There is no avoiding the fact that diet plays the biggest role in keeping diabetes in control. In fact, much of the fight against diabetes will be fought on the ‘diet battlefield’. While exercising and de-stressing are important, nothing comes close to impacting the fight against diabetes as much as food choices. Unfortunately, there are several misconceptions about which foods are best for a diabetic to consume; making it even more challenging to find balance along the way. When thinking of appropriate food choices, it is best to consider these factors – the glycemic index (GI) and the glycemic load, as well as the chosen time to eat each meal. Focusing on these factors will help manage diabetes and maintain a healthy balance overall.
The glycemic index is the ranking of carbohydrate levels in foods, on a scale of 1-100, based on how they alter blood glucose levels. Foods with a low GI value (55 or less) are more slowly digested and metabolized, causing a lower and slower rise in blood glucose and insulin levels. The opposite is also true, where foods with a high GI value (70 or higher) tend to raise blood sugar levels, which can be harmful to anyone with diabetes. In general, the more cooked or processed a food is, the higher the GI, and the more fiber or fat in a food, the lower the GI.
It’s important to remember that the glycemic index only tells one part of the story. To truly understand how food will impact blood sugar, one must know both how much glucose per serving it can deliver and how quickly it makes glucose enter the bloodstream. The glycemic load does both. Multiplying the glycemic index value by the number of grams of carbohydrates, then dividing by 100 will calculate the glycemic load. Understanding that food items low on the GI scale but with a high carbohydrate count can cause a spike in blood sugar levels is essential. For example, eating 200 grams of white rice, though it is lower on the GI scale, will raise blood sugar levels much more than eating 10 jellybeans.
Eliminating all carbs from any diet is not a good idea. The body needs them for energy and certain processes. The goal should be to consume carbohydrates that have a low GI, and a low carbohydrate count, in moderation. There are several diets that aim for low-carb consumption. A rule of thumb for people suffering from diabetes is to consume not more than 30 to 35 grams of carbs with each meal and combine carbs with a protein; rice and beans or rice and chicken, for example. Avoid consuming carbs with a fat, which typically elevate blood sugar levels and lead to the body storing fat more easily. In general, it’s best to always have a protein present in meals to counter the effect of the blood sugar spike.
The timing of meals will also play a role in blood sugar levels. Since the stomach is empty in the morning, consuming too many carbs will cause an increase in blood sugar levels. Stick to a protein meal for breakfast; protein shakes, or eggs, are a great choice, and save most carbs for lunch, and a minimal amount for dinner. Another good practice is to consume most of the carbs for the day in one meal; preferably, this meal should be just after an exercise session. After a workout, the glycogen stores will be depleted, so having a high carb meal will allow the body to use the carbs more efficiently to replenish the stores, making it less likely to store the carbs as fat.
The glycemic index of the food is just a gauge of how
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