The Glycemic Index

Carbohydrates are one of three macronutrients – the others being protein and fat – that provides the body with energy. To be able to make use of the energy contained in the carbohydrates, the body has to metabolize (break down) the carbohydrates into energy, water, and carbon dioxide. While the body makes use of the energy (measured in calories) and water from this process, it rids itself of the carbon dioxide.

To be used by the body, carbohydrates must be digested and absorbed in order to transform them into energy. On moving to the stomach and into the small intestine, the pancreas as well as the small intestine (where most digestion and absorption takes place) secretes key digestive enzymes to facilitate this process. After the carbohydrates are absorbed, they are transported to the liver where they are converted into glucose before being released into the bloodstream.

The glucose resulting from this carbohydrate metabolism is used in three ways. They are either sent directly to the organs that need energy, are transformed into glycogen for storage in the liver or muscles, or are converted to and stored as fat in the adipose tissues of the body.

However, the amount and rate of release of glucose into the bloodstream can have certain effects on an individual’s weight loss ability and general health. Whenever you eat, insulin which is produced by specialized cells in the pancreas is secreted into the bloodstream to help the body use and store the glucose produced during the breakdown of carbohydrates. People become diabetic when either there is an inability of the pancreas to produce sufficient insulin or the body is unable to efficiently use the produced insulin.

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Insulin basically helps the body to maintain a normal glucose level – also referred to as blood sugar level – in the bloodstream. When there is a rise in blood sugar level which is often caused by eating carbohydrate foods which have a high absorption rate, more insulin is produced to help counter this rise. Practically, increased insulin production signals the body to stop the burning of fat for energy and start making use of the excess glucose that is now circulating in the bloodstream.

The release of too much insulin into the bloodstream can however cause what is known as hyperglycemia. In hyperglycemia, there may be as much as four times the normal amount of sugar in the bloodstream and while it is not lethal by itself, it causes a symptom of a serious disease called diabetes mellitus. To help counter this rise in insulin production, one needs to eat appropriate amount of protein and fat in a meal or eat more of carbohydrate foods that have a lower absorption rate.

In order to properly and more accurately evaluate the rate at which carbohydrates are absorbed into the bloodstream, researchers developed a concept called the Glycemic Index (GI). The Glycemic Index is basically a numerical scale that tells us exactly how rapidly a carbohydrate food is able to increase the blood sugar level. It is thus an indication of how rapidly specific carbohydrate foods are absorbed into the bloodstream and thus increase blood sugar level.

Foods that cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels are said to be high Glycemic Index foods while those that are released into the bloodstream at a much slower rate are called low Glycemic Index foods. Since all carbohydrates break down into glucose and it is the body’s primary energy fuel, glucose is therefore used as a benchmark and given a value of 100 while other carbohydrate-containing foods are given a rating value ranging from 1-100 relative to it. High Glycemic Index foods generally have a value between 70 and 100. A carbohydrate has a moderate GI if its absorption rate is about 56-69 while it has a low GI if it is 55 or less.

One important research by a team of Harvard researchers led by Simin Liu and Walter Willet which tracked the dietary habits and health of over 75,000 nurses for a 10-year period showed that eating diets containing foods high on the Glycemic Index led to increase in both blood sugar and insulin levels. These according to the study consequently results in hypertension, undesirable cholesterol and increased weight gain due to increase in fat storage (triglyceride levels) and other risk factors for heart related diseases. The study concluded that consumption of high GI foods resulted in a double risk of having heart diseases and 40 percent more risk of having diabetes.

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Although the initial idea behind the Glycemic Index was to be able to prevent blood sugar levels from experiencing severe dips and spikes by maintaining a steady insulin level, the GI has equally been found to be very beneficial in helping individuals achieve natural weight loss. This is due to the fact that through proper utilization of the GI in making wise food choices, we are able to ingest carbohydrates that keep our blood sugar and insulin levels at a constant plateau, while they also keeps us feeling fuller and more satisfied for a longer period of time thus effectively reducing our overall daily calorie consumption.

While the Glycemic Index is a highly effective system, it does not however indicate how much carbohydrate is in a serving of a particular food. A carb gram counter is therefore often used alongside the Glycemic Index for better evaluations. Also, while there is no standardized Glycemic Index as at yet, there is however a relative consistency in the order of carbohydrate-containing foods on the various indexes.

The usefulness of the Glycemic Index in helping individuals achieve their weight loss goals comes from providing them with the right information and ability to be able to make better carbohydrate food choices from the lower end of the GI to achieve longer lasting weight loss benefits.

Choosing carbohydrates with a low GI allowing for slow passage of glucose into the bloodstream makes it easier to maintain a stable blood sugar level, consequently keeping insulin production to the minimum. Having a normal insulin level in the bloodstream is the ideal situation for fat loss because as mentioned earlier, high insulin levels promote the storage of fat as the body switches to the excess glucose from carbohydrate as its main source of energy fuel.

While eating a low glycemic diet will help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and obesity, it is the poor quality of high glycemic diets in general that promote weight gain and disease and not just because they have a high glycemic index. Also of major importance is the portion size of the meal itself and the carbohydrate-density of the foods.