Does the glycemic index matter? Some people use the glycemic index (GI) as a shorthand way to judge whether a food is healthy or not. But it is more complicated than just pulling the number and putting the food on the healthy or unhealthy list.

What is the Glycemic Index?

The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly a food causes our blood sugar levels to rise.
The measure ranks food on a scale of zero to 100. Foods with a GI are quickly digested and absorbed, causing a rapid rise in blood sugar.

These foods that rank high on the GI scale are often — but not always — high in processed carbohydrates and sugars. Pretzels, for example, have a GI of 83.

Meanwhile, foods with a low GI are digested and absorbed at a slower rate, and subsequently, cause a slower rise in blood sugar levels. These are typically rich in fiber, protein and/or fat.

Examples of these include apples with a GI of 28, Greek-style yogurt at 11 and peanuts at seven.

Keep in mind that a low GI doesn’t mean a food is high in nutrients. You still need to choose healthy foods from all five food groups.

Does the Glycemic Index Matter to Professionals?

Looking to the experts might clarify the importance of the GI. Does the GI matter to dieticians and nutritionists?

A new survey sought to determine whether or not the professionals in the field rely on the glycemic index in making food recommendations to their clients. Keep in mind that it was paid for by Potatoes USA, a consortium of potato growers and that potatoes have a very high GI.

An Overwhelming Majority of Nutrition Professionals Don’t Use the Glycemic Index
Results of a national survey of 768 nutrition professionals (97 percent of respondents were registered dietitians) found that nearly three-quarters (73 percent) do not use the Glycemic Index (GI) when counseling their patients and clients. Among those who do use it, 70 percent do so infrequently.

Why Professionals Don’t Rely on the Glycemic Index

The survey sheds light onto the concern nutrition professionals have about using the GI to guide the food choices and care of patients and clients. Three out of five believe the GI is stopping people from eating perfectly healthy foods.

Study author Constance Brown-Riggs, MSEd, RD, CDE, CDN explains:

• The Glycemic Index is a ranking of carbohydrate in food according to how they affect blood glucose levels, and that’s not useful information for helping people plan meals and snacks that meet their individual needs.
• The body of scientific research supports that GI is a poor marker of overall health outcomes.
• I don’t use it with any of my patients, whether I am working with them on weight management or diabetes management.
• Everyone can – and should – enjoy all foods within a healthy diet and not be concerned with the arbitrary GI ranking.
• I advise my patients to focus on the overall nutritional qualities of the food as they build their meals and snacks.
• Potatoes, for example, are a nutrient-dense vegetable and high-quality complex carbohydrate that provides 26 grams of carbs, 3 grams of plant-based protein, 27 mg vitamin C and under-consumed nutrients like potassium (620 mg) and fiber (2 g) per 5.3 oz. skin-on serving. Baked, mashed and roasted, potatoes make a great addition to a healthy, balanced plate.
Regarding the management of diabetes, while Certified Diabetes Educators were more likely than all respondents to report using the GI, they do so to give patients a general concept of fast- and slow-acting carbohydrates. It also helps them prioritize foods higher in fiber– as many low-GI foods are higher in fiber – rather than being concerned about the GI of a food itself.

Additional survey findings indicate:

• Nutrition professionals surveyed believe that the GI leads to misinformation about the healthfulness of fruits and vegetables (69 percent and 37 percent respectively)
• GI is not considered valuable for weight management
• GI is not part of professionals’ nutritional guidelines or standards to guide the food and/or meal selection of their patients
• 86 percent of all nutrition professionals surveyed report they do not use the glycemic load with patients and clients

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