The key to long-term good health and sustainable weight loss
Ah, the science of nutrition. It often seems more like a pseudo-science by the rate at which we’re told that one food is the superfood, then told the opposite the following year.
The low-carbohydrates Atkins-style diets are now behind us. They produced a fast rate of weight loss – due to the low day-long levels of insulin – meaning that your fat became the source of the body’s fuel. They came at a price though, the most expensive being your health, and the least enjoyable was the restrictive necessity to cut out carbohydrates.
A low glycemic index diet is more scientifically sound.
Rather than labeling carbs or proteins or fats with an inherent good or bad quality, the glycemic index instead looks at the ability of each particular food to affect your blood sugar levels.
Blood sugar is a term used in medicine to refer to the level of glucose in the blood. The blood sugar level is vigilantly regulated by the body, producing glucogen to raise the level of glucose and insulin to lower it. If it is too low you will feel lethargic, won’t be able to think straight and are likely to become bad-tempered – and may have more food cravings.
An example most of us can all relate to is digging into a chocolate bar in a feeble attempt to keep mid-afternoon lethargy at bay. Feeble attempt indeed, because when you eat a chocolate bar, your sugar spikes, and your energy level lasts for about a dozen minutes – after which your blood sugar plummets to below the level is was at before you had your chocolate treat, making you even grumpier still.
You can manage this crucial health factor by applying the glycemic index. Here’s how it works.
Glucose is assigned an index of 100 for its effect on the blood sugar level once consumed. All other carbohydrates get a number relative to this. For instance, a glycemic index of 90 means that a given food has 90 percent of the effect of pure glucose on your blood sugar.
Foods that break down slowly and cause minimal variations in blood sugar get a low glycemic index; those that really affect your blood sugar – causing a spike that quickly plummets – gets a higher index. Canned kidney beans move very slowly into your system for example, and therefore have a glycemic index of 45. The allegedly healthy but still over-processed breakfast cereal Shredded Wheat has an index of 83. Anything over 70 is deemed to have a high index, 55 through 69 as medium, and the ones you want are below 55 and considered to have a low glycemic index.
To develop a healthy diet, consider looking at the foods in the glycemic index broadly, and try to drift towards those on the lower end. Charts in nutrition books and on the internet (such as at the Home of the Glycemic Index, www.glycemicindex.com, based in the Human Nutrition Unit, School of Molecular and Microbial Biosciences, University of Sydney) can show you the glycemic index for hundreds of common foods. You can often come up with a rough ballpark figure though based largely on the types of food that have lower glycemic index.
On the whole, the bad guys stick together, and vise versa. High index foods are breakfast cereals, white bread and most processed baked goods, along with potatoes, ice cream, and table sugar. Lower index foods include vegetables, fruits, lentils and most legumes. You can also do well with most whole grain baked goods and dairy products. So there is no need to count calories or track of specific index numbers; just leaning towards the lower end of the index is going to do you good.
Within food groups, look for the level of processing. Brown bread has a lower (better) glycemic index than white bread because it’s less processed; the same is true for brown rice and whole-wheat pasta. Fresh potatoes are much lower than, say, French fries or those surreal boxes of mashed-potato instant mixes available thankfully only outside of Egypt.
Potato lovers’ need not fret: if a potato salad is made the day before, tossed with an acidic dressing, and kept in the fridge, it will have a much lower glycemic index than serving it hot from the pot. The cold storage increases the potatoes resistant starch content and the acid in the dressing – lemon juice, lime juice or vinegar – will also slow its digestion and the rate at which the stomach empties.
And there are surprises. Boiled carrots, for one, have the remarkably high glycemic index of approximately 90, which is higher than that of chocolate cake with icing. This doesn’t mean boiled carrots are to be dismissed as junk food; they have a very low glycemic load. This glycemic load is an indication of how much of the food you would eat.
The glycemic index serves to help people dealing with weight problems or those trying to achieve a healthier lifestyle; attaining a low-glycemic index diet means healthier eating and more energy, which can result in weight loss regardless of whether this is one’s goal or not.
Research has shown that reducing the overall glycemic index of one’s diet also brings down the risk of type II diabetes (previously referred to as non-insulin-dependent or adult-onset diabetes), a variety of cancers, and cardiovascular disease. It’s because of the link between glycemic index and easing type II diabetes that the lower-GI items in Egyptian supermarkets, such as whole-wheat pasta or brown rice, are often found in those sections of the supermarket labeled ‘Diabetic’. These benefits can come out of a low-index diet simply because it means you will be eating more fresh fruits and vegetables, more fiber, more dairy, and other foods that offer essential nutrients and that are more likely to be lower in calories, yet still keep your body satisfied and hold off hunger.
So bring on the legumes, the veggies, the dairy, the fruit. Visit the nut vendor not the candy man when you hit the mid-afternoon wall.
And I take back everything I ever said about eating watermelon with white cheese and eagerly await the summer fruit season.