Low-glycemic foods: Best options and dietary tips

Demi Powell
October 1
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Low-glycemic foods are slower to raise a person's blood sugar levels than foods with moderate or high scores on the glycemic index. But which are the best low-glycemic foods to eat?

Review studies suggest that a low-glycemic diet may help reduce blood pressure in healthy adults.

A low-carbohydrate diet may also improve blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes, though the current 2019 guidelines do not recommend any specific carbohydrate count or diet plan for people with diabetes.

This article takes a look at some of the best low-GI foods and gives dietary tips for people following a low-GI diet.

How the scale works

Low-GI foods, such as sweet potato, have a score under 55. 

The glycemic index (GI) is a scale from 1–100. Each food gets a score, and the lower the score, the longer that food takes to raise a person's blood sugar levels.

The GI indicates how quickly carbohydrate-containing foods increase blood sugar levels, compared with pure glucose.

Below are six of the best low-GI foods, based on the International Tables of Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load Values: 2008. We also discuss the health benefits of these foods and how to enjoy them.

1. Oats – 55

With a GI score of 55, rolled porridge oats are low-GI breakfast cereal option. Oats contain beta-glucan, a type of fiber with a number of health benefits.

Authors of a 2014 meta-analysis suggest that the beta-glucan fiber in porridge oats may improve blood cholesterol. Beta-glucan may also help a person feel fuller for longer.

Steel-cut and rolled oats have the best health benefits and the most favorable GI score. Quick and instant oats are more processed than steel-cut or rolled oats, and they have a higher GI score.

Muesli that contains steel-cut or rolled oats can be a good option for people following a low-GI diet, though the GI scores vary substantially among brands.

Porridge is easy to make at home. Simply add oats and milk — or a plant-based milk alternative — to a pan and stir while heating. The porridge is ready when the oats have absorbed the milk and the mixture has thickened.

2. Milk – 37 to 39

A healthful addition to morning porridge, milk is a low-GI dairy product. The GI score for skimmed milk is 37, while full-fat milk has a score of 39.

Milk is rich in calcium, which is important for bone health. Research suggests that drinking milk regularly may reduce the progression of knee osteoarthritis in women.

Reduced-fat soy milk can have a GI score of between 17 and 44, and full-fat soy milk may score 44. The specific GI score will vary among brands.

Some people enjoy a glass of milk with their dinner. Another idea is to add it to a smoothie that contains low-GI fruits, such as apples, bananas, grapes, and mangoes.

Most fruits have low GI scores because of their fructose and fiber contents. Fruits with medium- to high-GI scores include melons, pineapples, and dried fruits, such as dates, raisins, and cranberries.

3. Chickpeas – 28

Chickpeas have a low GI score and are a good source of protein and fiber. 

Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, are a low-GI legume, with a score of 28 on the scale.

Chickpeas are a good source of protein and fiber, with 11.8 grams (g) and 10.6 g per cup, respectively. They also contain key nutrients, such as calcium, potassium, and vitamin B-9, which is sometimes called folate.

People can use chickpeas as a substitute for potatoes or white rice, which have high GI scores. Roasted chickpeas make a quick and easy snack. 

Another tasty way to eat more chickpeas is by making hummus. This popular Middle Eastern dip is straightforward to prepare. 

4. Carrots – 39

With a GI score of 39, carrots are a healthful alternative to bread for dipping into hummus.

Carrots contain beta-carotene, which is good for eye health. They are also a great source of antioxidants, which help protect the body's cells from damage.

People may enjoy carrots boiled or steamed as a side vegetable with any dish.

5. Kidney beans – 24

With a GI score of 24, kidney beans are a versatile low-GI food.

These beans are rich in protein and fiber, with 13.36 g and 11 g per cup, respectively. They also contain potassium and are very low in fat.

Kidney beans make a great addition to meat-based or vegetarian chili. 

6. Lentils – 32

Scoring 32 on the GI scale, lentils are a great low-GI addition to lunches and dinners.

Lentils are rich in protein, with 17.86 g per cup, and fiber, with 15.6 g per cup. They are also a good source of phosphorus and potassium.

An Indian dish called dhal is a wholesome and tasty way to enjoy lentils. Suitable for vegans, dhal is also easy to make at home. 

What affects GI?

Using an acidic seasoning lowers a meal's GI score. Using an acidic seasoning lowers a meal's GI score.

Many factors influence a food's GI score, including:

Level of processing: More processed carbohydrates tend to have higher GI scores.

Ripeness: The sugar in fruit breaks down as the fruit ripens, increasing the GI score.

Preparation: The cooking process can break down carbohydrates, increasing the meal's GI score.

Dressing: Using an acidic seasoning, such as lemon, lowers a meal's GI score.

Type of starch: Amylose has a lower GI score than amylopectin.

Tips for following a low-GI diet

The foods that we discuss above are a good place to start for people interested in a low-GI diet.

When following the diet, it is important to remember than high-GI foods are not banned; a person should just use moderation.

Anyone on a low-GI diet can also enjoy foods that do not contain carbohydrates, such as the following:

meat

eggs

fish

seafood

olive oil

butter

herbs

spices

nuts

Summary

Low-GI foods have a GI score below 55. They contain carbohydrates that take the body longer to break down than high-GI foods.

Low-GI foods raise a person's blood sugar levels more slowly than moderate- or high-GI foods.

The American Diabetes Association no longer recommend specific meal plans for people with diabetes.

Instead, their Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes — 2019 guidelines recommend following individualized meal plans based on a person's current eating patterns, preferences, and goals. People can work with their healthcare providers to draw up these meal plans.

Research into the various health benefits of a low-GI diet is ongoing.

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