The Glycemic Index is a numerical Index that ranks carbohydrates based on their rate of glycemic response (i.e. their conversion to glucose within the human body). Glycemic Index uses a scale of 0 to 100, with higher values given to foods that cause the most rapid rise in blood sugar. Pure glucose serves as a reference point, and is given a Glycemic Index (GI) of 100.
Why is the Glycemic Index Important?
Your body performs best when your blood sugar is kept relatively constant. If your blood sugar drops too low, you become lethargic and/or experience increased hunger. And if it goes too high, your brain signals your pancreas to secrete more insulin. Insulin brings your blood sugar back down, but primarily by converting the excess sugar to stored fat. Also, the greater the rate of increase in your blood sugar, the more chance that your body will release an excess amount of insulin, and drive your blood sugar back down too low.
Therefore, when you eat foods that cause a large and rapid glycemic response, you may feel an initial elevation in energy and mood as your blood sugar rises, but this is followed by a cycle of increased fat storage, lethargy, and more hunger!
Although increased fat storage may sound bad enough, individuals with diabetes (diabetes mellitus, types 1 and 2) have an even worse problem. Their bodies inability to secrete or process insulin causes their blood sugar to rise too high, leading to a host of additional medical problems.
The theory behind the Glycemic Index is simply to minimize insulin-related problems by identifying and avoiding foods that have the greatest effect on your blood sugar.
Should All High-GI Foods be Avoided?
For non-diabetics, there are times when a rapid increase in blood sugar (and the corresponding increase in insulin) may be desirable. For example, after strenuous physical activity, insulin also helps move glucose into muscle cells, where it aids tissue repair. Because of this, some coaches and physical trainers recommend high-GI foods (such as sports drinks) immediately after exercise to speed recovery.
Also, it’s not Glycemic Index alone that leads to the increase in blood sugar. Equally important is the amount of the food that you consume. The concept of Glycemic Index combined with total intake is referred to as “Glycemic Load”, and is addressed in the next section…
As you consider the strengths and weaknesses of the Glycemic Index, it’s important that you don’t lose sight of the original goal. What we are really trying to do is control blood sugar levels. Is the consumption of low-GI foods the only way to do this? No, it is not. As we mentioned before, your blood sugar can also be controlled simply by limiting the total number of carbohydrates that you consume in any given meal.