Diabetes: Lowering Your Glycemic Index

As a person with diabetes, you probably already know that any food with carbohydrates can raise blood sugar. That includes organic brown rice as well as Twinkies.

But your body handles different foods in different ways. A gram of carbs from one type of food can affect your blood sugar much differently than a gram from another will. Some nutritionists use the “glycemic index” to rate how a particular food will affect blood sugar. The higher the glycemic index, the higher your blood sugar is likely to rise after a meal. That Twinkie, for example, has a higher glycemic index than the brown rice.

Some “glycemic index diets” expect people to keep score for every meal, but that approach isn’t easy or always practical. Still, you can take some simple steps at mealtime to help keep your blood sugar in check. For starters, you don’t want to skimp on carbs, but you don’t want to go overboard, either. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) and other groups recommend getting 45 to 65 percent of all calories from carbohydrates. That means shooting for about 45 to 60 grams of carbohydrates at every meal if you’re a woman, 60 to 75 if you’re a man. To put that in perspective, you could get 60 grams of carbs from a cup of pasta and a small piece of fruit.

You can lower the glycemic index of your meals with a few simple steps:

  • Go for fiber. Low glycemic index foods include fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. In general, the more fiber in a food, the lower the glycemic index. The difference isn’t dramatic. A dish of white rice or a slice of white bread will raise blood sugar just a little more than a dish of brown rice or a slice of whole grain bread. Still, eating whole-grain, high-fiber bread instead of low-fiber white bread is definitely a step in the right direction.
  • Check out a list of high and low glycemic index foods. You can find these on diabetes Web sites, such as the ADA’s http://www.diabetes.org. Try to avoid high glycemic index foods (anything 70 or higher).
  • Avoid heavily processed foods. Food processing tends to boost the glycemic index by making carbs easier to digest. Instant oatmeal packs a bigger punch than regular oatmeal, and corn flakes will boost blood sugar more than an ear of sweet corn. The closer a food is to its natural state, the better.
  • Go easy on potatoes. Potatoes are loaded with carbs that quickly convert to sugar and head to the blood stream. Eat them only occasionally, and try to keep portions small. When you do eat potatoes, the less mashing the better. Mashing a potato can increase the glycemic index by 25 percent. Because fat can slow down the flow of sugar to the bloodstream, French fries and potato chips actually have a lower glycemic index than a baked potato. But all of that fat (and calories) make fries and chips a poor choice for people with diabetes.
  • Mix it up. You can soften the impact of foods with a high glycemic index by combining them with some low GI foods. If you’re having a white-bread bagel, for instance, try spreading it with a tablespoon of peanut butter instead of strawberry jelly.
  • A splash of vinegar. Anything acidic will help lower a meal’s glycemic index. If you’re eating something that could be perked up with a little vinegar or lemon juice, go ahead — you’ll be doing more than adding flavor.


American Diabetes Association. Glycemic index and diabetes. http://www.diabetes.org/food-nutrition-lifestyle/nutrition/meal-planning/glycemic-index-and-diabetes.jsp

Harvard School of Public Health. Carbohydrates: Good carbs guide the way. http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/carbohydrates-full-story/index.html

American Diabetes Association. Dietary carbohydrate (amount and type) in the prevention and management of diabetes. http://www.guideline.gov

Pi-Sunyer, F.X. Glycemic index and disease. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol. 76(supplement): 290S-298S. http://www.ajcn.org/cgi/reprint/76/1/290S.pdf

American Institute for Cancer Research. The glycemic index: What it is, what it’s not.

Cleveland Clinic. Carbohydrates and blood sugar control for people with diabetes. http://my.clevelandclinic.org/disorders/Diabetes_Mellitus/hic_Carbohydrates_and_Blood_Sugar_Control_for_People_with_Diabetes.aspx

Harvard Health Publications. Glycemic index and glycemic load for 100+ foods. https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsweek/Glycemic_index_and_glycemic_load_for_100_foods.htm

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