In theory, the low GI diet sounds like the perfect weight-loss strategy for people with diabetes. But in practice, the interaction between the foods a person eats and the body’s response is complex and not always easy to predict.
In healthy individuals, the digestive system begins breaking down complex carbohydrates into simple sugars after a meal. In order to maintain a healthy blood glucose level, cells in the pancreas release a hormone called insulin, which signals other cells to absorb and store sugar. If blood glucose levels begin to get too low, another hormone called glucagon signals for sugar to be released.
In people with type 2 diabetes, this process does not run smoothly – cells do not respond correctly to insulin’s signal to absorb sugar, and blood glucose levels can rise dangerously high and stay that way after a meal. Eventually the cells that secrete insulin wear out, and less and less of the signal is released.
The theory behind the low GI diet is that if individuals only consume foods that contain low levels of carbohydrates and sugars, the body’s blood glucose level will not increase to such extremes. This will put less strain on the cells that produce insulin, which may recover with time.
To determine the GI rating for a particular food, researchers fed people servings of particular foods after a period of fasting and tested blood glucose levels every 15 minutes for two hours. Those results were then compared to the changes in blood glucose when a person consumes the same serving of a reference food. Foods with a ranking of 55 or lower are classified as “low GI;” a score of 56 to 69 is “medium GI” (bananas); and 70 and above is considered “high GI” (potatoes and white rice).
Some examples of low GI foods include dried beans and legumes, such as kidney beans or lentils; non-starchy vegetables; many milk products; most fruits; whole grain breads and cereals; and meats and fats, which do not contain carbohydrates.
Although foods are assigned precise scores, a myriad of factors can change their true GI content. Factors such as how the food is cooked, how ripe it is when it is eaten, the fat content of foods that are eaten with it and more, can influence a food’s glycemic index. Although a food’s glycemic index can give a dieter an estimate of how it compares to other items, it may not perfectly predict the effect that food will have on blood glucose levels.
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