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Living Well

What’s the Low Glycemic Diet All About?

Last updated: Sep 26, 2016

It may not have a catchy name or a celebrity promoter, but the low-glycemic diet is worth learning about if you have diabetes.

You’ve probably already been told to monitor your blood sugar and change your diet. Following the low-glycemic diet will help you do both, but how?

“The glycemic index relates primarily to carbohydrates,” explains Cynthia Paige, MD, a family medicine specialist at Summit Medical Group whose expertise includes chronic disease management, treatment for obesity and wellness. Proteins and fats don’t have the ability to raise your blood sugar like carbohydrates.

Carbohydrates: Too Much of a Good Thing

“Starches and sugar have a very high glycemic index, meaning that they have an ability to increase your blood sugar quickly,” she adds. “Carbohydrates are essential for us to live, and our brain and muscles actually live on glucose (sugar). However, when you have too much sugar in your body, the body may not be able to lower it with its natural production of insulin. When the blood sugar goes up too high and your body can’t bring it back down, that’s when we develop diabetes.”

Carbohydrates can be divided into simple carbohydrates and complex carbohydrates. Simple carbohydrates include sugar, sweets, and even some fruits, and raise your blood sugar quickly. Complex carbohydrates include vegetables and don’t raise your blood sugar as much. “They don’t have as many carbs as your fruits or processed foods will have,” Dr. Paige notes.

How to Shift to a Low-Glycemic Diet

Switching to a low glycemic diet doesn’t mean a total overhaul of what you like to eat. Dr. Paige recommends looking at how foods are prepared as well as the ingredients. These tips can help you make the transition:

  • Rethink breakfast. “Instead of having pancakes, waffles and bagels, you may look at actually incorporating more complex carbohydrates like vegetables and some protein into your breakfast rather than a lot of carbohydrates in your breakfast,” says Dr. Paige, who suggests an omelet or other sources of vegetables and protein. “It’s all about looking at your meals differently,” she adds.
  • Avoid “instant” foods. “Foods that are over-processed are basically almost predigested,” Dr. Paige observes. “When you look at oatmeal, for example—instant oatmeal to which you just add hot water, actually raises your blood sugar quickly (a high glycemic index) because it is already partially cooked and broken down, versus your steel-cut oats, which will raise your blood sugar but not quite as quickly,” she adds. If you love oatmeal, but don’t have much time in the morning, cook up a batch of the old-fashioned type at night, put it in the fridge, and heat up a serving in the morning in the microwave.
  • Make healthy swaps. Switching from white to brown rice is one positive change. The major difference between brown and white is an outer hull around the rice that takes longer to digest. Because that hull allows for slower digestion, your blood sugar levels don’t rise as quickly, even though what’s inside is almost identical to white rice.
  • Add some veggies. If you’re struggling to reduce the amount of total carbs you eat, try increasing the amount of vegetables and protein per meal. When your body receives enough vegetables and protein, you won’t miss the extra carbs.
  • Plan for special occasions. “If you know you are going to a wedding on Saturday, then you know that leading up to Saturday, you should be very diligent at keeping your carbohydrates low. Then, afterwards you are going to walk a bit more to walk off that meal you had at the wedding.” If you are a diabetic, you will monitor your blood sugar closely when making changes to your diet, before, during and after going off of your dietary routine.
  • Strike a balance. “There’s no single food that you can’t have,” notes Dr. Paige. “There’s the ability to still have balance within your life and enjoy your food, but you’re going to restrict the amount of food that will raise your blood sugar. That’s really the key. It’s all about balance.”