How to Follow a Low-Glycemic Diet: Food Tips for Managing Blood Sugar

September 6, 2021
Nutrition

“I’m new to Signos and I don’t know what I should eat.”

“It seems like just about everything spikes me and I don’t know what to eat to keep my glucose stable.”

“I’m not spiking a bunch but I’m also not losing weight. I wonder if I should eat fewer carbs or fast more.”

The best place to start for all three of the above statements: a low-glycemic diet. While the third issue likely requires more personalized scrutiny (and perhaps its own article), the person with this problem can benefit from a real-food, nutrient-dense, low-glycemic diet and not necessarily a low-carb diet. 

A low-glycemic diet uses the glycemic index of foods to  rank carbohydrates on a scale of 1 to 100 based on how much glucose they release into your bloodstream, raising your blood sugar. High-glycemic foods (70–100) spike your blood sugar high quickly; medium-glycemic foods (50–69) can raise your blood sugar as well but maybe not as high; low-glycemic foods (20–49) may raise your blood sugar moderately or not at all. 

These values provide estimates of the likely impact of eating a portion of food in isolation. Context matters. For example, you likely combine foods with various GI values in a meal, and foods with high amounts of fiber and protein can slow the release of glucose in your bloodstream, lessening or even preventing the rise of blood sugar.

The glycemic index was created as a tool to help diabetics manage their blood sugar, but it provides a valuable guide for everyone to estimate how certain foods can impact their blood sugar levels1. That said, your metabolic response to foods is unique and complex, and while an apple might cause a rise in blood sugar for your sister, it may not for you. 

The vital takeaway: All carbs are not equal when it comes to how they impact our bodies. 

Many proponents of ketogenic and other low-carb diets push the restriction of all carbs without hesitation. This thinking emphasizes quantity over quality of carbohydrates, which some research shows may not actually lead to the fat loss2 people expect from low-carb diets.  

Shout this from the rooftops if you’d like: A high-carbohydrate diet doesn’t make you fat. 

Choose nutrient-dense, high-fiber, low-glycemic carbs in appropriate portions as part of a weight loss and blood sugar control plan.  

The Benefits of a Low-Glycemic Diet

A mason jar filled with low-glycemic cocoa overnight oats, blueberries, and sliced strawberries

If your diet includes a high amount of added sugars as well as highly processed and refined carbohydrates, your blood sugar likely spikes several times a day. 

Before you clutch your cocoa pebbles and cool ranch Doritos in a vice-like grip and refuse to swap them for healthier snacks, consider this: You could face a future with insulin resistance, weight gain3, and even chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes4 if you eat a high-glycemic diet. 

Some research even suggests that a high-glycemic (high GI) diet can play a role in the development of certain cancers such as breast cancer5, cervical cancer6, and prostate cancer7—although some scientists disagree on how strongly a high GI diet can contribute to cancer. 

More benefits of a low-glycemic diet:

  • Improved insulin sensitivity: When your body is sensitive to insulin, you release less of it to lower glucose levels. The opposite of insulin sensitivity, insulin resistance may be prevented by a high-fiber, low-glycemic diet8. A low GI diet may also improve insulin sensitivity in obese children9 and pregnant women10. 
  • Weight loss and better cardiometabolic health: A review of nutrition-based research associates high-quality carbohydrate consumption with weight loss, decreased incidence of diabetes and cardiovascular disease11 as well as heart-related death. 
  • Weight loss and improved waist circumference in those with metabolic syndrome: Researchers compared weight loss and waist measurement in participants with and without metabolic syndrome following either a low-fat diet or a low-glycemic diet. Results showed that participants lost a similar amount of weight on both diets, but the low-glycemic diet proved more effective overall and in slimming the waistlines of those with metabolic syndrome12.
  • Reduction of acne: A review of scientific research shows strong support for preventing pimples through a low-glycemic diet13 that includes omega-3 fatty acids. 
  • Treat and reduce symptoms of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease: The most common liver disease, NAFLD leads to excess fat storage in the liver. This excess fat causes inflammation that can damage the liver and even cause it to fail. One study showed a significant reduction in NAFLD in patients who combined a low-glycemic Mediterranean diet with exercise14. 
  • Improved appetite regulation in women with polycystic ovary syndrome: One study found that women with PCOS who followed a low-glycemic diet for one month saw an increase in glucagon and reduction in ghrelin15. Glucagon helps prevent blood sugar from dropping too low and ghrelin sends hunger signals to the brain. Additional research showed an improvement in insulin sensitivity16 in women with PCOS following a low GI diet. 
  • Decreased risk of age-related macular degeneration: Bad eyesight may not need to be inevitable for the elderly. One population-based cohort study showed that a low GI diet, particularly one with cereal fiber (try oatmeal), may protect against early AMD.   

5 Tenets of a Low-Glycemic Diet

  1. This might seem obvious, but the bulk of your calories should come from low-glycemic foods. High-protein choices such as chicken, beef, or fish, provide satiating nutrition with a very low glycemic load. Choose plenty of low-glycemic vegetables, as-close-to-whole grains, fruits, and smaller amounts of low-GI dairy or probiotic-rich low-GI dairy alternatives. 
  2. Enjoy moderate amounts of medium-glycemic foods or, better yet, eat medium-glycemic foods with low-glycemic, high-fiber carbs, or foods high in protein or heart-healthy fat. The fiber, fat, and protein will slow the release of glucose into your bloodstream.
  3. Limit high-glycemic carbs in small amounts to a few times a week or less. Savor a slice of your birthday cake (no, you don’t have to make it keto or sugar-free if you don’t want to), slurp a bowl of pho when you’re sick, nibble on a slice of cornbread with your turkey chili. Just keep it small and sporadic.
  4. Banish sugar-sweetened drinks. In case this isn’t Captain Obvious, beverages sweetened with sugar, even in drinks with probiotics and other benefits like kombucha, can raise your blood sugar. Some drinks sweetened with sugar alcohols or sugar alternatives like sucralose could raise your glucose level. 
  5. Be mindful of your portions and pay attention to satiety clues. This one applies to every diet or way of eating, but overeating any food can raise your blood sugar and lead to weight gain. Listening to your internal cues may take some practice initially, but mindful actions such as pausing between forkfuls, talking (instead of shoveling) during meals, and delaying snacking for 10–15 minutes to confirm hunger can cue you to listen to your body.      

What to Eat on a Low-Glycemic Diet

Overhead shot of a buddha bowl filled with vegetables and chickpeas

Signos Nutritionist Jodi Geigle recommends a whole foods diet with a wide variety of vegetables, fruits, and other low-glycemic carbs combined with protein and heart-healthy fats such as avocado and olive oil and foods rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon, flax and chia seeds, and walnuts. Cut back or eliminate highly processed foods and added sugars. 

  • Low-glycemic vegetables: artichoke, arugula, asparagus, bok choy, broccoli, broccoli raab, broccolini, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, celeriac, celery, chard, collards, eggplant, endive, fennel, garlic, green beans, hearts of palm, jicama, kale, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuces, mushrooms, mustard greens, onions, parsnips, peppers, radishes, snap peas, snow peas, spinach, sprouts, summer squash, turnips, zucchini
  • Low-glycemic fruits: apples, apricots, avocado, blackberries, blueberries, cherries (sour), coconut (unsweetened), whole cranberries, cucumbers, durian, grapefruit, green bananas, kiwi, lemons, limes, olives, pears, plums, strawberries, tomatillos, tomatoes
  • Low-glycemic protein sources: beef, bison, chicken, edamame, eggs, fish, lamb, pork, shellfish, tempeh, turkey, venison
  • Low-glycemic beans and legumes: black beans, black-eyed peas, chickpeas, lentils, lima beans, peanuts, pinto beans, navy beans
  • Low-glycemic dairy or dairy alternatives: butter, cheese, ghee, kefir (unsweetened), milk, nut or seed milks (unsweetened), plain non-dairy yogurt, plain yogurt, sour cream 
  • Low-glycemic fats: almonds, avocado oil, brazil nuts, cashews, chia seeds, extra-virgin coconut oil, flaxseeds, hazelnuts, hemp seeds, macadamia nuts, nut butters (unsweetened), olive oil, pine nuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, walnuts
  • Low-glycemic seasonings: allspice, cardamom, caraway, cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, dried herbs, fenugreek, ground ginger, nutmeg, paprika, pepper, saffron, salt, seeds, turmeric  

The Takeaway

A low-glycemic diet provides a nourishing, health-promoting way to manage blood sugar, lose and manage weight, and prevent certain illnesses.  

References

  1. https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/31/12/2281.full
  2. https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article/78/Supplement_1/69/5877749?login=true
  3. https://academic.oup.com/ajcn/article/76/1/281S/4689499?login=true
  4. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/9/2722
  5. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S093947531200021X
  6. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/12/12/3742
  7. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01635581.2021.1933100
  8. https://apjcn.nhri.org.tw/server/apjcn/12%20Suppl/S4.pdf
  9. https://www.nature.com/articles/pr2015142
  10. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/abs/10.1089/met.2006.4.84
  11. https://academic.oup.com/nutritionreviews/article/78/Supplement_1/69/5877749?login=true
  12. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0939475309000702
  13. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40257-020-00542-y
  14. https://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/13/1/66
  15. https://academic.oup.com/jcem/article-abstract/106/5/e2151/6118654
  16. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2212267213011118