insulin resistance back then, but in the last 20 years or so, the data have been steadily accumulating on this topic. In a nutshell, eating low glycemic foods means focusing on getting your carbohydrates from vegetables and whole grains instead of starches and refined grains. Low glycemic recipes would provide the largest part of your daily carbohydrate intake from non-starchy vegetables and fruits.

So what is the glycemic index, and why should you care about eating low glycemic foods? The glycemic index refers to the ability of a specific food to raise the blood sugar, how high and for how long. Pure sugar (glucose) is given a score of 100. And just like golf, for glycemic index as it relates to your health, low score wins. Foods (and drinks) that have a glycemic index less than 55 are considered “low glycemic index.” You generally want to stay in that low range. Why? Spikes in blood sugar are a signal to the body that the sugar levels need to come down by being transformed and stored (as triglycerides, fats which eventually are stored around your middle). The hormone which your body calls on to down-regulate those blood sugar spikes is insulin. Insulin is a very powerful hormone, and over time, prolonged elevations in insulin levels (necessary to keep your blood sugar in check) are a major risk factor for cardiovascular disease and cancers. Insulin is a tumor growth promoter when its levels stay on the high side. This is probably one reason why people with type 2 diabetes (insulin resistance) have higher rates of cancer than the general population, and a very important reason why you want to avoid frequent spikes in blood sugar by choosing low glycemic foods, avoiding sweets and flour and starch.


The glycemic load of your foods is also related to excess inflammation. Recent research has shown that the overall glycemic load of foods (glycemic index multiplied by the quantity of carbohydrate eaten) is related to chemical markers of inflammation in the blood. Evidence is mounting that inflammation is an independent risk factor for cancer. Cancers in numerous organ systems have been shown to be associated with chronic inflammation as a likely contributor to its development. So right now, add high glycemic index foods to your list of inflammatory foods which may promote cancer development, and make a healthy diet habit of low glycemic foods.

Does this mean that carbohydrates are the enemy? No. It means that a diet high in refined carbohydrates and low in whole grains is hazardous to your health. One way to choose low glycemic foods is to emphasize whole grains. How do you know what’s whole grain? A whole grain food, most purely defined, is one where you can still see the grain, not ground up. So, rice counts as whole grain, but only brown rice, because a large part of the grain has been polished away (the healthiest part) from white rice. Whole wheat bread from the grocery store does not count as a whole grain product because the grain has been ground into such fine flour that its glycemic index is basically the same as white bread. (I still recommend whole wheat bread more than white bread because it is higher in fiber and protein). Rolled oats (as granola or oatmeal for example) are a good example of a whole grain. So you can still eat bread and pasta, just in moderation, and best mixed with some healthy oil (like olive oil) and protein, because the mixing of those foods creates a low glycemic recipe when eaten together.

To briefly summarize how to choose low glycemic foods (which I believe is overall one of your best health promoting dietary strategies): decrease your intake of potatoes (sweet potatoes are fine and have a naturally low glycemic load), decrease breads and when you do eat them choose coarse stoneground whole grain breads. Choose breakfast cereals made from oats, barley, and other whole grains. (the longer the time needed to cook your oats the better, instant means high glycemic load). Keep your plate full of fresh fruits and vegetables; choose brown rice or basmati rice. Pasta generally is a low glycemic food and can be eaten in small to moderate quantities. Think of these carbohydrate foods as always to be enjoyed mixed with healthy oils and some protein, as this slows the release of sugars into the bloodstream. A good example of a low glycemic recipe would be spaghetti with an olive oil pesto sauce and cottage or Romano cheese.

In summary, choosing low glycemic foods keeps blood sugar steady, improves energy and mood, prevents weight gain around the middle, and is an important piece of a healthy diet strategy to prevent diabetes, heart disease and cancers. Here’s an example of a low glycemic recipe I think you will enjoy; please check back often for more.

Baked Lentils (from the More With Less Cookbook, Herald Press) In a large saucepan, combine 1 lb (2 1/3 cups) dry lentils, 1 bay leaf, 5 cups water, 2 tsp salt. Boil, then cover and simmer 30 minutes. Discard bay leaf. Combine dry mixture separately before adding to lentils: 1 tsp dry mustard powder, ¼ tsp powdered ginger (more if desired), 1 tbsp soy sauce, ½ cup (or more) chopped onions, and another cup of water. Stir all together, cover tightly in an oven safe dish and bake at 350 for one hour. Serve hot over brown rice. This is your main dish for dinner, and is a great substitute for those sometimes boring meat dishes we are accustomed to!

To your health and eating pleasure,


Robert Pendergrast, MD 

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