Glycemic Index Guide – How To Choose Low GI Carbohydrates


Carbohydrates have gotten a bad rep these past few years due to various fad diets, when in reality it’s what our bodies need most. Carbohydrates fuel our brain and muscles, and without them, we can’t function properly. However, the type of carbohydrate you choose can impact your blood sugar and insulin levels, which can enhance or impair your health.

Carbohydrates are made up of glucose molecules and come in two flavors; simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates are a form of sugar and are broken down and used for energy quickly in the body. These sugars include fructose (from fruit and honey), lactose (from milk) and sucrose, which is table sugar. Some simple carbohydrates can raise blood sugar quickly, which can be detrimental to good health. Although fruit is made up of simple sugars, it contains fiber, which may aid in the prevention and treatment of several chronic diseases.

Refined carbohydrates are typically high in simple sugar. These include regular soft drinks, cakes, cookies, pies, candy and other desserts and should be limited or avoided in our diets. These foods also tend to be high in trans and saturated fat, two types that raise blood cholesterol and may have other detrimental effects on health.

Complex carbohydrates are made up of several chains of glucose molecules, and therefore, take longer for the body to digest and utilize. Complex carbohydrates include whole grains (such as whole wheat bread or bran cereal), legumes, vegetables and beans. Other whole grains include oatmeal, quinoa, whole wheat pasta and brown rice. Although white bread, white rice, commercial pasta, and crackers are ‘complex’, they can raise blood sugar quickly, which can impair good health. When choosing complex carbohydrates, whole grains are healthier than refined because they are in higher in fiber, zinc, vitamin E and other nutrients. They also have a lower Glycemic Index.

The Glycemic Index (GI) is a method of measuring how quickly and to what extent a carbohydrate raises blood sugar. Carbohydrates that are broken down quickly have a high GI, and the blood glucose curve is high. Carbohydrates that are slowly digested have a low GI, and the blood glucose curve is low.

The GI Index Range is:

  • Low GI = 55 or less
  • Moderate GI = 56-69
  • High GI = 70 or higher

It may be wise to limit foods with a high GI (over 70) due to their impact on blood sugar and insulin levels. Increased insulin levels have been linked with diabetes and heart disease. Foods with a high GI include white bread, white rice, white potatoes, and processed snack foods crackers, and desserts. Some fruits and vegetables may have higher glycemic indices than others. Whole grains, pasta and fruits have a moderate GI, whereas legumes and dairy products have the lowest.

Potential Benefits of Eating a Low GI Diet:

  • Improved insulin sensitivity
  • Improved blood sugar and diabetes control
  • Weight reduction
  • Cholesterol reduction
  • Provide satiety and reduce hunger between meals

Tips to Choosing Low GI Foods:

  • Eat plenty of vegetables, but limit potatoes, corn, beets and carrots.
  • Choose non-tropical whole fruit in place of juice. Limit bananas, watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple and other tropical fruit.
  • Select unsweetened dairy products, such as plain yogurt, over sweetened varieties.
  • Eat balanced meals which include lean protein, whole grains and healthful fat.
  • Add beans, barley, brown rice, long grain rice, oats, whole wheat pasta and quinoa to your diet and limit intake of couscous, corn, potatoes and short grain white rice.
  • Choose oat-based cereals that contain more soluble fiber such as steel-cut oats over corn, rice and enriched wheat-based cereals.
  • Enjoy nuts, seeds or low-fat cheese over refined snacks such as candy, sweets, chips, and crackers

Whichever carbohydrates you choose in your diet, keep in mind their effect on your blood sugar and overall health. A lower glycemic index diet may be just what the doctor ordered.

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About Author

Lisa Andrews has been a dietitian in Cincinnati since 1990. In addition to her clinical experience counseling patients and teaching weight loss classes, she has also worked as a professional writer, speaker and nutrition consultant. See my profile page for more information!

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