Stable blood sugar levels are important for everyone, not just people with diabetes. When our blood sugar levels are stable, we have stable energy, stable moods and our hunger remains under control. We’ve all had that feeling before, we have a sugary treat and feel a burst of energy but then before we know it we are feeling tired, hungry or irritable (sometimes all three at once – yikes!) What if I told you that you could prevent (or at least mitigate) these feelings just by combining your foods appropriately?
This term may be new to many of you – the glycemic index refers to the measure of how foods affect your blood sugar and insulin levels. Foods with a high glycemic index will affect your blood sugar and insulin levels more than foods with a low glycemic index.
When we are looking at the glycemic index of different foods, we see that foods are rated on a scale of 0-100. Pure glucose is given a glycemic index of 100 and all other foods are rated in relation to pure glucose. Since foods made up of only fat and/or protein don’t affect blood sugar levels (because only carbohydrate-containing foods affect our blood sugar) they would automatically receive a rating of 0.
High Glycemic Index Rating: 70+
Moderate Glycemic Index Rating: 56-69
Low Glycemic Index Rating: 55 or less
Glycemic Index Rating of Common Foods
Let’s begin by discussing which foods have the biggest impact on our blood sugar levels. Foods that likely comes to mind are candies, cookies, and chocolates. These foods absolutely have an impact on our blood sugar and insulin levels but other foods that also our impact blood sugar and insulin levels include fruits, vegetables (some more than others), grain products and dairy products. We don’t often think of foods other than indulgent sweet foods as having a significant impact on our blood sugar levels but remember, natural sugar, added sugar and starch breakdown the same way in the body once they are consumed.
Let’s look at some of the numbers:
Grapes – 59
Carrots – 35
Potatoes – 82
Yam – 52
Green peas – 51
Fruit Roll-Ups – 99
You can see a more comprehensive list here.
In order to understand the glycemic load we need to have a good understanding of the glycemic index. So now that we’ve discussed the glycemic index and how different foods affect our blood sugar levels, let’s dive a little deeper and talk about the glycemic load.
The glycemic load is calculated by dividing the glycemic index rating by 100 and multiplying this number by the number of grams of available carbohydrate in the food (the amount of available carbohydrate is found by taking the total number of carbohydrates minus the number of grams of fibre). In simpler terms, glycemic load takes into account how much of a food we will actually consume. Let’s use watermelon for example; the glycemic index of watermelon is 72, which is high. However, the glycemic load of watermelon is only 7, which is low. Why is this? Well, if we eat the whole watermelon (approximately 5 cups), yes our blood sugar and insulin levels are going to be impacted significantly, but if we eat a cup of cut up watermelon (an appropriate serving size) it is not going to have a huge impact on our blood sugar and insulin levels. Make sense?
High Glycemic Load Rating: 20+
Moderate Glycemic Load Rating: 11-19
Low Glycemic Load Rating: 10 or less
Now let’s discuss the components of food that can fight the blood sugar spike caused by simple carbohydrates (sugars) – protein, fat and fibre.
An easy comparison to make would be to compare fruit juice versus a piece of whole fruit. The glycemic index and glycemic load of orange juice versus a whole orange is 50 and 40 respectively. The major difference between fruit juice and a piece of whole fruit is the amount of fibre each contains. One cup of 100% real orange juice contains 0 grams of fibre, whereas a whole orange contains an average of 3 grams.
So what does this tell us? Fibre reduces the glycemic index and glycemic load of a food.
Let’s use yogurt as our second example. The glycemic index and glycemic load of regular plain yogurt is 14 and the glycemic index and glycemic load of plain Greek yogurt is 5. The major difference between these two types of yogurt is the amount of protein they contain.
From this example we can see that protein reduces the glycemic index and glycemic load of a food.
For our last example we will use a slightly different comparison – fruit juice versus a chocolate bar. I use this example because I have heard from many diabetic clients over the past few years that often times they will keep a chocolate bar on hand to help bring their blood sugar up if they are having a low. When I suggest against using a chocolate bar I get the same question, “but one chocolate bar contains ___ grams of sugar, shouldn’t this help bring my blood sugar up quickly?” If we are trying to bring our blood sugar up as quickly as possible (which is only really necessary for diabetics experiencing a low blood sugar level and for athletes manipulating their blood sugar prior to or during an event) we want to have as little fat in the food/meal as possible because fat, like fibre and protein, also slows down the release of sugar into our bloodstream.
In summary, protein, fat and fibre all slow down the release of sugar from food into our bloodstream and therefore reduce the insulin response that these foods cause the body to have.
How can we reduce the impact of food on our blood sugar levels?
This is easy and once you start implementing these rules you will notice a huge difference in your energy, mood and hunger levels throughout the day.
At a meal, be sure to have a food that fits into each of these three categories: protein, fat and complex carbohydrate and at a snack have a food that contains fat OR protein WITH a food containing complex carbohydrates.
At a meal this combination of protein, carbohydrate and fat could be:
butter/olive oil/coconut oil on the vegetables (fat).
At a snack this could look many different ways:
- a hardboiled egg (protein) with a cup of grapes (carbohydrate)
- 2 ounces of meat (protein) with 1 sliced red pepper (carbohydrate)
- ½ avocado (fat) with 1 piece of fruit (carbohydrate)
- 1 tablespoon of natural nut butter (fat) with 1 apple/banana (carbohydrate)
- 2 tablespoons of guacamole/hummus (fat) with 1 cup of carrots/broccoli/cauliflower (carbohydrate)
- 1 ounce of nuts (fat) with 1 piece of fruit (carbohydrate)
- 1 ounce of cheese (fat) with 1 cup of grapes (carbohydrate)
- ¾ cup of plain Greek yogurt (protein) with 1 cup of berries (carbohydrate)
Challenge this week: look at your meals and snacks to determine whether or not you are optimizing your blood sugar levels with your food choices. Use some of the snack options above and see how you feel at the end of the day. The goal is to make a small tweak with your meal and snack options to maximize your energy, improve your sleep and stabilize your mood.
Do you have some balanced snacks that you love that I didn’t list above? Comment below and share!
Yours in Health,