Main content

    Health Information

    Diabetes: Eating Low-Glycemic Foods

    Diabetes: Eating Low-Glycemic Foods

    Introduction

    Eating low-glycemic foods is one tool to help keep your diabetes under control. The glycemic index is a rating system for foods that contain carbohydrate. It helps you know how quickly a food with carbohydrate raises blood sugar, so you can focus on eating foods that raise blood sugar slowly.

    Key points

    • Foods that raise blood sugar slowly have a low glycemic index. Most of the carbohydrate-rich foods that you eat with this plan should be low or medium on the glycemic index.
    • Eating low-glycemic foods is most helpful when used along with another eating plan for diabetes, such as carbohydrate counting or the plate format. Counting carbs helps you know how much carbohydrate you're eating. The amount of carbohydrate you eat is more important than the glycemic index of foods in helping you control your blood sugar. The plate format helps you control portions and choose from a variety of foods.
    • The glycemic index of a food can change depending on the variety of the food (for example, red potato or white potato), its ripeness, how it is prepared (for example, juiced, mashed, or ground), how it is cooked, and how long it is stored.
    • People respond differently to the glycemic content of foods. And because many things affect the glycemic index, the only way to know for sure how a food affects your blood sugar is to check your blood sugar before and after eating that food.
    • High-glycemic foods are rarely eaten by themselves, so the glycemic index might not be helpful unless you're eating a food by itself. Eating foods together changes their glycemic index.
    • Look at the overall nutrition in foods?and not just their glycemic index?when planning meals. Some low-glycemic foods, such as ice cream, are high in saturated fat and should be eaten only now and then. And some high-glycemic foods, such as potatoes, have nutrients like vitamin C, potassium, and fiber.
    • Eating low-glycemic foods along with high-glycemic foods also can help keep your blood sugar from rising quickly.

    Low-glycemic foods raise your blood sugar slowly. This helps you keep your blood sugar from getting too high. Eating this way is sometimes called a "low-GI" eating plan.

    • Low-glycemic foods break down slowly in your body and release sugar into the blood slowly.
    • High-glycemic foods break down quickly and make blood sugar rise quickly.

    In general, carbohydrate raises blood sugar more quickly than other nutrients like proteins and fats. But some foods that have carbohydrate raise blood sugar more slowly than other foods with carbohydrate. For example, white bread raises blood sugar more quickly than whole-grain bread.

    The glycemic index is a way to tell how quickly foods that contain carbohydrate may raise your blood sugar.

    Foods in the index are given a number from 0 to 100. The higher the number, the higher the glycemic index. Foods are compared to glucose, which is sugar. It has a rank of 100.

    • Foods that raise blood sugar quickly are high. They are rated 70 or more.
    • Foods that raise blood sugar moderately are medium. They are rated 56 to 69.
    • Foods that raise blood sugar slowly are low. They are rated 55 or less.

    The glycemic index of a food can change depending on the variety of the food (for example, red potato or white potato), its ripeness, how it is prepared (for example, juiced, mashed, or ground), how it is cooked, and how long it is stored.

    Most of the carbohydrate-rich foods that you eat on this plan should be low or medium on the index. A dietitian or certified diabetes educator can help you pick foods that you like that are low on the index. You also can look at materials from the American Diabetes Association or go to its website at www.diabetes.org.

    Glycemic index of some common foods 1, 2

    Fruits

    Glycemic index

    Apples

    Low

    Oranges

    Low

    Watermelon

    High

    Vegetables

    Glycemic index

    Potato, baked (such as russet)

    High

    Pumpkin

    High

    Sweet potato

    Low

    Dried and canned beans and legumes

    Glycemic index

    Kidney beans

    Low

    Lentils

    Low

    Peanuts

    Low

    Cereals and grains

    Glycemic index

    Rice (brown)

    Medium

    Instant oatmeal

    High

    Corn flakes

    High

    Breads

    Glycemic index

    Whole-grain bread

    Low

    Hamburger bun (white)

    Medium

    White bread

    High

    Pasta

    Glycemic index

    Spaghetti (whole wheat)

    Low

    Spaghetti (white)

    Low

    Macaroni

    Low

    People respond differently to the glycemic content of foods. And because many things affect the glycemic index, the only way to know for sure how a food affects your blood sugar is to check your blood sugar before and after you eat that food.

    Choosing low-glycemic foods doesn't mean that you can't eat any high-glycemic foods. Some high-glycemic foods, such as potatoes, have lots of nutrients. Just try to limit how much of these foods you eat.

    It is best to combine low-glycemic foods with another eating plan for diabetes, such as carbohydrate counting or the plate format. The glycemic index can help you know the kind of carbohydrate you're eating. Carbohydrate counting can help you know how much carbohydrate you're eating. And the plate format can help you eat a variety of foods and manage portion sizes.

    Click here to view an Actionset. Diabetes: Counting Carbs If You Don't Use Insulin
    Click here to view an Actionset. Diabetes: Using a Plate Format to Plan Meals

    Test Your Knowledge

    The glycemic index is a measure of how much carbohydrate is in my food.

    • True
      This answer is incorrect.

      The glycemic index doesn't measure how much carbohydrate is in food. It's a way to tell how quickly foods that have carbohydrate may raise your blood sugar.

    • False
      This answer is correct.

      The glycemic index doesn't measure how much carbohydrate is in food. It's a way to tell how quickly foods that have carbohydrate may raise your blood sugar.

    Continue to Why?

    Carbohydrate raises blood sugar more than protein or fat. So eating carbohydrate that raises blood sugar slowly is one way to help keep your blood sugar in your target range. This may lower your chance of getting problems from diabetes that can affect your heart, eyes, nerves, and kidneys.

    The best way to keep your blood sugar under control is to manage how much carbohydrate you're eating and to spread carbohydrate foods throughout the day.

    Test Your Knowledge

    Carbohydrate raises my blood sugar more than any other nutrient.

    • True
      This answer is correct.

      Carbohydrate does raise your blood sugar more than protein and fats.

    • False
      This answer is incorrect.

      Carbohydrate does raise your blood sugar more than protein and fats.

    Continue to How?

    You don't have to deny yourself certain food groups or favorite dishes when you follow a low-glycemic eating plan. You focus on eating measured amounts of low or medium glycemic foods and trying to eat a balanced diet.

    Write down what you eat now

    The first step is to look at the kinds of foods you're eating now. Write down (What is a PDF document?) the carbohydrate-rich foods you eat over several days. Then find the glycemic index of these foods and list them under columns labeled low, medium, or high. You can see at a glance how many high-, medium-, and low-glycemic foods you eat.

    You may find that you already are eating many foods that are low or medium on the index. But you also may find many foods that are high-glycemic or on the high end of medium.

    Swap some high-glycemic foods with low-glycemic choices

    Look at your diary for high-glycemic foods that you eat only now and then or that you wouldn't mind removing from your diet.

    Find some low-glycemic choices that you could eat in place of those high-glycemic foods. The following are some examples. If you like baked potatoes, try having a baked yam instead. If you often eat a plain bagel for breakfast, try a slice of multi-grain toast instead. Watermelon is a fine treat once in a while in the summer. But you could limit how much of it you eat. Or you could have strawberries or other low-glycemic berries instead.

    Follow some tips to make low-glycemic choices

    • Eat unprocessed food as often as you can. Whole, unprocessed food usually (but not always) has a lower glycemic index than the same food when it's processed. For example, white bread is more processed than whole wheat bread.
    • Don't overcook pasta. Cooking pasta until well done raises its glycemic index. For a lower glycemic index, pull the pasta out of the water when it's still a little firm?but not hard?when you bite it.
    • Choose high-fiber foods. Most food that is high in fiber takes longer to digest and raises blood sugar slowly.
    • Eat measured portions of high-glycemic foods. You can still eat food with a high glycemic index. Many of these foods have nutrients that you need. But try to eat small portions.
    • Eat a low-glycemic food along with a high-glycemic food. The low-glycemic food will help counter the effect of the high-glycemic food, so your blood sugar may rise more slowly. Adding a healthy fat to your meal also will slow the rise of your blood sugar. For example, add a small amount of olive oil when you roast potatoes. Although sticky rice has a high glycemic index, eating it with chicken and vegetables will lower its glycemic index.
    • Choose whole grains. Use whole-grain bread for your toast in the morning, and eat whole grains at lunch. Whole grains include barley, brown rice, and 100% whole-grain bread.
    • When eating out, choose dishes with non-starchy vegetables. Most non-starchy vegetables are low on the glycemic index.

    Set goals and get support

    • Have your own reasons for wanting to try this eating plan.
    • Set a main goal. Then start with smaller goals that will help you reach your larger goal. For example, if your main goal is to eat only one high-glycemic food a day?and you now eat seven high-glycemic foods a day?you could make a smaller goal to remove one or two of those high-glycemic foods from your diet each week.
    • Think about what might get in your way. Know that you may have slip-ups, and prepare for how you'll deal with them. Perhaps you went out to eat and had a meal with several high-glycemic foods. Instead of being upset with yourself, you could try to make a plan for the next time you go out to eat. You might be able to look at the menu online beforehand. That way, you can pick low or medium glycemic foods ahead of time.
    • Get support as you make a change in your diet. Ask friends or family to encourage you. They might even want to join you in eating more low-glycemic foods.

    Test Your Knowledge

    I can't eat any high-glycemic foods after I start a low-glycemic eating plan.

    • True
      This answer is incorrect.

      It's a good idea to choose most of your foods from low and medium glycemic foods. But you can still have high-glycemic foods. Try to eat small amounts of them along with foods that have a low glycemic index.

    • False
      This answer is correct.

      It's a good idea to choose most of your foods from low and medium glycemic foods. But you can still have high-glycemic foods. Try to eat small amounts of them along with foods that have a low glycemic index.

    Continue to Where?

    Now that you have read this information, you can start looking for low-glycemic foods to substitute for high-glycemic foods.

    Talk with your doctor. If you have questions about this information, print it out and take it with you when you visit your doctor. You may want to mark areas or make notes in the margins where you have questions.

    Organization

    Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
    120 South Riverside Plaza
    Suite 2000
    Chicago, IL60606-6995
    Phone: 1-800-877-0877
    Email: knowledge@eatright.org
    Web Address: www.eatright.org

    The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics sets standards for all types of prescribed diets. The organization produces a variety of consumer information, including videos. This group will help you find a registered dietitian in your area who provides nutrition counseling.


    Return to topic:

    References

    Citations

    1. Atkinson FS, et al. (2008). International tables of glycemic index and glycemic load values: 2008. Diabetes Care, 31(12): 2281?2283.
    2. American Diabetes Association (2013). The Glycemic Index of Foods. Available online: http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/planning-meals/the-glycemic-index-of-foods.html.

    Other Works Consulted

    • American Diabetes Association (2008). Nutrition recommendations and interventions for diabetes. Diabetes Care, 31(Suppl 1): S61?S78.
    • American Diabetes Association (2013). The Glycemic Index of Foods. Available online: http://www.diabetes.org/food-and-fitness/food/planning-meals/the-glycemic-index-of-foods.html.
    • Atkinson FS, et al. (2008). International tables of glycemic index and glycemic load values: 2008. Diabetes Care, 31(12): 2281?2283.
    • Franz MJ (2012). Medical nutrition therapy for diabetes mellitus and hypoglycemia of nondiabetic origin. In LK Mahan et al., eds., Krause's Food and the Nutrition Care Process, 13th ed., pp. 675?710. St Louis: Saunders.

    Credits

    By Healthwise Staff
    Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
    Specialist Medical Reviewer Rhonda O'Brien, MS, RD, CDE - Certified Diabetes Educator
    Last Revised July 11, 2013

    This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information. Your use of this information means that you agree to the Terms of Use. How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.

    1995-2013 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.