Smart Carbs: Understanding the Glycemic Index

Our bodies need carbohydrates for fuel, but not all carbs are created equal — some carbs burn fast and some burn more slowly. So, if we need carbs, why are there so many low-carb diets out there? Sometimes these diets are recommended to heal different health ailments or to improve the body’s fat-burning capabilities.

One of the latest diet crazes — the ketogenic diet — focuses on reducing carbs, bringing your body into a state of ketosis. When your body enters ketosis, it switches to depending on carbs for energy to burning fats for fuel. Note: Ketosis is safe for most people, but you should always consult your doctor before trying it since everyone’s body reacts differently.

The glycemic index

Before we dive too deep into the ketogenic diet, let’s discuss the glycemic index (GI). The glycemic index measures how quickly food raises your blood sugar. Foods are ranked on a scale of 0 to 100, with pure glucose (sugar) given a value of 100. Fast-burning carbs (simple carbs) are high on the GI scale and our bodies often crave these types of carbs when blood sugar levels are low because they result in immediate energy.  Slow-burning carbs (complex carbs) are lower on the glycemic index and keep your blood sugar more level over time, i.e. between meals.

What are fast-burning carbs?

Examples of common fast-burning carbs — the ones that are that are high on the glycemic index and can boost your blood sugar quickly — include:

  • Sweeteners
  • Candy
  • Soda
  • Juice
  • White bread
  • Chips
  • Dried fruits
  • Rice cakes

What are slow-burning carbs?

Here’s a list of slow-burning carbs that help your body maintain more stable blood sugar levels include:

  • Whole grains
  • Beans and legumes
  • Nuts
  • Many fruits
  • Nonstarchy vegetables

Choosing the right carbs

Carbs are complicated. If you want to feel healthy and energized, start by focussing on slow-burning carbs because they are low on the GI scale and will help you control your appetite and avoid sugar crashes throughout the day. Fast-burning carbs will do just the opposite by provoking hunger sensations and mood swings.

Here are some common carb-based foods and where they land on the GI scale:

  • Baguette bread: 95 (very high)
  • Cornflakes: 92 (very high)
  • Baked potato: 85 (high)
  • Plain bagel: 72 (high)
  • Oatmeal: 55 (medium)
  • Wheat bread: 53 (medium)
  • Banana: 51 (medium)
  • Apple: 40 (low)

Get a list of common foods and their glycemic index here. You’ll notice that foods like pasta, soda, and chips are all over 50 on the GI scale. This means that your body will absorb them quickly, so if you need a quick boost or if your workout is coming up and you haven’t eaten in a few hours, foods higher on the GI scale are OK — just remember: moderation is key.  Also, if fast-burning is what you need, opt for healthier sources like fruits.

If you’re not preparing for an intense workout or in need of a sugar boost, focus on getting your fuel from those foods lower on the GI scale like lentils (29), almonds (0), chickpeas or hummus (10), yogurt (40), and vegetables. These kinds of foods are metabolized more slowly.

smart carbs hummus glycemic index

Smart carbs for long-lasting energy

Now that you understand how the GI scale works, let’s get back to the topic of low carb diets like the ketogenic diet. Though 8fit meal plans don’t support the ketogenic diet at this time, we do support eating smart carbs (i.e. the complex ones) over fast-burning simple carbs. Here are some ways to get there:

  • Switch your breakfast to one lower on the GI scale by replacing your cereal or pastry for an egg scramble or oatmeal
  • Replace juice and cereal bar snacks for healthy choices like veggies and almonds
  • Understand which foods are high on the GI scale and remove them from your meals
  • If elimination is hard, choose one high GI food per week or cut the frequency of eating that food down by 80% at first

Analyzing every single meal can be an enormous chore, so do your best to start tracking your diet and eliminating high GI foods as often as possible. When you do eat them, try to mix them with very low GI foods. Eventually, your GI maintenance will become automatic. If all of this still sounds like a chore, use your 8fit app to its full capacity and follow your recommended meal plan. 8fit nutritionists design every meal to have the perfect balance of complex carbs, protein and fat to keep you satisfied and energized.

As you get used to these healthy, complex carb meals, you might feel immediate satisfaction or energy boost like you might with a bag of chips or candy bar. Instead, your meal will provide long-lasting energy and reduced cravings.

And, finally, if keto is something you’re trying, we do have some close-to-keto recipes for you to add to your meal plan. In order to make them keto-friendly, you might need to adjust the macronutrient ratios slightly.

The bottom line

Remember that changing your diet slowly by eating high GI foods in moderation is more sustainable than eliminating them entirely; radical changes don’t tend to last. If you plan cheat days, enjoy your favorite high GI foods then. You’ll enjoy them more and savor the experience but, surprisingly, you’ll crave them less once you eat them less frequently.