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What Is the Glycemic Index?

Are all carbohydrates created equal?  The  latest focus in the nutrition and weight loss fields is the glycemic index.   This is simply a numerical ranking of foods based upon their immediate effect on blood-sugar levels, which has claimed to be a much more reliable way to reduce heart disease, diabetes and obesity risks.  Popular diets such as the Atkins Diet are based on this concept.

Because the carbohydrate portion of a food is what gets turned into blood sugar, the glycemic index actually measures how the carbohydrate content of that food gets utilized.  The glycemic index does not measure the fat or protein components of foods, although both of those components certainly contribute to calorie counts, nutritional value and overall health and wellness.  In addition, calculating the glycemic index of a meal can be very complicated, since the glycemic index of a particular food can change depending upon how ripe it is or how it is prepared.  For this and other reasons, the American Diabetes Association (ADA) has not endorsed the glycemic index as a dietary roadmap. 

There does not appear to be any common sense about glycemic index values of foods.  Cantaloupes and ripe bananas, for example are very high, while cherries are very low.  Peas are low on the glycemic index, while carrots and pumpkins are high.  And potatoes seem to be the biggest offenders:  they raise blood sugar as rapidly as pure table sugar!  On the contrary, because fats and protein slow digestion, foods with large amounts of fat-like Reese's peanut butter cups-have relatively low glycemic index scores.

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Created: 6/20/2001  -  Donnica Moore, M.D.

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