Glycemic index was all the rage in the '90s. It’s the whole idea that certain carbs, like whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables, impact our blood sugar less dramatically than a baguette or a baked potato. The idea that all carbs are not created equal still holds a lot of leverage for many health advocates. But new research suggests that good carbs versus bad carbs or the glycemic index shouldn’t hold as much weight as we initially thought.
New research out of the National Institutes of Health and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that diets containing low glycemic index foods or "good carbs" did not lower cholesterol or improve blood sugar levels and insulin sensitivity. If you’re already eating a healthy diet glycemic index isn’t important. The study found that low glycemic index diets actually made insulin sensitivity worse.
The glycemic index says that if you eat a piece of white bread it’s digested much faster than a baked sweet potato causing your blood sugar to spike, which has negative health repercussions. It pertains to how quickly a food raises your blood sugar.
In this new study, 163 people who were overweight and had high blood sugar were moved through four different diets, each for five weeks at a time. Each diet was all around healthy and included fruits, vegetables, beans, fish, poultry, lean meats and grains. Two of the diets were slightly higher in carbs and two were slightly lower. The lower glycemic index diets contained whole grain bread, cereal, apples, steel cut oats, and non-starchy vegetables, and the high glycemic index diets contained white bread, carrots, bran muffins, instant rice and oatmeal, as well as sweet snacks like honey and bananas and apricots.
When overall carbs were reduced heart disease risk factors like cholesterol, tryglycerides, and blood pressure were also reduced, but when two diets had similar amounts of carbs and calories, the low glycemic index did not reduce risk factors. In fact, the lower glycemic index diet was worse for gluten sensitivity.
Here’s what this means to you: Eating whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and other plant-based foods is important because of the nutrients that your body gets from those foods, but if your diet is generally healthy already, a potato or a French baguette isn’t going to make you blow up like a balloon. And it’s not going to give you heart disease or diabetes.
“The takeaway is a good message for people,” Dr. Frank M. Sacks, the lead author of the study and a professor at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital said to The New York Times. “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.”
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Image: Alessandro Valli