Managing Blood Sugar & the Glycemic Index
Posted by Andrea Nakayama
Understanding blood sugar management is one of the best ways you can show up for your clients, supporting both their short and long-term health.
The importance of blood sugar from a Functional Nutritionist
Blood sugar wields the power to influence mood, weight, mechanisms of hunger, and hormone balance. When blood sugar balance is out of whack for too long it can lead to chronic disease states like diabetes, hypertension, yeast and fungal overgrowth, and persistent internal inflammation. Simply put, it’s one of the core baselines of good health, and what I refer to in my Functional Nutrition practice and teachings as a Non-Negotiable. Understanding the dynamics of blood sugar management and acquainting yourself with The Glycemic Index can be an important learning for any Functional Nutritionist or aspiring Functional Nutrition Counselor.
Understanding blood sugar
What exactly is blood sugar? At its core, blood sugar refers to the sugar – or glucose – in the blood derived from every carbohydrate consumed.
Once a carbohydrate has worked its way through your digestive system, it’s broken down into glucose and journeys into the bloodstream through the physiological process of absorption. It’s then taken to the liver where it’s either distributed to the cells for energy or stored for later use. Due to the liver’s limited storage capacity, any excess glucose is converted to and stored as fat.
It’s the liver that regulates your blood sugar levels. The more complex the carbohydrate, the slower the food moves into the bloodstream, allowing the liver to take up its sugar-load without becoming overwhelmed. This brings us to the Glycemic Quotient.
The Glycemic Index model
The Glycemic Index (GI) is a methodology that ranks carbohydrates according to how quickly glucose – that simple sugar molecule – is absorbed into the bloodstream. Here’s the rule of thumb – the slower, the better. The Glycemic Index compares the rise in blood glucose caused by 50 grams of carbohydrates in any particular food to the rise in blood glucose caused by 50 grams of pure glucose. For context, pure glucose serves as the benchmark with a GI of 100. Let’s explore the GI values for a few starch-based foods:
- White bread: GI ranging from 70 to 90
- Baked potato: GI of 85
- Yam: GI of 42
According to the Glycemic Index model:
Low GI = 55 and under
Medium GI = 56 to 69
High GI = 70 and above
A Functional Nutritionist’s critique
Unfortunately, this ranking system, while insightful, has its limitations. It assigns high GI values to foods like carrots even though they offer numerous health benefits. Carrots are packed with fiber and nutrients, which slow the breakdown of the sugars in the digestive system. This allows the liver ample time to perform its duties. Take away that fiber and you are indeed left with mere sugars, as in a glass of carrot juice.
In response to concerns with the GI rating system, a revised ranking system was developed to speak to how quickly sugars are absorbed physiologically – not just looking at the sugars in the food, but instead the sugars in relation to all of the food’s constituents, as well as the ways in which it moves through the processes of digestion. This revised system is essentially distinguishing between the carrot and the carrot juice (both have the same sugars, but with the understanding that one contains fiber and the other does not). This improved system is called the Glycemic Load (GL). And it provides a much more Functional lens.
An alternative model: The Glycemic Load
The Glycemic Load (GL) considers the total amount of rapidly absorbable carbohydrates (starch or sugar) as well as the GI. Glycemic Load = GI x grams of carb per serving / 100.
According to the Glycemic Load model:
Low GL = 1 – 10
Medium GL = 11 – 19
High GL = 20 and over.
A food like a whole grain or a carrot may have a relatively lower Glycemic Load because the amount of starch or sugar in that food is mitigated internally by the fiber and nutrients that will slow its delivery into the bloodstream. Essentially, if a food has a high Glycemic Index but is packed with fiber it will have a lower impact on blood sugar and well-functioning insulin levels. The Glycemic Load methodology reflects this.
Blood sugar as a non-negotiable
One of the core principles I teach as a Functional Nutritionist is to eat fat, fiber & protein at every meal. Additionally, to choose foods that are slower to digest, which are better assimilated into the body’s tissues. These recommendations have an inverse effect on blood glucose and therefore improve blood sugar management, which can help to mitigate the risks associated with health issues like diabetes, heart disease, metabolic issues, and even cancer.
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