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Anyone who has ever been on a diet is familiar with some type of counting, even if it’s just calories. If you are diabetic or pre-diabetic, chances are that you’ve heard about a concept called carbohydrate counting which helps you determine how much food to eat. The concept du jour for eating well seems to be the Glycemic Index (GI). It’s not as simple as either counting calories or carbohydrates but it hints of both.

Think of the GI as another tool in your healthy eating tool box while all the other nutrition rules still apply.

The concept of the Glycemic Index has been around since 1981 when Dr. David Jenkins at the University of Toronto first studied it. (Jenkins is also a pioneer in fiber research.) According to Wikipedia the GI “is a ranking system for carbohydrates based on their effect on blood glucose levels. It compares available carbohydrates gram for gram in individual foods, providing a numerical, evidence-based index of post-meal blood sugar levels (glycemia).”

The foods studied for the GI are only carbohydrate containing foods. Therefore there are many foods which don’t have a GI value because they don’t contain a significant amount of carbohydrates – these are mostly animal products such as meat, milk, eggs and some dairy products, along with nuts and seeds which are mostly protein and fat.

A recent phone call with Cyril WC Kendall, Ph. D., an associate of Dr. Jenkins at the University of Toronto provided dietary insight into the Glycemic Index. Dr. Kendall said that people can include higher GI foods, such as white potatoes, in moderation, and as part of mixed meals. He also explained that while the GI of foods is somewhat related to the amount and type of fiber that they contain, the type of starch they have also determines the GI value. Now, you can see why this is not an easy concept. You can’t tell by looking at a food what type of starch it has. Nor do you want to have to memorize GI charts before you decide what to eat. (But glancing at them may help give you a clue.) SEE CHART 

Factors that Affect G

Lower GI

Nature of starch and form

high amylose (pasta)

Viscous fibers

guar, psyllium, β-glucan (found in mushrooms)

Particle size

large particles (whole grains)

High fat


High vegetable protein

legumes, lentils, beans, soy, nuts

Cyril W.C. Kendall, Ph. D., 2007

Recent studies have shown that eating more low GI foods, with a GI of 55 or less (the exact numbers have not yet been determined), may help blood sugar control in diabetics, help lower cholesterol for those people with high cholesterol and may aid in weight control. Dr. Kendall also reported that other studies have shown a positive association between dietary glycemic index and the risk of colon, breast and other cancers. 


Glycemic Index Ranking


White Sugar



Mashed Potatoes



White Bread



Rice, Jasmine



Rice, Brown



Rice, Basmati









Pasta, cooked firm



Sweet Potato



Steel Cut Oats






Corn chips









Adapted from

The GI numbers for these foods are not definitive; this is the best possible estimate.

An American Journal of Nutrition article from 2004 Too Much Sugar, Too Much Carbohydrate or Just Too Much? by Drs. Jenkins and Kendall discussed whether the increased incidence of diabetes is related to too much carbohydrate or too much food and too little exercise. The upshot seems to be the latter.

Eating too much is not good, no matter which foods are chosen especially since calories still count. But because many lower GI foods also contain a lot of fiber, it helps keep you from eating too much of them. People rarely pig out on broccoli or beans. Dr. Kendall says that one of the keys to healthier eating, in addition to eating lower GI foods, is to examine portion sizes. 

But the really big question is whether or not you should bet your life on these findings or if there is more to the ever-present diet dilemma. 

Timing of meals and snacks

A 1981 study by Dr. Jenkins in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition revealed that when test subjects “gorged” and ate just 3 meals per day versus snacking frequently throughout the day in small amounts (17 nibbles), both their fasting blood sugar and their fasting insulin decreased significantly. Unfortunately eating 17 times each day is impractical for most people. But eating smaller meals with small snacks in-between is something that most of us can do.

Linda Gassenheimer, the author of The Portion Plan, recommends following the American Diabetes Association suggestion to eat 3 meals and 2 snacks.

Keep Your Eye on the Prize

If your overall goal is to become healthier through what you eat, then choosing foods specifically for their GI rating does not make sense since some less nutritious foods have a lower GI than healthier alternatives.  For example, ice cream at 62 has a lower GI than watermelon at 72-80. My suggestion is that you think about choosing foods that contain many nutrients that will satisfy what your body needs to work most efficiently. Dr. Kendall’s best advice is to eat a variety of what he calls “traditional” foods which are mostly whole foods such as whole grains found in products like Amy’s Organic Vegetable Barley Soup, Steel Cut Oats Hot Cereal Bowl or Multi-grain Hot Cereal Bowl, legumes in products such as Amy’s Black Bean Vegetable Soup, Lentil Soup or Lentil Vegetable Soup and vegetables in moderate portions.

Gassenheimer says, “What I recommend are healthy eating guidelines that anyone should follow. As far as diabetics go, they need to look at more than just the Glycemic Index.” She recommends having lean protein at most meals and using monounsaturated fats such as olive or canola oils. She emphatically states, “Each person is different, especially those with diabetes. Every one of them should work with a diabetes educator if they need more guidance.”

Good Choices for Better Health

Gassenheimer says that the USDA food pyramid recommends that your plate contain one-quarter protein, one-quarter complex carbohydrates and one-half vegetables. The GI is just 1 tool to look at, and that choosing foods that are low GI might help lower blood sugar levels but may not affect weight loss. When eating processed foods it’s hard to know the GI, especially if there are many elements involved. Dr. Kendall recommends mixed meals with dishes based on low GI ingredients such as beans or vegetables. Those could include items such as any of Amy’s Chilis or Refried Beans, and Amy’s Mattar Paneer, Mattar Tofu, Palak Paneer or Paneer Tikka. 

According to Dr. Kendall, if you eat a plate of pasta it ought to be mixed with a lot of vegetables. As long as the portion isn’t too large, it can be a healthy meal. Of course, serving it with a very large salad with a tablespoon of not-too-high-in-fat salad dressing and not eating bread with your meal will make it even healthier.

We have to use a common sense approach to dietary recommendations that we give people.

Dr. Kendall himself said, “The GI concept is difficult to understand and does not apply to real world conditions (i.e. dietary advice).” He advocates for eating mixed meals with lower GI foods most of the time. If you choose to eat higher GI foods, they should not be eaten alone but combined with lower GI foods or those containing more fat with an eye toward nutritious choices. We don’t eat numbers or nutrition, we eat food. Choose wisely.

By Jill Nussinow, MS, RD, The Veggie Queen™

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