To some, the letters GI are associated with real American heroes. To carb-counters on a restrictive diet, however, those letters represent a villainous number that prevents them from eating foods that they like.
The glycemic index (GI) is meant to give people an idea of how much they can expect their blood sugar to rise in total after eating a certain food. The scale runs from 0 to 100, with 100 representing a food that consists of nothing but glucose.
In general, a GI of 55 or lower is considered “low”, while a GI of 70 or higher is considered “high”.
Conventional wisdom to this point has been that low-GI foods are clearly superior because they don’t cause sudden insulin spikes, and that high-GI foods should be either severely restricted or ideally eliminated entirely for most people. This position is unquestionably true for diabetics or pre-diabetics who need to carefully monitor their blood sugar. Low-GI foods have carbs that are broken down more slowly, leading to a more gradual release of glucose into the body, and are much safer if sugar spikes can cause medical problems.
Is High GI Really The Bad Guy?
But what if you don’t have a pre-existing diabetic condition, don’t have a family genetic predisposition to Type 2 diabetes, and aren’t very obese? Does cutting high-GI foods really provide any health benefit, especially in the realm of weight loss?
Most of the support for low-GI diets to this point has come from animal studies, in which rats have consistently become obese when fed a high-GI diet. At least one long-term study of humans following a low-GI diet has also indicated they are at less risk for developing Type 2 diabetes as well as heart and eye disease.
Issues with the research
There’s a lot of other information in play that confounds these results, though. The first is that GI rating does not necessarily create a corresponding equal increase in blood sugar, because it can be influenced by other factors.
For example, the consumption of fat, protein or dietary fiber along with a high-GI food will slow down overall digestion and impact the overall glycemic response. GI is just one factor among several that determine the overall glycemic impact of consumed foods. Glycemic load (GL), for example, accounts for total carbohydrate content in the food along with the food’s GI.
Mostly rat studies – Humans are impossible to control!
Specific to weight loss and obesity, studies to this point have almost exclusively been done on rats who were not eating complex or varied diets.
Cultural evidence provides counterexamples
There’s also anecdotal cultural evidence that seems to fly in the face of GI theory.
For instance, potatoes and rice are staples of (and consumed in great amounts in) Asian and South American countries, yet those countries do not have unusually high rates of diabetes or obesity.
White rice has a relatively high GI of 64 while baked potato is 85. Because of its density of carbohydrates, white rice has a very high glycemic load, too, being far above average at 33, practically only bested by straight sugar and candy bars.
Yet the high-rice dieters in Asia seem to be getting along just fine. Why is that?
GI rating oddities
The GI ratings of some foods have also been a point of contention. For example, there was a public battle between proponents of GI and beer brewers a few years back, because beer was initially listed as being somewhat high GI due to the use of maltose sugar during brewing. Beer manufacturers pointed out that the sugar was almost entirely consumed during the fermentation process, however, and little to none was present in the final product.
The way GI is rated also creates some oddities that are hard to explain, for example white bread and bagels being rated higher on the GI index than cake and ice cream!
Point being, no system is perfect. Useful, perhaps, but something for an otherwise healthy person to base their entire diet on? Not the best idea.
Settling The Weight Loss Debate
Modern science is increasingly finding that many foods we’ve been told to avoid for decades — like eggs and red meat — may not have the negative health impact that we initially thought they did.
Based on what science has found so far, the same may be true for high-GI foods that are otherwise healthy, like potatoes and bagels. Their impact on the ability to lose weight may be negligible as compared to simply making sure you hit your personal overall calorie count and daily macronutrient needs, as well as exercising regularly and making healthy lifestyle choices.
Now, that isn’t a license to pound cookies and those Arizona fruit drinks in the giant cans. But will a sandwich with white bread here and there or a hamburger bun wreck your diet and prevent fat oxidation? Most likely not, especially if you plan your meals out wisely.
Quantity vs. Quality in foods: What’s more important?
There’s an “unwritten battle” going on regarding quantity vs. quality in our diets. Choosing to only eat low-GI foods, but not counting calories (or allowing for an abundance of them) makes for the quality side of this argument. But choosing to eat any type of carb, while moderating them, weighing them, and counting them would constitute the quantity side of this argument.
While the truth is likely somewhere in the middle, we’re currently slanted more towards quantity.
No matter which way you slice it, if you eat pounds and pounds of low-GI foods, you will gain weight and you will add body fat.[6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13] That is eight sources cited showing that calories are still king when it comes to weight. It’s practically indisputable, all other things considered equal.
But taking the quantity side of the argument, if you don’t eat too much, you are less likely to gain fat — so long as you’re keeping protein high and track both your calories in and your calories out (exercise and basal metabolic rate).
That’s not to say that quality isn’t important. After all, we’ve shown that eating more fruits and vegetables (up to five ~80g servings per day) will keep you alive longer!
Just keep in mind the advice that we’ve given here many times before. Exact amounts vary by body type, age and several other factors, but for a weight loss focus you want roughly half your daily intake to be protein and split the remainder between carbs and fat as you see fit, making sure to get the healthy versions of both.
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