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The Glycemic Index: Helping People With Diabetes Make Healthier Food Choices

If you have type 2 diabetes, there are many ways to make healthy lifestyle changes. You can get a little more active. Take type 2 diabetes medicine (if applicable) as your doctor tells you to. Make smarter food choices. Knowing the glycemic index of certain foods may also help.

How the glycemic index works

The index is a tool that rates foods that contain carbohydrates (or carbs) according to their potential to raise blood sugar. Once eaten, carbs break down into different sugars. One of these sugars is glucose. The index measures how much glucose levels rise in the blood. In fact, the word “glycemia” means glucose in the blood.

Foods with a high glycemic index break down quickly in the body. This sends glucose into the blood. The higher the index, the faster glucose is released. The lower the index, the slower glucose is released. Foods with a low index may help improve blood sugar control in people with type 2 diabetes.

  • Foods With a Lower Glycemic Index May Help Improve Blood Sugar Control

    HIGHER glycemic index = FASTER glucose release

    LOWER glycemic index = SLOWER glucose release

What the index numbers mean

Carb-containing foods can have a low, medium, or high glycemic index (see below). The index only rates the type—not amount—of carbs in a food. Portion size is still important for managing blood glucose. A food may have a low index, but eating too much of that food may raise your blood sugar levels.

Many factors can affect a food’s glycemic index. A few of these include:

Factors Effects
Fats and fiber Tend to lower the glycemic index.
Ripeness of fruits and vegetables The more ripe, the higher the index.
Processing The less processed, the lower the index. For example, juice is higher than whole fruit. Mashed potatoes are higher than baked ones.
Cooking methods The longer some foods are cooked, the higher the index. For example, firmer pasta has a lower index than soft-cooked pasta.

Using the glycemic index

There is no meal plan that works for everyone with type 2 diabetes. However, many people use the index as part of a healthier lifestyle. The goal is to balance your meals in order to control your blood sugar levels. Try combining foods that have a higher index with foods that have lower ones. See the chart below for examples of the glycemic index for some foods. Individual brands may vary.

Glycemic Index Values of Foods*
A low glycemic index is 55 or less.
A medium glycemic index is between 56 and 69.
A high glycemic index is 70 or higher.

Item Description

100% stone-ground whole-wheat or pumpernickel bread
Oatmeal (rolled or steel-cut)
Oat bran
Converted rice
Sweet potato
Lima/butter beans
Legumes and lentils
Most fruits
Most nonstarchy vegetables
Whole-wheat bread
Rye bread
Pita bread
Quick oats
Brown, wild, or basmati rice
White bread or bagel
Corn flakes, puffed rice, bran flakes, instant oatmeal
Short-grain white rice
Rice pasta
Macaroni and cheese from mix
Russet potato
Rice cakes
Saltine crackers

Things to keep in mind

Be aware that the glycemic index only applies to individual foods, not whole meals. The combination of foods in a meal may affect blood sugar differently. Plus, it only rates foods that contain carbs. Meats, fish, poultry, and fats do not contain carbs, so they do not have an index. Finally, the index does not rank foods based on how healthy they are for you. Foods with a low glycemic index may still be high in calories, sugar, or saturated fat. Use of the glycemic index needs to be balanced with basic nutrition principles of variety for healthful foods and moderation of foods with few nutrients. To learn more about the index, talk to your doctor or dietitian.