"Low glycemic" and "glycemic index" are two health buzzwords that are often thrown around in food and wellness culture—kind of like ketogenic, gluten-free, and anti-inflammatory. They're discussed often, but many people might not know how they affect the body. Sure, they're healthy, but why are they healthy? What do they do for your body that other foods don't?
According to nutritionist Amy Shapiro from Real Nutrition NYC, a low-glycemic diet is beneficial to the body for a number of really major reasons, including for the prevention of insulin sensitivity, diabetes, and heart disease, and for the maintenance of hormone levels. It also decreases the amount of fat storage and stabilizes energy levels throughout the day.
Basically, a low-glycemic diet helps your body become wholly balanced and synchronized, which is kind of the definition of health, no? Keep reading to see the low-glycemic foods you should incorporate into your diet.
The low-glycemic diet is all about keeping your blood sugar consistent. Yes, really, that's the basis for it. As nutritionist Ali Heller explains, "The glycemic index ranges from zero to 100, with pure glucose being 100. Foods that are low-glycemic tend to release their sugars slowly and steadily, as opposed to, say, table sugar, which would spike your blood glucose pretty quickly." These spikes are what you're trying to avoid.
"In general, it's smart to regulate your blood sugar to avoid it getting too high or too low, both of which come with their own set of problems," she says. "If your blood sugar gets too high, it signals the pancreas to release more insulin, which will decrease your blood sugar but can store that excess energy as fat. If your blood sugar gets too low, it may trigger fatigue, lethargy, and hunger." To avoid both issues, and maintain a level of blood sugar, eat regularly and include low-glycemic foods into your diet.
Lean protein like wild salmon is a great low-glycemic dinner option, according to nutritionist Isabel Smith. She says that wild salmon contains "heart- and mood-healthy omega-3 fatty acids and protein—which are helpful regardless of the source with blood sugar stability." Plus, those omega-3s will boost the health of your skin and hair, making the former soft and supple and the latter healthy and shiny. (If you need some ideas before buying fresh fish, see this yummy hemp-encrusted salmon recipe).
Nuts are your new low-glycemic snack for busy days. Smith recommends including them in your diet since they're full of healthy fat (including anti-inflammatory fat), protein, and fiber. This means they will keep you full for a long time, satiating hunger. Also, they're just so convenient. Grab a package of unflavored almonds or cashews before heading out the door each morning to hold you over between meals.
This one might seem counterintuitive to a healthy diet, but hear us out. Shapiro explains that everything that is a carbohydrate (including grains, bread, pasta, fruit, and dairy) will eventually digest into sugar. "Foods that are quickly digested or high in sugar can cause a spike in blood sugar, giving you quick energy or a 'high.' This usually ends up in a blood sugar crash, which causes you to feel very hungry, grumpy, tired, and lethargic, and you'll crave more sugar." The thing with healthy oils, like olive and coconut, is that they don't do this. "Pure fats contain zero carbohydrates, so they can not spike your blood sugar as they do not break down into sugar," Shapiro says.
According to Shapiro, "There is some research that shows cinnamon is a powerful spice that helps to regulate blood sugar levels." Because of this, she recommends adding cinnamon to the diets of her pre-diabetic and type-2 diabetic clients. You don't have to tell us twice. We'll gladly sprinkle some autumnal cinnamon on our morning lattes.
According to Smith, Oats are also a must for a low-glycemic diet. They're chock full of "gut-healthy fiber to promote healthy gut bacteria," she says. Oh, how we love gut health here at Byrdie, as good gut flora has been linked to other areas of the body, including the brain (aka your mental health). "The fiber is helpful in slowing blood sugar spiking" and also "helps to keep you fuller for longer."
As Smith says, vegetables (especially leafy greens) are "low in calories and have loads of healthy nutrients like magnesium, calcium, B vitamins, and more." Shapiro agrees, saying, "They tend to be low in sugar and high in fiber. This is the perfect combination for a low-GI food. It will take your body a long time to digest these foods, so the energy provided will be slow and steady."
Just like nuts, seeds are "high in fat, protein and low in sugar and carbohydrates," Shapiro. "They will not spike your blood sugar but will provide you with vitamins and fat/fiber to keep you full for a long period of time." She also notes that they pair well with sugar to slow down a subsequent blood sugar spike (like in trail mix). Taking into account the autumn season, our current favorite type of seed to munch on is pumpkin seeds.
All kinds of lean protein (like eggs, the aforementioned salmon, and chicken) are great foods on the glycemic index. "All protein is void of carbohydrates, so in the digestion process they will not break down into sugar and therefore can not cause blood sugar spikes," Shapiro says. Pair protein with carb-rich foods to slow down the digestion process.
Smith says there are supplements you can take to stabilize blood sugar, like probiotics, zinc, selenium, or omega 3s, though you should talk to a certified nutritionist or doctor before doing so since they might vary according to each person. "I caution that people need to know which products to take and if it is safe for them, so don't just go out and start buying," she says.
It's also worth noting that these foods are just part of a healthy diet, not the whole thing. Heller says the GI "isn't the whole story" since our body digests many kinds of food at once. "Rarely do we eat one food on its own. Eating fiber or protein or fat with carbohydrates will modulate the glycemic response and can make some foods you would think would be high glycemic—like pizza—be low glycemic," she says. "So in my opinion, the way to maintain stable blood sugar is to eat regular, balanced meals with all the food groups. "