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Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load: What’s the Difference?

The term “glycemic” means that these concepts have to do with glucose (i.e. sugars and carbs).

But it’s not only about how much sugar is in foods. More importantly, it’s about how those foods affect your blood sugar levels.

In general, diets that are high on the glycemic index (GI) and high in glycemic load (GL), will increase your risk of many chronic conditions including diabetes and heart disease.

DID YOU KNOW? Starches like those in potatoes and grains are digested into sugar. This is because starch is just a bunch of sugars linked together. Digestive enzymes break those links and then those sugars affect your body the same way that eating sugary foods do.

Glycemic Index (GI)

The GI measures how fast a food increases your blood sugar. It compares the effect that different foods have on your blood sugar level.

Each food is given a score from 0 to 100 on how it affects blood sugar compared with glucose. Foods that cause a fast increase in blood sugar have a high GI number. That is because the sugar in them is quickly processed by your digestive system and absorbed into your blood. They create what’s called a “spike” in your blood sugar.

For example, pure glucose is given a GI rating of 100, but chickpeas have a GI of 28. For perspective, the general guideline is that anything 55 and under is low; moderate is 56-69, and 70+ is considered a high GI food.

Remember, this is a measure of how fast a carbohydrate-containing food is digested and raised your blood sugar. It’s not a measure of the sugar content of the food.

How the carbohydrates in food affect your blood sugar level depend on other components of the food. Things like fats, fiber, and protein can slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream, and this can make even a high-sugar food fall on the low end of the GI scale.

So, lower GI foods are better at keeping your blood sugar levels stable because they don’t increase your blood sugar level as fast.

FUN FACT: Can you guess which food has a GI of higher than 100? White potatoes! A baked Russet potato has a GI of 111.

Glycemic Load (GL)

The GL is different. It doesn’t consider how quickly your blood sugar “spikes”, but it looks at how high that spike is. Basically, how much the food increases your blood sugar.

GL depends on two things. First, how much sugar is actually in the food. Second, the serving size of the food that is typically eaten. A low GL would be 0-10, moderate GL would be 10-20, and high GL would 20+.

Let’s compare an average serving of watermelon and doughnuts:

FoodGIServing sizeGL per serving
Watermelon761 cup8
Doughnut761 medium17

As you can see, the doughnut and watermelon increase your blood sugar at the same rate, but the doughnut raises it more than twice as much as the watermelon.

This helps us realize that we can’t rely on the GI alone, but need to look at the GL as well. The GL tells us that the doughnut contains 2x more sugar than the same amount of watermelon.

What does this mean for your health?

Certain people should be focused on the effects that foods have on their blood sugar. For example, if you have diabetes or insulin resistance you need to be aware of the GI and GL of foods you are eating regularly.

And the GI and GL are just two factors to consider when it comes to blood sugar. Some high GI foods are good for you, so what happens there? In order to reduce the impact on your blood sugar, you need to combine a high GI food with one that contains healthy fats, fiber or protein to keep your blood sugar even.

Interested in a blood sugar balancing recipe book full of easy, delicious recipes to help you get started?

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Bottom Line

If you have or are at risk of diabetes or heart disease, you should try swapping out some higher GI/GL foods for lower ones.

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