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Glycemic Index

For more on the glycemic index, see our glycemic index blog pages.

The Glycemic Index (also glycaemic index, GI) is a ranking system for carbohydrates based on their immediate effect on blood glucose levels. It compares carbohydrates gram for gram in individual foods, providing a numerical, evidence-based index of postprandial (post-meal) glycemia. The concept was invented by Dr. David J. Jenkins and colleagues in 1981 at the University of Toronto.

The glycemic index of a food is defined by the area under the 2 hour blood glucose response curve (AUC) following the ingestion of a fixed portion of carbohydrate (usually 50 g). The AUC of the test food is divided by the AUC of the standard (either glucose or white bread) and multiplied by 100. The average GI value is calculated from data collected in 10 human subjects. Both the standard and test food must contain an equal amount of available carbohydrate. The result gives a relative ranking for each tested food.

Carbohydrates that break down rapidly during digestion have the highest glycemic indices. An increased blood glucose response occurs very quickly. Carbohydrates that break down slowly, releasing glucose gradually into the blood stream, have a low glycemic index. A lower glycemic index suggests slower rates of digestion and absorption of the sugars and starches in the foods and may also indicate greater extraction from the liver and periphery of the products of carbohydrate digestion. Additionally, a lower glycemic response equates to a lower insulin demand, better long-term blood glucose control and a reduction in blood lipids.

Glycemic index values for different foods are calculated by comparing measurements of their effect on blood glucose with an equal carbohydrate portion of a reference food. The current scientific validated methods use glucose as the reference food. Glucose has a glycemic index value of 100. This has the advantages in that it is universal and it results in maximum GI values of approximately 100.

Glycemic Index of Foods

GI values can be interpreted intuitively as percentages on an absolute scale and are commonly interpreted as follows:

* Low GI - less than 55
* Intermediate GI - between 56 and 69
* High GI - higher than 70

A low GI food will release energy slowly and steadily and is appropriate for diabetics, dieters and endurance athletes. A high GI food will provide a rapid rise in blood sugar levels and is suitable for post-endurance exercise energy recovery. Previously, white bread was sometimes used as a reference food (if white bread = 100, then glucose = 140). For people whose staple carbohydrate source is white bread, this had the advantage of conveying directly whether replacement of the dietary staple with a different food would result in faster or slower blood glucose response. The disadvantages with this system were that the reference food was not well-defined, and the GI scale was culture dependent.

The glycemic effect of foods depends on a number of factors such as the type of starch (amylose vs amylopectin), physical entrapment of the starch molecules within the food, fat content of the food and increased acidity of the meal - adding vinegar for example, will lower the GI. The presence of fat or dietary fibre can inhibit carbohydrate absorption, thus lowering the GI. Unrefined breads with higher amounts of fibre generally have a lower GI value than white breads but, while adding butter or oil will lower the GI of bread, the GI ranking does not change. That is, with or without additions, there is still a higher blood glucose curve after white bread than after a low GI bread such as pumpernickel.

The glycemic index can only sensibly be applied only to foods with reasonably high carbohydrate content, as the test relies on the subject consuming enough of the food to yield about 50g of carbohydrate. This can be either very difficult (e.g. with meat) or dangerous (e.g. with alcoholic beverages). High fat and high protein foods such as meat, eggs, nuts and cheese have a negligible GI. Furthermore, because many fruits and vegetables (but not potatoes) contain very little carbohydrate per serving, they have very low GI values and are regarded as "free" foods. Some confusion can occur in this regard, as inaccuracies in determining the carbohydrate content can lead to large variations in the reported GI in low-carbohydrate foods. A good example of this problem was the measurement of carrots, which were originally reported as having a high GI, but which usually give low GI values, with variable results depending on a number of factors, including the variety tested.

Alcoholic beverages have been reported to have low GI values, but in this case the concept has very little meaning, partly due to the problems of measuring the GI of alcoholic beverages, but also because most of the energy value of alcohol comes from the metabolism of the ethanol itself, not the carbohydrate content. If a significant fraction of your metabolic energy is derived from alcohol, you might have severe nutritional deficiencies and other medical problems.

Disease Prevention

Several lines of recent scientific evidence have shown that individuals who followed a low GI diet over many years were at a significantly lower risk for developing both type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. High blood glucose levels or repeated glycemic "spikes" following a meal may promote these diseases by increasing oxidative damage to the vasculature and also by the direct increase in insulin levels (Temelkova-Kurktschiev et al, 2000). In the past, postmeal hyperglycemia has been a risk factor mainly associated with diabetes, however more recent evidence shows that postprandial hyperglycemia presents an increased risk for atherosclerosis in the non-diabetic population.

Weight Control

Recent animal research provides compelling evidence that high GI carbohydrate is associated with increased risk of obesity. In human trials, it is typically difficult to separate the effects from GI and from other potentially confounding factors such as fibre content, palatability, and compliance. In the study (Pawlak et al, 2004), male rats were split into a high and low GI group over 18 weeks while mean bodyweight was maintained. Rats fed the high GI diet were 71% fatter and 8% less lean than the low GI group. Postmeal glycemia and insulin levels were significantly higher and plasma triglycerides were three-fold greater in the high GI fed rats. Furthermore, pancreatic islet cells suffered “severely disorganised architecture and extensive fibrosis”. The evidence in this study showed that continued consumption of high glycemic index carbohydrates would likely have led to the development of severe metabolic abnormalities.

Criticism

The glycemic index has been criticised for the following reasons:

* the GI of a food varies depending on the kind of food, its ripeness, the length of time it was stored, how it was cooked, its variety (potatoes from Australia, for example, have a much higher GI than potatoes from the United States), and how it was processed or manufactured.

* the GI of a food varies from person to person and even in a single individual from day to day, depending on blood glucose levels, insulin resistance, and other factors.

* the GI of a mixed meal is difficult to predict.

* the GI value is based on a portion that contains 50 grams of carbohydrate only.

* a limited range of data and daily fluctuations in an individual’s glycemic response.

Some of these criticisms can be addressed by taking the Glycemic load into account. This combined approach is, however, somewhat more complicated, and therefore harder to use in giving dietary advice.

 


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