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September 2000 Issue
Beyond Cholesterol, Beyond Triglycerides, it's --- The Glycemic Index!
by Michael Fick
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Our blood sugar (glucose) levels affect many aspects of our health, including cardiovascular health, diabetes onset and progress, hyper- and hypoglycemia, physical and mental performance, recovery from exercise, life span and quality, and how we feel at any moment. It varies significantly throughout the day in response to the clock, food, and exercise. We can't control the clock, and the effect of exercise on blood sugar is another story. But we can significantly and fairly easily influence blood sugar swings and their effect on all these factors, even if we eat a lot of healthy carbohydrates (as most of us should) or just have a sweet tooth.

In addition to their nutritional contents such as vitamins and fiber, many foods are now rated by their glycemic index (GI), a measure of how quickly and how high they elevate our blood sugar. The average blood sugar increase from a standard quantity of a food is compared to the increase from eating the same quantity of straight glucose (the sugar we absorb most rapidly) on a 0 to 100 scale, 100 being the GI assigned to glucose. (Teflon probably has a GI of 0, because it has no systemic effect on our bodies, as demonstrated by President Clinton, who, although obviously coated by it, has apparently displayed no effects other than convenient memory lapses and improved tap dancing skills!)

For simplicity, foods are generally grouped into three GI categories: low (under 55 on the scale of 100), medium, and high (over 70). And there are some surprises in the lists. For example, of the three following foods, which one has a high GI, which a medium, and which a low: low-fat tofu frozen dessert, table sugar, canned peaches?

Bet you're wrong. The can of peaches in natural syrup? GI = 30; very low. The straight table sugar? Just 65; medium. The tofu dessert? 115; off the top of the GI charts. You'll find many similar surprises in the GI lists, such as a baked potato with nothing on it but air, at 93, which drives our blood sugar up higher and quicker than a slug of table sugar.

How do we use the GI numbers to keep our blood sugar, insulin, cholesterol, and triglycerides down, and our cardiovascular system healthier? It's really fairly painless: we reduce our intake of high- and medium-GI foods or at least eat them with low-GI foods. The GIs add up by straight, simple arithmetic. A "serving" of something with a high GI of 90 eaten with a "serving" of a low 30 acts like two servings of a medium 60 in our bodies. (A "serving" here is defined as the amount of that food that contains 50 grams of carbohydrates, such as a large slice of bread.)

That doesn't mean a bite of low-GI beans will offset a meal of baked potato and white bread. Portion size matters, and using the GI charts for a while will quickly teach you to glance at a snack and make an educated guess whether its overall GI is acceptable. Acid content lowers GI, so drinking a glass of OJ with a high-GI food will help lower the snack's overall GI. Cooking also affects GI; cooking pasta beyond firm (aka al dente) raises its GI significantly by breaking it down artificially so we digest and assimilate it more rapidly. And processing (making white rice from brown, for example) significantly raises GIs by breaking foods down to expose greater surface area for more rapid assimilation.

One could go nuts and cook and eat with a calculator in one hand, a scale in the other, a fork in the other, and a GI chart hanging from the bill of the cap s/he bought just for that purpose. Some diet buffs weigh and calculate everything they eat down to half-ounces, but that has at least five fallacies. One, this ain't rocket science. Two, even if it were, there's still a lot we don't know. Three, both cooking and eating should be fun, not a pop quiz. Four, no two people or pods of peas are truly identical. And, five, lives like that are only marginally worth extending, in some people's opinions.

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