What should we be eating?

It’s important to know the difference between low-glycemic and high-glycemic foods, but that’s not all there is to a healthy diet.

It’s important to know the difference between low-glycemic and high-glycemic foods, but that’s not all there is to a healthy diet.

Diet and nutrition are essential for ensuring our bodies function at a high level. Proper nutrition also can decrease risk of diabetes, stroke and heart disease, among other ailments.

Nonetheless, many people who want to change their eating habits struggle with knowing where to start, particularly when it comes to identifying high-glycemic foods vs. low-glycemic foods.

Why is that important? High-glycemic foods are known to raise blood sugar levels and cause many of the aforementioned health problems.

Dr. Zhaoping Li, MD, PhD, director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition, explained how the glycemic index works and how understanding it can help us navigate to a healthier diet.

“The glycemic Index is a way to look at how your blood glucose would respond to any food that you ingest, particularly in a time frame of two hours,” explained Dr. Li. “It’s judging how much sugar is in your food and how fast it enters your system.”


Fruits and veggies are best

Foods with a high glycemic index are typically high in sugar, such as cookies, cakes, candies, cereals and soft drinks. French fries and potato chips also make the list.

Dr. Li suggested foods with a low glycemic index, such as vegetables, should be consumed more frequently because they are low in natural sugars. They enter the bloodstream at a much slower rate, making them a healthier and wiser choice.

However, she also said rating foods by their glycemic index does not necessarily paint a clear picture of proper nutrition.

“It is helpful, but it does not tell the whole story at all,” Dr. Li said. “For example, whole wheat bread has a lower glycemic index than white bread, but it will only take your body longer to absorb all of the sugar from it. On another side, If you have whole wheat bread with a piece of salmon, you're fine. But if you start adding jelly, now it becomes a different issue.”

Similarly, some high-glycemic foods – such as watermelon and pineapples – are considered healthy. That is particularly true for those looking to add exercise to their fitness regimen. Bananas just make the cut as a food with a low glycemic index (54) and are good to eat prior to exercising.

“Bananas are a good pre-workout snack. They’re an easily digestible source of carbohydrates,” said Paige Foote, registered dietitian for UCLA Health Sports Performance Powered by Exos. “Watermelon is a great post-workout snack because it's hydrating, is a great source of antioxidants and helps your muscles refuel after the workout.”

From bad diet to good diet

Foote said she does not often use the glycemic index when she works with her clients. Instead, she helps them focus on adding more healthy foods in their diet.

“I help them focus on eating more unprocessed food like fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains,” Foote said. “We don't just focus on how foods influence blood sugar. Instead, we look at the 'big picture,' including what nutrients the foods contain and what other ways they can influence health and performance. ”

Trying to ween yourself off a high-glycemic diet can be challenging. Sugar consumption, for one, is a very difficult habit to break. Foote says she uses a different strategy to help clients.

“Instead of focusing on taking things out of the diet, I tell my clients to focus on things we can add in,” she said. “I tell them to add foods that will make them feel better and give them lasting, sustaining energy. For instance, focusing on adding on the foods that are high in fiber and protein.”

Foote said people who remove foods from their diet abruptly may be successful in the short-term, before possibly hitting a wall and finding themselves returning to unhealthy foods.

“Rigid diets often lead to a cycle of destruction and binging" she said. “This can make people feel guilty and out of control around food. Instead, many people find that focusing on adding things in instead of taking things away is a more positive, manageable approach.”

Both Dr. Li and Foote said taking gradual steps toward a better diet is the best approach to a healthier lifestyle.

“If you want to improve your diet, then start by getting help from a dietitian to help you plan and just take one step at a time. Every step is moving towards something better,” Dr. Li said.

“It’s best to start by doing something as simple as drinking more water, then adding more fruits and vegetables to your plate,” Foote said. “It’s all about doing the small things.”

Learn more about the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition.