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CARB watch

Know more about your glycaemic index or GI



Hooked on rice? Then go for the unpolished variety — Photo: S. Siva Saravanan

DIABETICS ARE probably sick of the phrase "low glycaemic index food", which sounds like jargon for "tasteless boiled mush". But there is no escaping glycaemic index. Every time a newspaper article or a study talks about carbohydrates, chances are it will mention glycaemic index (GI) and also say that healthful carbohydrates have low GI. So what exactly is glycaemic index? Quite simply, GI is a way of measuring how fast a carbohydrate food releases its sugar into the blood stream. For example, potato chips have a GI of 57 because they raise blood sugar levels to 57 per cent of that produced by pure glucose, which has a GI of 100. Low glycaemic foods are in general good for the health because they release sugar slowly and maintain energy levels for longer. High GI foods spike blood sugar levels and elicit a greater insulin response that rapidly lowers blood sugar levels, thereby increasing hunger and lowering energy levels. This is why a large polished-rice meal leaves one feeling hungry again within a few hours. High-GI foods also raise the chances of having diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

Influencing factors

Many factors influence the glycaemic index. For example, mashed boiled rice has a higher GI than plain boiled rice because smaller food particles get digested faster. High-fibre foods have a low GI because they are less sugar-dense and the indigestible matter slows digestion. But not all low-GI foods are healthy. A dollop of butter will lower the GI of aloo paratha because fat slows the emptying of the stomach into the small intestine, but it will not make it a healthier food. Conversely, high GI foods can beneficial sometimes: watermelon, for example, has a GI of 72, which is higher than that of ice-cream, but no one doubts which food is healthier. Also, blood sugar levels of people don't show up on glycaemic indices, which is why you have the strange situation where table sugar produces lower blood sugar levels than potatoes!

Tool for diabetics

Limitations aside, GI is a valuable though imprecise tool for diabetics to plan their meals in advance. Each food has a unique GI value that is easy enough to track down on standard nutrition charts. But each person's insulin response to food is unique, so the standard GI is only a rough guide. Ideally, each patient should check the blood sugar levels produced by his regular prescribed diet or measure carbohydrate in grams rather than in terms of GI.

RAJIV. M

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