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What’s so Hard about the Glycemic Index?

When I learned about the glycemic index right after I got my diabetes diagnosis a dozen years ago, it seemed so logical. It still seems to me that it is the most logical and sensible way for people with diabetes to eat.

That’s why I have such a hard time understanding why so many people think that it is hard to follow.

“For the average person trying to teach themselves it would be very difficult,” Lois Maurer, a registered dietitian, Certified Diabetes Educator, and AADE board member, told me. “We don’t want to overwhelm them.”

Frankly, I find that she insults the intelligence and motivation of people with diabetes. Lois says that only the most motivated people – women with gestational diabetes – have enough motivation to follow the glycemic index.

Instead, I agree with Dr. Tom Dorsch, an endocrinologist in Peoria, Illinois. He says that the argument that the glycemic index is hard to understand and might create confusion is “about as lousy an argument as you can come up with.

“It seems to me that teaching people how to count carbohydrates and add all this up in your head is a whole lot more confusing than when you say that when you eat a piece of watermelon your sugar is going to go up higher than when you eat an apple. I understand all the scientific problems with it, but then to toss it out and then to say it’s no good is beyond me,” Dr. Dorsch concludes.

That’s why I simply don’t understand the barrage of emails I have been getting lately. For example, “I don’t understand the GI chart – the numbers that is,” Donnie wrote.

Nancy wrote that “I know that you said carbs make your blood sugar go up, but you can’t cut them out, and that is where you talk about the glycemic index and glycemic load, which I really can’t understand.”

What’s so hard about it? The higher the numbers the faster the food is digested and therefore the higher your blood glucose will spike, which those of us with diabetes want to minimize. That certainly seems simple to me.

Maybe the glycemic index was easier to understand a dozen years ago. My CDE mentioned the glycemic index right after a doctor diagnosed my diabetes in February 1994, but she couldn’t tell me anything about it and I determined to learn what I could about it.

Even then I knew that the Internet was the best place to turn for information about diabetes in general and the glycemic index in particular. So in March 1994 I got an Internet account to read the diabetes newsgroups and mailing lists about diabetes. That was before there were any diabetes websites – to say nothing of diabetes blogs like this.

It was on the first diabetes mailing list, called Diabetic, that in April 1994 I stumbled on the first solid post about the glycemic index. That’s when a woman with type 2 diabetes posted a list of the glycemic indexes of 37 foods. At the time she posted her list we had never communicated, but we were married in 1995. So the interest in the glycemic index runs in the family.

Maybe the glycemic index was easier to understand when there were only a few foods to keep in mind. Now we know the GI of more than 750 foods.

Only carbohydrates trigger a rise in our blood glucose levels. And the only carbohydrates that do this are starches and sugars; while fiber is technically considered a carbohydrate in the U.S., it doesn’t affect our blood glucose. The first problem that some people seem to have in understanding the glycemic index is that they don’t know what carbohydrates are. All I can say to that is that they better find out one way or another if they want to have any chance of living a long life with diabetes.

We can’t avoid all starches and sugars, but we can eat less of those that work the fastest to raise our blood glucose levels. Even this is not hard to figure out.

It surprises many people that some starchy foods are worse culprits than sugars. For example, consider the second and third foods on the list.

Banana cake made with sugar has a GI of 47. Banana cake made without sugar has a GI of 54. Why? Almost certainly because the sugarless banana cake has a high proportion of starch.

The worst starches are most potatoes, wheat flour, and most rice. The worst sugars are glucose and maltose.

If you can just remember to eat less of those starches and sugars, you are well on the way to following the glycemic index. It’s that simple.

You don’t even have to give up potatoes, bread and pastry, and rice dishes entirely. Just eat less of them. It has taken me a dozen years, but at this point in my life I have finally lost my cravings for these starchy foods and eat almost none of them.

I probably shouldn’t be surprised that a few people don’t understand what I have written about the glycemic index. More people read my main web pages about the glycemic index than any of the 800 or so other articles that I have written about diabetes and have on my site.

By far the most popular page on my site has for years been the “Revised International Table of Glycemic Index (GI) and Glycemic Load (GL) Values—2002”. Last month, for example that page go 64,208 pageviews, according to Google Analytics.

My longest analysis of the “Glycemic Index” gets almost as many pageviews. In July there were 53,009. The third most active page on my site also is about the glycemic index, “Glycemic Values of Common American Foods”. It got 25,701 pageviews last month.

Following the glycemic index is not only easy and logical. It is also the moderate way to eat in comparison with the low carb or high carb diets that some people continue to push. By avoiding those extremes the glycemic index is something that you can follow for the rest of your life.

This article is based on an earlier version of my article published by HealthCentral.

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