Lower Your Glycemic Load and Lose Weight
When it comes to carbs, it seems like people are either all about them or avoid them at all costs. But carbohydrates can have both a positive effect on the body and a negative one—and it’s all based on your food’s glycemic load.
The glycemic load of food matters because it directly affects your blood sugar, which can in turn affect your weight (along with many other things). Read on to find out how and why—and what you can do about it.
Blood Sugar 101
Before we dive into the glycemic load, let’s talk about the role of blood sugar and insulin. Blood sugar (or glucose) is the sugar found in the blood and comes from the food we eat. It’s also the main source of energy for the cells in the body. When we eat, the carbs are broken down and absorbed as glucose, which travels through the blood to the cells with the help of insulin.
Insulin is a hormone that regulates sugar levels. Without insulin in the blood, glucose couldn’t enter the cells. Think of insulin as the key that unlocks the cells and allows glucose in. Once glucose enters the cells, the levels of glucose in the blood drop. If there is too much insulin in the body, the cells get more glucose than they need and store the extra as fat, because fat is the only way the body can store extra energy. Too much insulin can also lead to a drastic drop in blood sugar levels, leading to hypoglycemia: that lightheaded, about-to-pass-out feeling.
Glycemic Index vs Glycemic Load
Foods high in added sugar like cupcakes and cookies get a bad rap because they produce spikes in blood sugar, which can make you store fat. One way to control your blood sugar levels is being mindful of the glycemic index (GI) and the glycemic load (GL).
The glycemic index is not a diet in itself; it’s a measurement that indicates how individual foods affect the blood sugar based on how quickly its carbohydrates are digested and released as glucose. A number from 1-100 is assigned to foods with carbohydrates based on how much the food increases blood sugar.
- Low GI: 1 to 55
- Medium GI: 56 to 69
- High GI: 70 and higher
While the GI can help you get a good idea of how a food will affect your blood sugar, it does have some limitations. For one thing, it doesn’t say much about the entirety of a food’s nutritional value—the way the food is prepared, processed or combined (with other foods) may also affect the GI.
Additionally, the GI value is based on 50 grams of digestible carbohydrates of that food. So for foods low in digestible carbs (i.e. those high in water content and/or fiber) like watermelon, the GI does not reflect typical serving sizes.
Watermelon has a whopping GI level of 71, which means you’d probably avoid it (despite being a nutritious food). BUT this was based on 4.5 cups of watermelon! (the amount needed to get to 50g of digestible carbs). In reality, a normal ¾ cup serving would have a much lower impact on your blood sugar.
That’s where glycemic load is helpful. The glycemic load classifies foods based on the amount of digestible carbohydrates as well as their glycemic index. This number is calculated by multiplying the glycemic index by the amount of digestible carbohydrates (in a typical serving) and gives a more accurate depiction of how a food will affect blood sugar.
Foods are typically rated with low, medium, and high glycemic loads. High GL foods cause the blood sugar to spike and include starchy foods; white grains such as potatoes, white bread, and white rice; sugary drinks and snacks; and pizza, to name a few. (Basically, anything white and anything unhealthy.) Simple sugars also have a high GL level.
In addition to keeping blood sugar regulated, low GL foods are healthier and keep you fuller longer. Many fruits and vegetables, beans, whole grains, and lean meats are low GL.
How Glycemic Levels Affect Your Body
Foods with a high glycemic load are not your friend. They’re more like a frenemy—they may taste good and make you happy for a little while, but eventually they’ll turn on you in more than one unpleasant way.
A diet that consists of lots of high GL foods starts to take a toll on the body and can lead to some unpleasant health issues, including:
- Weight gain and obesity, which has been associated with high GI-diets
- Insulin resistance, the build up of glucose in the blood which can lead to diabetes
- Type 2 diabetes, which negatively affects just about every organ in the body
- Low energy as a result of a drop in blood sugar levels
- Heart disease, which studies have associated with elevated blood sugar levels
Decreasing Your Glycemic Load
Lowering your GL can help prevent weight gain, diabetes, and other health problems and even make it easier to manage your weight. In addition to being healthier overall, low GL foods:
- Help regulate blood sugar
- Keep hunger at bay
- Help you feel fuller longer
- Reduce cholesterol levels
- Minimize energy crashes
The good news is, it’s also pretty simple. Here are a few ways you can lower your glycemic load:
Just say no to white carbs.
Some of the highest GL foods are white bread, white rice, potatoes, pasta, and baked goods. Notice a pattern? Cutting white carbs out is one of the easiest ways to lower your GL. And don’t think you have to say good-bye to sandwiches and pasta forever—just choose whole-grain options for a lower GL.
Be a smart snacker.
Processed snack foods often have a high GL level, and many are also lacking in nutrition. If you’re feeling hungry, reach for low glycemic foods like Greek yogurt with berries, baby carrots and hummus, or peanut butter and whole wheat crackers. These will help regulate your blood sugar levels.
Prioritize the protein.
Protein takes longer to digest than carbs, so make sure you eat some protein with each meal. This will help you feel fuller longer, and it will also help curb spikes in blood sugar. You don’t have to eat a steak with every meal; some chicken breast strips to your salad or pasta, high-protein sides like hummus and veggies, or a Growing Naturals plant-based protein shake are all good ways to add more protein to meals.
The glycemic load of the foods you eat can help or hurt your weight loss efforts. Luckily, a few simple changes can help you get on track to a healthy weight, more energy, and better health!
Written By: Jill Overmyer
Edited By: Scarlett Full, in-house Registered Dietitian