When it comes to maintaining a healthy weight, not all carbs are created equal. The low-glycemic diet is based on a simple premise: avoid “bad” carbohydrate foods, which are those with a high number on the glycemic index (GI) scale while enjoying good carbs, fats, and proteins. High-GI foods are typically sugary, processed, or low-fiber carbohydrates that your body digests quickly, sending your blood sugar levels skyrocketing.
You may have heard the glycemic index mentioned in popular diet books and plans, and for good reason; understanding the glycemic index and following a low-glycemic diet plan promotes weight loss, increases energy levels, lowers cholesterol, and offers better management of metabolic conditions including type 2 diabetes.
Quick Tips to Start a Low Glycemic Diet:
The diet was designed for people needing to lower their blood sugar levels, but also works well for anyone wanting to lose weight or get healthier. If you think your health could benefit from a low-glycemic eating plan, here are a few tips to get you started:
- Familiarize yourself with the glycemic index (GI). Get an app for your phone or use an online reference.
- Limit high-GI carbohydrates and eat more low-GI carbs.
- Eat natural, unprocessed foods like whole grains, fruits, and cruciferous vegetables.
- Swap out white-flour bread, crackers, and pasta for whole-grain, lower GI, varieties, and white potatoes for sweet potatoes.
- Embrace legumes like beans, lentils, and chickpeas. Not only are they full of vital nutrients, but they’re also low-GI.
- Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water and avoid sugary, high-GI drinks like sodas and juices.
- Although the diet offers no set rules on protein or fats, it’s important to make wise decisions.
- A low-glycemic diet is suitable for vegans or vegetarians.
What Is the Low-Glycemic Diet?
The low-glycemic diet operates on a simple premise: construct an eating plan filled with foods that rank lower on the glycemic index, which I will describe below. The glycemic index helps you understand good carbs versus bad carbs as graded by the GI index. When you eat carbohydrates, whether in the form of bread, pasta, or your favorite vegetable, your body eventually breaks them down into glucose, the simple sugar that provides energy to your cells.
However, different foods release different amounts of glucose into the bloodstream — and at differing rates. Some foods, known as high glycemic foods, can lead to blood sugar spikes, and then blood sugar crashes. Low-glycemic carbohydrates, on the other hand, digest more slowly, offering a more steadily-paced release of glucose into the body. This offers many health benefits which we will detail below.
Following a low-glycemic diet isn’t about calorie counting or even carbohydrate counting, but rather about paying close attention to the GI values of all the foods you consume. Your low-glycemic diet will contain mostly low- and medium-glycemic foods with high-glycemic foods in moderation.
What Is the Glycemic Index?
The glycemic index measures how a particular food will affect your blood sugar level after eating it. The scale ranges from 0 to 100.
- Low GI foods are below 55
- Medium GI foods are in the 56-69 range
- High GI foods have a score of 70 or higher
Foods with high GI values will make blood glucose (blood sugar) levels spike — and then quickly fall. When blood glucose spikes, the pancreas releases the hormone insulin in response, which, in turn, causes fat cells to absorb the glucose molecules. Low-GI foods do not cause a spike in blood sugar, and the goal of this diet is to keep blood sugar at a steady level.
However, some high-GI foods, like watermelon, may still be perfectly acceptable on a low-GI diet if you consider their glycemic load, which looks at the total calorie count and grams of carbs per serving. Let’s break that down further.
What Is Glycemic Load?
Low-glycemic diet plans may also reference glycemic load (GL). In fact, research suggests that the GL index may more accurately represent the impact food has on blood sugar levels. Glycemic load takes into account a food’s GI value plus the carbohydrate grams in a single serving. While certain foods rank high on the glycemic index, when you account for portion size, they are not likely to cause blood sugar spikes, and hence they rank low in glycemic load. For example, most fruits are full of sugary fructose, but because the total amount of carbohydrates in a serving is relatively low, they have low glycemic loads.
Even if you do not know the GL score for any food, you can calculate it as long as you know the total carbs in a serving.
To calculate the glycemic load for any food, multiply the GI score of that food by the grams of carbohydrate per serving and then divide by 100.
- Low GL Foods are 0-10
- Medium GL Foods are 11-20
- High GL Foods are 21-30
To get a full list of foods, you can search the official website for the international glycemic index database. The database lists foods in various states — raw, cooked, with added margarine, and so on. Below is a list of some low-GI foods:
|Food||Glycemic Index (Glucose = 100)||Total Serving Size (Grams)||Carbs Per Serving (Grams)||Glycemic Load Per Serving|
|Brown Rice, Cooked||48||150||42||20|
|Sweet Potato, Cooked||61||150||18||11|
|Plain Popcorn, Cooked||55||20||10||6|
What Can You Eat?
One of the best things about the low glycemic diet is that there are hundreds of delicious and nutritious foods that you can eat, and it is easy to swap out high-GI foods with low-GI options.
Here are a few examples of recommended foods to include in a low-glycemic diet plan.
Cruciferous vegetables, which include broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower, typically have both low GI and GL scores. Other veggies, such as lettuce, are packed with essential nutrients — and they won’t make your blood glucose yo-yo up and down.
Legumes, which include lentils, peas, and beans, typically have low GI values. Although they are higher in starch or complex carbohydrates, legumes tend not to spike your blood sugar. Some healthy choices include black beans, kidney beans, navy beans, and garbanzo beans.
Bread & Grains
A low-GI diet doesn’t have to preclude bread or bread-like foods. Look for truly whole-grain bread, not just the highly processed, genetically modified “wheat bread” that is barely different from white bread. Whole-grain steel-cut oatmeal is another low-GI option.
Fruits, at first glance, may seem like no-nos because they are naturally sweet. However, as mentioned above, most fruits have a low glycemic load due to their high fiber content and lower amounts of total carbs per serving. If you need to keep your blood sugar down for health reasons, opt for high-fiber options like apples and bananas. Melons tend to rate higher on the glycemic index, though not on the glycemic load scale.
Other Low GI Options
Other foods you can add to this diet include whole grain pasta, oatmeal, muesli, and sweet potatoes. Foods with healthy fats and proteins will also help you create a nutritious, balanced diet.
While you technically can eat meat on a low glycemic diet, you will see far more health benefits by following a plant-based diet with a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes. In general, people who avoid animal products have reduced risk of heart disease, chronic illness, and diabetes, and have lower overall body weight.
Foods to Avoid
Processed foods — especially those with high amounts of refined white sugar — not only have high-glycemic index and load values, but they are also more likely to leave you hungry after eating. Here is a list of foods you should avoid when following a low-glycemic diet.
Processed white bread, highly processed breakfast cereals, and instant oatmeal are all high on the GI and are best avoided. Instead, opt for whole grain options as well as barley, quinoa, buckwheat, and other lower GI grains. As a rule of thumb, the more refined the grain, the higher the GI ranking.
Eating a lot of refined white sugar is the ultimate no-no with a GI diet. You should also avoid high-fructose corn syrup, maple syrup, honey, and agave. Sugar may sneak into your foods under many names, including dextrose, barley malt, cane juice crystals, beet sugar, crystalline fructose, coconut sugar, and others. Many processed foods have large amounts of added sugar, which leads to blood glucose instability as well as inflammation and other health issues. Instead, opt to satisfy your sweet tooth with fruit, or with natural low-calorie sweeteners like Stevia leaf or monk fruit.
What About Gluten-Free?
It’s important to note that gluten-free doesn’t mean low GI. Be sure to check labels to see what the glycemic load of your favorite gluten-free foods will be. Packaged gluten-free foods are often highly processed, which can result in GI and GL scores that are higher than you might have anticipated. Make sure to read labels carefully.
Example Low Glycemic Diet Meal Plan
Below is an example of a plant-based daily meal plan for the low-glycemic diet:
- Breakfast: Steel cut oatmeal with fruit
- Lunch: A stoneground whole grain tortilla with black beans, avocado, salsa
- Dinner: Indian green lentil salad with spiced carrots
- Breakfast: Buckwheat pancakes with berries
- Lunch: Winter squash soup with quinoa
- Dinner: Vegetable stir-fry over brown rice
- Breakfast: Fresh fruit
- Lunch: Vegan mock tuna served in lettuce wraps
- Dinner: Sweet and savory Buddha bowl
There are many ways to mix and match low glycemic foods to create meals to suit any palate. Rely on the glycemic index and glycemic load index to help you find preferred foods that you will enjoy.
Health Benefits of a Low-Glycemic Diet
Numerous studies suggest that following a low-glycemic diet — or one that avoids higher GI foods, especially processed snacks with high amounts of refined sugar — can help lower cholesterol, improve blood pressure, and help prevent heart disease.
There are several health benefits to a low glycemic diet including weight loss, blood glucose control, and keeping cardiovascular disease and cancer at bay.
Maintains Normal Blood Sugar Levels
The slow and steady release of glucose into the bloodstream that comes with following this diet can help prevent type 2 diabetes — or, if you already have the condition, keeping it under control. Reviewing multiple studies, scientists found that eating a low glycemic diet significantly lowered the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. By eating foods with low GI scores, patients better managed their blood glucose over time and decrease their risk for diabetic-related health issues.
Aids Weight Loss
Low-glycemic foods have also been shown to help maintain a healthy weight and body-mass index (BMI). Their slow and steady release of glucose helps manage appetite — and, again, avoids blood sugar spikes that can lead to long-term health problems. Studies suggest that, combined with high levels of protein, eating low glycemic foods can help people not only lose the pounds — but keep them off for the long term. For more ideas, check out our weight loss tips article.
Improves Heart Health
A diet rich in low-glycemic foods also benefits the cardiovascular system. Studies suggest it can help lower cholesterol, manage hypertension, and lower the risk of heart attack and stroke. In contrast, studies suggest that eating a diet full of high-GI and high-GL foods increase your risk of heart disease, particularly in women. Stick to low-glycemic foods for your best heart health!
Low Glycemic vs. Low Carb
It may seem that people use “low-glycemic” and “low-carb“interchangeably, but the two are not the same. Lower carbohydrate does not necessarily mean lower GI: much depends on the serving size and how the food is processed in the body. Some foods that have a low number of carbohydrate grams on the nutrition label still rank high on the GI scale, which means the carbs are quickly absorbed, leading to the blood glucose spikes that low-glycemic dieters strive to avoid. In contrast, legumes are fairly high in carbs but have a low GI ranking. Make sure to look beyond the label at the GI index to make sure your food fits within your diet plan.
Can You Be Vegan or Vegetarian on the Low-GI Diet?
Yes. A low-glycemic diet is ideal for healthy vegetarians and vegans. You can reduce the carbohydrate-containing foods you consume that rank high on the glycemic index and glycemic load index while still enjoying a delicious and varied plant-based diet. Leafy and cruciferous vegetables, whole grains, and nuts and seeds are all acceptable on this diet plan. You can eat fruits, as well. Even fruits that rank high on the GI such as watermelon or cantaloupe have low glycemic loads, making them an excellent choice for an occasional dessert or a healthy snack full of vegetarians.
Side Effects & Safety
Some individuals report side effects from eating a low carbohydrate diet, and although the low-glycemic diet is not specifically low-carb, it may become so if you rely too heavily on proteins and fats. The side effects of eating low-carb (sometimes called the low-carb flu) include fatigue, headaches, constipation, and even nutritional deficiencies. If you are experiencing any of these concerns, talk to a healthcare professional to come up with a dietary plan that will make sure that you are getting all of your nutritional needs met.
Is Low-Glycemic Right for You?
A low-glycemic diet can help anyone trying to manage blood sugar for health reasons — whether you are actively managing diabetes or trying to ward it off because it runs in the family. You can try the low-GI diet if you want to lose weight, since lowering sugar intake almost always results in some weight loss, especially if combined with exercise and eating a high-fiber diet. A low-glycemic diet can also help you lower your cholesterol levels and maintain overall better health, especially when you avoid meat and dairy.
Points to Remember
Adopting a low-glycemic diet allows you to go beyond calorie or carb counting. A low-GI diet can help you to regulate blood glucose levels which, in turn, helps you to control your appetite. A diet rich in low-glycemic foods can help get your blood sugar under control, whether you are managing diabetes or trying to prevent it and stay at a healthy weight. A low-glycemic diet not only may help you lose weight but may also lower your risk of heart disease and metabolic disorders.
- “The Glycemic Index.” The University of Sydney. Update 7 May 2017. Accessed 21 Sept. 2018.
- “Carbohydrates.” The American Heart Association. 16 Apr. 2018. Accessed 18 August 2018.
- Venn BJ, Green TJ. “Glycemic index and glycemic load: measurement issues and their effect on diet-disease relationships.” Eur J Clin Nutr. 2007; 61(1):S122-31.
- “Glycemic index and glycemic load for 100+ foods.” Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School. 14 Mar. 2018. Accessed 21 Sept. 2018.
- Scazzina F, et al. “Glycemic index of some commercial gluten-free foods.” Eur J Clin Nutr. 2015;54(6):1,021-6.
- “Glycemic Index and Diabetes.” American Diabetes Association. Published 14 May 2014. Accessed 18 Aug. 2018.
- Livesay G, et al. “Is there a dose-response relation of dietary glycemic load to risk of type 2 diabetes? Meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies.” Am J Clin Nutr. 2013;97(3):584-96.
- Ojo O, et al. “The effect of dietary glycaemic index on glycaemia in patients with type 2 diabetes: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” Nutrients. 2018;10(3):E373.
- Larsen TM, et al. “Diets with high or low protein content and glycemic index for weight-loss maintenance.” N Engl J Med. 2010;363(22):2102-13.
- Dong JY, et al. “Meta-analysis of dietary glycemic load and glycemic index in relation to risk of coronary heart disease.” Am J Cardiol. 2012;109(11):1608-13.
- Brand-Miler J. “Low carbohydrates and low GI are not the same.” Glycemic Index Foundation. Published 26 Jul. 2017. Accessed 18 Aug 2018.
- “Low-Carb Diet Side Effects.” Diabetes.co.uk. Accessed 18 Aug. 2018.