The good news is that by learning more about “good” carbs and “bad” carbs we can harness this knowledge and make smarter food choices, including consuming smaller portions and finding tasty, realistic substitutes, when possible.
What is a glycemic index? This system ranks carbohydrates based upon how much the food item increases our body’s blood sugar and insulin levels. It was originally created for diabetics to provide equilibrium, and avoid ups and downs.
And, today, there are nearly 29 million Americans with diabetes and another 79 million who are pre-diabetic, many of whom are not even aware of it. The glycemic index is a useful system that all people should become aware of because it can affect our weight, appetite, and possibly stave off diabetes.
How do foods with a high glycemic index affect us? In those who do not have diabetes, they can cause blood sugar levels to skyrocket and consequently stimulate a spike in insulin levels that then cause our blood sugar levels to come crashing down. It’s like being on a scary roller coaster ride. Low blood sugar levels are detrimental and can lead to seizures and even death within minutes. As a result, our body will send powerful signals to our brain to find something FAST to eat in order to get our blood sugar levels back up.
This oftentimes leads us to reach for sugary foods that are high in calories and fats. Over time, this roller coaster ride can lead to weight gain.
In diabetics, the spike in blood sugar levels remain elevated and can lead to short-term symptoms (fatigue, headache, blurred vision, increased thirst) and long-term effects (blindness, stroke, heart attacks, kidney failure).
What type of foods have a high glycemic level? White rice, pasta, russet potatoes, sodas, cookies, crackers, cakes, chips.
What type of foods have a low glycemic level? Most fruit, non-starchy vegetables.
What are some tasty substitutes/options for high-glycemic foods? 1. Chips and fries. There are a number of low-glycemic, baked veggie alternatives to russet potatoes. They include: sweet potatoes, zucchini, carrots, turnips, and radish. It is important to thinly slice these veggies and a mandolin is a handy-dandy cooking utensil that can do the job. And don’t forget that green leafy veggies such as kale and spinach can become fun chip substitutes. Consider using a healthy oil such as olive oil and have fun garnishing them with various seasonings such as sea salt, pepper flakes, or vinegar, to name a few. 2. Lasagna pasta. Zucchini is a wonderful substitute for the pasta in
lasagna dishes. It provides a similar consistency and texture while providing numerous vitamins, nutrients, and fiber. There are many ways to prepare the zucchini including baking and sautéing. 3. Spaghetti. Talk about divine intervention… spaghetti squash. This fruit (yes, it’s a fruit because it contains seeds) comes in a variety of colors and is rich in nutrients and vitamins while being low in carbohydrates. It also contains dietary fiber which can help us feel full faster.
And let’s return to zucchini for a moment. Not only can it serve as lasagna pasta, but also is a great, low-glycemic substitute for spaghetti. Consider shredding, julienning, or cutting into ribbons with a peeler to make the perfect “zoodle.” Zucchini can be served raw or sauteed in a little olive oil. 4. Mashed potatoes. Comfort food… at its finest. However, by the time we add cream, whole milk, butter, and sour cream, it is bound to bust our waistlines wide open. So how can we find comfort while keeping an eye on our weight? Consider cauliflower, celery root, sweet potatoes, parsnips, or carrots. Cut and then steam these veggies until they are soft; steaming helps maintain the nutrient value more than boiling. And consider substituting milk and cream with skim milk, sour
cream with low or non-fat sour cream, and butter with olive oil. 5. Wraps. Lettuce wraps — iceberg, romaine, red leaf — have become popular in restaurants. The great news is that you do not have to dine out to enjoy this treat. Because they are easy to make, fun, and healthy, they are a great substitute for tortillas, bread, and buns.
The key is to utilize the larger leaves, remove or cut any soft portion, dry before using, and get creative! Fish or shrimp tacos, fajitas, tuna salad, egg salad, chicken… the options are limitless. 6. Hamburger buns. Portabella mushrooms are not just “fun-guys,” or should I say fungus, they are naturally shaped like burger buns. And their yummy taste, nutrients, and protein make them a great substitute to sandwich our burgers. “Bread-less burgers!”
The glycemic index is not considered a diet plan, but instead is a tool, much like counting calories and fat, that can help guide us in our food selection. Making wise choices when it comes to what we eat and feed our families is important to our health.
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist and a member of the American
Society of Anesthesiologists where she serves on committees for Young Physicians and Communications. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.