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The Glycemic Index: Should You Even Care?

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The Glycemic Index: Should You Even Care?

Do foods high on the glycemic index cause health problems and weight gain? Do low-glycemic foods cause the opposite? Get the facts here!

 

If you want to lose fat and stay lean and healthy, most mainstream “diet gurus” would have you…

  1. drastically reduce your carbohydrate intake, and
  2. eliminate “bad” carbohydrates from your diet.

Follow their advice and the misery will begin.

As whole-body glycogen levels decline, your workouts will get harder and harder.

The more you try to forsake the carbohydrate-rich foods you love, the more you’ll crave them.

You’ll likely struggle with low energy levels throughout the day and will find it tough to focus on work and other mental tasks as well.

And the kicker?

You won’t lose fat any faster than you would a “carb-friendly” diet and probably won’t change anything healthwise either.

That’s right–cutting carbs isn’t a recipe for easy and automatic weight loss nor is swapping “bad,” high-glycemic foods for low-glycemic alternatives.

As you’ll soon see, where foods fall on the glycemic index has some relevance to overall health but little-to-no effect on fat loss and body composition.

The reality is you can lose fat and stay lean and healthy eating plenty of carbs every day, including “bad” high-glycemic ones.

What is the Glycemic Index?

glycemic-index

The glycemic index (GI) is a numeric system that ranks how quickly the body converts carbohydrates into glucose.

Carbs are ranked on a scale of 0 to 100 depending on how they affect blood sugar levels once eaten.

A GI rating of 55 and under is considered low on the index, while a rating of 56 to 69 is medium, and a rating of 70 or above is high.

Simple carbohydrates are converted into glucose quickly and thus have high GI ratings. Examples of simple carbohydrates and their corresponding GI ratings are sucrose (65), white bread (71), white rice (89), and white potato (82).

Complex carbohydrates are converted into glucose more slowly and thus have lower GI ratings. Examples of complex carbohydrates and their corresponding GI ratings are apples (39), black beans (30), peanuts (7), and whole-grain pasta (42).

Are Low-Glycemic Foods Better For You?

glycemic-index-diet

The idea that some carbohydrates are “better” than others is the foundation of many popular diets.

High-glycemic foods like white rice and potato spike insulin and blood sugar levels, and this supposedly impairs weight loss or even causes weight gain.

Low-glycemic foods like vegetables and whole grains, however, have less of an impact on insulin and blood sugar levels, and are claimed to be more healthful and conducive to weight loss and maintenance.

This makes for a simple dietary model, which makes for good marketing.

“Get the body you really want without having to fuss with calorie or macronutrient counting or planning…by just avoiding ‘bad’ foods and eating ‘good’ ones instead!”

It sounds pretty good, right?

Unfortunately it guarantees nothing in the way of results.

If “cleaning up” your diet causes you to replace quite a few high-calorie foods with lower-calorie alternatives, you may lose weight…for a little while at least.

This is a function of energy balance, though, not hormone optimization or metabolic advantage or any other type of dietary sorcery or voodoo. Eat less energy (calories) than you burn and your weight will go down, regardless of the foods eaten.

If doing it causes you to increase your intake of nutrient-dense foods, you may improve your overall health…but only if your diet is woefully low in micronutrients.

Considering the availability and affordability of high-quality nutritious foods, there’s just no good excuse for having a micronutrient-deficient diet.

For example, here’s a simple list of nutrient-dense foods to choose from:

  • Avocados
  • Greens (chard, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, spinach)
  • Bell peppers
  • Brussels sprouts
  • Mushrooms
  • Baked potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Berries
  • Whole wheat
  • Cheese and yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Seeds (flax, quinoa, pumpkin, sesame, and sunflower)
  • Beans (garbanzo, kidney, navy, pinto)
  • Lentils, peas
  • Almonds, cashews, peanuts
  • Barley, oats, rice (white and brown)
  • Salmon, halibut, cod, scallops, shrimp, tuna
  • Lean beef, lamb, venison
  • Chicken, turkey

As you can see, you have a lot of options, and turning them into a workable meal plan is simple:

Determine how many calories you should be eating every day and how they should break down into macronutrients, start with high-quality protein, then add a few servings of fruits and vegetables, work in some whole grains, and maybe some eggs, legumes, and nuts, and voila…you have fully optimized your diet for health, performance, and longevity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now, if you look back over that list, you may notice that there are more low-glycemic foods than high ones.

Sure, white potato, white rice, oats, and some fruits are mid-to-high on the index, but most of those foods on the list are no higher than 70 on the index and most are quite lower.

The reason for this is the majority of (relatively) unprocessed foods–the ones you prepare yourself–are naturally lower on the GI.

The majority of high-GI foods, on the other hand, are highly processed “junk” foods, like chips, pretzels, soda, popcorn, store-bought baked goods, cereal, foods with large amounts of added sugar, and so forth.

When someone’s diet is comprised of a lot of high-GI foods, what we’re usually looking at is someone that just eats a lot of crap.

And I don’t think I have to sell you on the disadvantages of eating like that. If General Mills products account for the majority of your daily calories, it will catch up with you eventually.

On the other hand…

Get the majority of your calories from relatively unprocessed foods, exercise regularly, and you can enjoy your favorite less healthful indulgences.

For example, if 80% of your daily calories come from the high-quality proteins, fruits, veggies, whole grains, and so forth, a couple hundred calories of ice cream or some other form of “empty calories” aren’t going to matter.

Don’t take it just from me, though.

Here’s how Dr. Frank M. Sacks, a professor at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, puts it:

“The takeaway is a good message for people. They can pick foods that are part of a healthy dietary pattern without wondering if they’re high or low glycemic. They don’t have to learn that system.”

This is just common sense, really, and there’s good research to back it up, but as the old saying goes…common sense isn’t common practice.

Now, that’s the health side of things. What about body composition? And fat loss in particular?

Use this workout and flexible dieting program to lose up to 10 pounds of fat and build muscle in just 30 days…without starving yourself or living in the gym.

Will a Low-Glycemic Diet Help You Lose Fat?

glycemic-index-weight-loss

Earlier I mentioned that you could lose weight eating any types of foods and I meant it.

Case in point:

Professor Mark Haub lost 27 pounds on a diet of protein shakes, Twinkies, Doritos, Oreos, and Little Debbie snacks.

This “shocking” experiment worked because it was based on the scientific principles of energy balance, which underlie and dictate weight gain and loss.

In case you’re not familiar with energy balance, think of it like your metabolism’s checking account.

A negative balance is a situation where your body is burning more energy than you’re feeding it (it’s in the red as far as energy goes). A positive balance, on the other hand, is a situation where your body is burning less energy than you’re feeding it (it’s in the black).

A negative energy balance results in a reduction of total fat mass because your body has to get the additional energy it needs from somewhere, and body fat is one of the primary sources of this energy.

A positive energy balance results in an increase in total fat mass as your body is programmed to store a portion of the excess energy you feed it as body fat.

Talk of calories and energy balance is unpopular these days as people don’t want to bother with counting calories to lose weight, but a century of metabolic research shows us that these are the facts, whether we like them or not.

If you consistently feed your body less energy than it burns, you’ll lose weight. If you consistently feed it more, you’ll gain weight.

Weight loss does NOT require you to only eat certain types of food, avoid other types, combine types in various ways, or any other quackery.

High-glycemic foods…low-glycemic foods…high insulin levels…low insulin levelsit doesn’t matter.

Feed your body less energy than it burns and you will lose weight. End of story.

Now, sticklers will correctly point out that weight loss isn’t the goal–fat loss is. That is, you want to lose fat and not muscle, and when that’s the goal, what you eat matters.

The point here, however, isn’t that the individual foods you eat affect fat and muscle loss, because they don’t. What does matter, however, is the macronutrient breakdown of your diet.

If you want to learn more about optimizing your macronutrient intake for fat loss and muscle preservation, check out this article.

The Bottom Line on the Glycemic Index

healthy breakfast

Diets that focus exclusively on managing the glycemic index miss the forest for the trees.

Sure, they can encourage you to eat more nutritious foods but let’s face it–the primary reason people start “dieting” is to lose fat and build muscle, and eating “clean” foods have little effect on this. If a dietary method doesn’t take protein intake and energy balance into account, you’re essentially flying blind, hoping for the best.

The key takeaway of this article is this:

Sensible eating involves eating plenty of low-glycemic foods not because of where they fall on the glycemic index but because of their micro- and macronutritional profiles.

What’s your take on the glycemic index? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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  • Thanks for stopping by and checking out my article! I hope you enjoyed it.

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  • Colin

    Great article, Mike! I’m currently on week 8 of my cut and have consistently been losing a pound a week following BLS nutritional guidelines 🙂 I started at 2200 cal for the first 2-3 weeks and have since dropped down to 2000 calories to maintain a beneficial deficit. I have lost 8 pounds and have just experienced my first roadblock following the diet. (Currently eating 200g protein, 200g carb and 45g fat) I wanted to start cutting carbs by 50 and increasing protein and fat to keep calories relatively the same for the last few weeks of fat loss. Is this an utterly useless strategy? or should I just be adding more cardio (currently doing 2x a week 20-30 min HIIT) I just don’t want to go much lower than 2000 cal to lose the last 4-5 lbs…

  • Sam

    Hey Mike,

    Are you currently using push/pull/legs training routine? I saw a sample of push/pull/legs routine in your deload article, is that what you are doing now?

    Thanks, have an ace day!

    • I’m currently doing a 4-day split. I’m not trying to get any bigger, so I’m just maintaining.

      • Sam

        What are your thoughts on targeting the inner chest specifically? The internet is full of articles telling how to bring up your inner chest with close grip bench press etc., is there any truth to that?

        • Honestly I think it’s more a myth than anything else. There is no “inner chest” muscle.

          • Ezra Citron

            @mike: no separate muscle but definitely separate fibers that you can target..

            @sam: Single-arm cable crossovers are quite effective as long as you make sure to adduct past the center and then squeeze in the contracted position. Go heavy!

          • Practically speaking I disagree. I haven’t done anything to “isolate” the “inner chest” in many, many years and have all-around development.

          • Ezra Citron

            Fair enough; I really wasn’t suggesting that isolating the inner chest was necessary for full development, just suggesting extra work that could be done on the chest to bring it up to speed. It is also the case that due to previous injuries and imbalances, some people have to avoid the bench press, making some “isolation” exercises the next best option. Not ideal but better than nothing to be sure.

            Thanks for the response

          • Yeah nothing wrong with including some “squeeze” type of movements after the heavy compounds.

        • Jacob Bowie

          Typically the “inner chest” is part of the upper chest muscle which we tend to neglect with flat bench press and overhead press. Try some incline bench press at a slight tilt 10-30 degrees. See how that works

      • Buffet

        “…..not trying to get any bigger”???
        Great Scott – Is that a mental disorder? 😉

        • Lol. Either that or I’ve reached a good point. 😉

          Now, I’m just working on bringing up week points and improving my proportions.

  • CaliforniaCopperhead

    Hi Mike,

    I know that this article is primarily focused on glycemic index and its impact on weight loss, but I feel like I need to mention that those of us with metabolic syndrome (i.e., diabetes/borderline diabetes) really do need to pay attention to the glycemic index of the foods we eat.

    That said, I don’t avoid carbs…I try to stick with whole grains, nuts & seeds, and legumes and other high-fiber veggies, as you mentioned. For several months I tried losing weight by eating a strict paleo diet, i.e., omitting whole grains, nuts, seeds, and legumes, and was having a hard time seeing results (and my fasting glucose level didn’t change). My doctor told me I needed fiber, that it helps with metabolic syndrome and weight loss. When I added those “good” carbs (which all provide fiber) back to my diet, the weight started to drop off.

    I totally agree with your article, but just wanted emphasize that the type of carb you eat does make a diff, if you are diabetic.

  • Buffet

    Great advice as always man!

  • Bill

    Low GI foodds are said to help overcome acne. And as an 18 year old guy, I have to take into account that. I haven’t actually seen that in studies, I just read it on Wikipedia. You can make research on it if you care about it or help me do it myself.

  • Riley

    Hey Mike,

    I like to have the same “post workout” shake for breakfast on rest days because it’s quick and I can drink it and get out the door to work instead of cooking and eating a meal.

    Would having the same shake I have post workout (whey isolate, rice milk, frozen banana) on my rest days have any increased fat storage effect as long as it fits into my daily calorie allowance/macros? I understand that these would be considered fast absorbing/high glycemic foods.

  • MrPete

    Mike, this article (and the associated one about sugar) is good as far as it goes. But what you do NOT say turns it into a very misleading set of information.

    My wife was a human bio major, and also her life depends on getting sugars right — her triglycerides hit 1350 (should be <150) before it was caught. And no, she doesn't eat the "wrong stuff." So… we've had to learn quite a lot over the last 13 years… much of it unknown to a variety of "health experts" yet fully available in the medical literature.

    Here are a few key items:

    1) Glycemic Index is not important. Glycemic LOAD is important. The difference: the "Index" is the sugar-rush-rate per calorie, while the "Load" is per serving. Watermelon has a high index but reasonable load, for example.

    2) This is a WAY bigger issue than you let on. Last I checked, experts claim that about 1/3 of the US population needs to be monitoring the glycemic load of the food they eat… it impacts not just diabetics and those with metabolic syndrome, but also heart health and many other things.

    3) The best example I've seen that helps me get my head around this: oats. Here are several foods that are 100% oats: healthy (no sugar added) cheerios; instant oatmeal, quick oatmeal, regular (cooks in 5-10 min) oatmeal, and old fashioned slow-cook steel cut oatmeal. They all have the same ingredient. The latter has a low glycemic load, while the cheerios you might as well eat sugar.

    4) While it was hard for us to find low-load foods a decade ago, it's easier today. Basically you want to mix fiber carbs with sugar carbs, and get more fiber than sugars. In breads we look for breads with at least a 2:1 ratio of grams of fiber to grams of sugar. English muffins are mostly that way, some breads too. Amazingly, you will find that many "healthy" breads are NOT. For those who have a medical need, one easy if a bit costly solution: get a flour mill. You can coarse-grind your own whole wheat flour and make great progress.

    A couple of real world data points to sober things up and provide encouragement:

    a) Those with metabolic syndrome have bodies that almost act as if calories don't work the same for them as they do for the rest of us (my wife says this is not completely accurate but the evidence makes it look that way!) For example, before we learned about glycemic load, she tried to hold weight down doing three miles a day on the treadmill and eating only 700 calories a day (NOT low glycemic). She gained weight. Not fair 🙁

    b) Once we learned about glycemic load… through dietary change alone she was able to get her triglycerides from 1350 down to 400. A medication took care of the rest.

    Hope that helps!

    • Thanks for the comment Pete!

      People with MetSyn are in a very uniquely bad situation and yes, should approach dieting differently.

  • MrPete

    (By the way, “they” are working on plans to include glycemic load in food labeling… but it is VERY difficult. The only way to measure it is to evaluate the blood sugar response of a diabetic who eats the food. 🙁 )

  • Alex M

    Hey Mike, in your Eat Green Get Lean book, you say that high glycemic foods should specifically be eaten both pre and post workout. However in this article and in BLS, you simply say that majority of carbs should come from low GI sources, with a few here and there coming from high GI sources if desired. Does it matter when these high GI foods are consumed (i.e. should we only eat them pre/post-workout)? Thanks for your help.

    • Hey Alex!

      Yeah I’ve done more research since writing that book and have changed my position on this.

      I’m working through updating all my books to second editions to correct little things like this.

      • Anthony Renzi

        Can you share what you’ve learned? Or is there an estimate of when you will update BLS with this new information? I’m confused now 🙁

        • Yup check this out:
          http://www.muscleforlife.com/glycemic-index/

          BLS 2.0 has this information.

          • Anthony Renzi

            You linked me to the article we are commenting on lol. You say BLS 2.0 has this info, it’s not out yet though right?

          • Rofl my bad. BLS 2.0 is what is live now. It has been out for a bit.

          • RFKFREAK

            Hi, Mike, I know this thread is over a year old but is there an article relating to your position change? I haven’t seen am update in BLS reflecting your position change.

            Thanks.

          • Hey hey,

            This article accurately reflects my current position, which is that a “healthy” diet includes eating a lot of foods that are naturally lower on the GI, which is good. 🙂

  • Thanks, Mike. It’s crazy that there is so much info out there like simple carbs digest faster and easier and therefore your body works less and burns fewer calories. Or that the energy becomes available faster and if you don’t burn it off right away it is stored as fat. Or that complex carbs keep you full for longer and aids weight loss(I think this part is still true though?). You think you have some kind of edge knowing these things and then you debunk it all in one article.

    • Haha yeah dieting really is a lot simpler than many people think.

      • Evie

        I disagree. I tried dieting for 25 years and it certainly *wasnt* as simple as people would lead you to believe. Now of course for YOU it is and for many people (e.g. Katie Hopkins) it is. But for me – no.

        I have lower serotonin/endrophins and more volatile blood sugar than you, so it stands to reason that our success at dieting is entirely different. I literally couldn’t *do* moderation so would practically stave myself. Yeah, I’d lose weight for a while….then I’d spectacularly fall off the wagon. This yoyo dieting scenario carried on for years – much to my confusion, utter frustration and misery. I just wanted to be thin. I knew exactly what to do. I just couldn’t stick to it because my cravings would defeat me every time – just like an alcoholic/drug addict.

        It wasn’t until I *finally* found a diet that practically eradicated my previously out-of=–control sugar cravings that I expereinced some relief and permament weight loss.

        Whilst of course the above article
        makes alot of sense, it is also HUGELY over-simplified and extremely ignorant about the physiology and science behind the addict’s brain. Yes – eat more
        cals and you will gain weight and vice-versa but it is true that
        complex carbs keep you fuller for longer and don’t ‘spike’ your blood
        sugar in the same way as white carbs (for those who are sugar sensitive, ie. low serotonin, low brain beta endrophin and volatile BS). For me, white carbs spike me in
        such a way that they trigger overwhelming and massive cravings for
        sugar….then I go on a sugar binge and all my attempts at weight loss
        become futile. I don’t gain weight from eating my ‘fill; of real foods
        but it’s the trigger foods (white carbs) that I need to avoid because
        that (for me personally due to my body’s personal physiology) triggers a binge – and it’s the *binge* that
        stops any weight losss plans in their tracks.

        DO NOT PRESUME THAT WE ARE ALL EQUAL. WE ARE NOT. THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT TAKE INTO ACCOUNT DIFFERENT PHYSIOLOGY. PLEASE WAKE UP. OPEN YOUR EYES.

        Not everyone is the same

      • Evie

        This is about a wise as saying to an anorexic – eating is a lot simpler than you think. Just have a doughnut! Clearly a foolish and ignorant thing to say to an anorexic.

        Binge eating is the flip side to the coin of anorexia. Both have sugar sensitive physiologies. Interestingly enough, as much as I used to binge eat, I would occassionaly experience an inability to eat also (i.e. anorexia) at times of extreme anxiety.

        Sugar sensitivity (low serotonin/endorphin/volatile BS) is something that is inherited…and on top of that if you experience trauma (in my case, sexual abuse) it completely shatters your serotonin system yet further.

        I am not a weak willed person. I am not a victim. I tried everything and I didn’t stop trying until I found an eating plan that massively reduced by previously out of control sugar cravings. I also had lots of counselling. I also did lots of forgiving. I am a survivor. I am anything but weak. I feel offended by any suggestion otherwise. I feel offended by the simplicity of these articles. Eating disorders (e.g. anorexia and binge eating) need to be treat with respect and not dismissed, as these articles would suggest.

    • Evie

      Ru-an don’t believe everything you read. Whilst of course this article makes alot of sense, it is also hugely over-simplified. Yes – eat more cals and you will gain weight and vice-versa but it is true that complex carbs keep you fuller for longer and don’t ‘spike’ your bloody sugar in the same way as white carbs. For me, white carbs spike me in such a way that they trigger overwhelming and massive cravings for sugar….then I go on a sugar binge and all my attempts at weight loss become futile. I don’t gain weight from eating my ‘fill; of real foods but it’s the trigger foods (white carbs) that I need to avoid because that (for me peronally) triggers a binge – and it’s the *binge* that stops any weight losss plans in their tracks.

  • mike Barneveld

    I’ve been obsessing a little lately about Gi numbers and stressing about it. This article clears it up and makes me feel relaxed about it. Cheers mikey boy.

  • Colin Van Winkle

    Hey Mike, you think that eating high GI carbs as a weightlifter is much safer than eating high GI carbs as a sedentary person?

    • “Safer” probably isn’t the right word but weightlifters’ bodies deal better with carbs in general than sedentary peoples’, yes.

  • wong jing wen

    Hi Mike, i am currently having potatoes in my meals daily. It this unhealthy as i came upon articles that says potato will result in high blood sugar and stuff but i also read articles about that its just a myth. Can you kindly advice? Thanks.

  • محمد الدوسري #Gaza

    Hey Mike, correct me if I misunderstood this article;
    Weight-lifting/Muscle-mass: pre-workout Low GI + Protein > workout > High GI + Protein.
    Cardio/Fat-loss:
    IF (better option than low GI in terms of fasted-glucose) > workout
    > Mixed GI + Protein + little healthy fats.

  • Raymond Tawil

    Hi mike! while cutting, is canned corn considered bad ?

    • Nope! As long as it fits in your cals/macros, you’re good. 🙂

  • Carlos Rangel

    I have been paying close attention to your books and your articles.
    I now understand how proper dieting works and how to utilize that knowledge in order to get bigger and more define. I was wondering if in the future you would consider Setting up workout routines specially for those who first need to shed and then gain. That paired with your diet routine would make a huge difference.
    I understand that each case is different , but definitely something worth paying for due to the follow ups and updates… it is technically an official medical/nutritional consultation.

  • Daniel Vroman Rusteen

    I read the article twice, maybe I’m not reading between the lines, but I want to know more about if timing matters for high GI carbs, outside of pre- and post-workout. Should I avoid high GI at other times of the day, specifically before bed? Should I only be easting high GI carbs pre- and post- workout meals?

  • Daniel Vroman Rusteen

    Also, how does GI compare to GL, which I hear is a better measure, but the numbers don’t seem to correlate.

  • Table value of glycemic index different products on android.
    https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.IG_WDOBRYMZDROWIU

  • Tom Atwell

    Great Article Mike, just renewed my passion for training and healthy living again so this is my first article back.

    What I like about all your articles like this is that there is no agenda so you can comfortably and scientifically say it how it is with the simple purpose of educating the readers without always writing articles simple to promote or protect a product of your own.

    This is a very good reminder not to get caught up on small details and focus on the bigger picture concepts that work, like energy balance and Macronutrient ratios that most people reading probably overlook whilst they search for the shortcuts and hacks to their ideal bodies.

    Thanks again!

    • That’s awesome, Tom! Glad to hear you’re enjoying the content and getting a lot from it.

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