Most people aware of the concept of glycemic index believe that they know what it means for a food to have a high or low glycemic index. Like almost anything else in life, we all believe that certain things in common knowledge mean the same thing to all of us; when in fact with a little research and contemplation, we find that there is far more going on than we suspected and that we are mostly working with misconceptions. It never ceases to amaze me.
The glycemic index (GI) is a ranking of carbohydrates on a scale from 0 to 100 according to the extent to which they raise blood sugar levels after eating. Foods with a high GI are those which are rapidly digested and absorbed and result in marked fluctuations in blood sugar levels. Low-GI foods, by virtue of their slow digestion and absorption, produce gradual rises in blood sugar and insulin levels, and have proven benefits for health. Low GI diets have been shown to improve both glucose and lipid levels in people with diabetes (type 1 and type 2). They have benefits for weight control because they help control appetite and delay hunger. Low GI diets also reduce insulin levels and insulin resistance.
Recent studies from Harvard School of Public Health indicate that the risks of diseases such as type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease are strongly related to the GI of the overall diet. In 1999, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recommended that people in industrialized countries base their diets on low-GI foods in order to prevent the most common diseases of affluence, such as coronary heart disease, diabetes and obesity.
Implied but not Spelled Out
The glycemic index measures blood glucose levels. People who have problems with glucose metabolism get Diabetes which is scary, bad, and mysterious. Consuming glucose must be a bad thing. We should avoid foods with glucose in them or foods that reduce to glucose quickly. People who do not have the discipline and knowledge to avoid overeating sweet food deserve to have bad things happen to them.
Most doctors even think this way. This belief is misleading, disempowering, and not particularly true!
Glucose is the primary simple sugar, carbohydrate, or monosaccharide (all synonymous) used in the human body to make cellular energy, or Adenosine-5'-triphosphate (ATP). The body loves glucose; it uses it readily and stores excess in glycogen without pathology (making us sick or giving us Diabetes). We want foods with glucose in them. Glucose turns into energy and energy is equated with quality of life; that is, you have the vitality to do the things you want to do and enjoy yourself. When we have too little energy, we eat more in an effort to regain our vitality.
The Devil is in the Details
It seems that what I have just written is in contradiction to common knowledge; it is almost a contradiction.
Blood Sugar Homeostasis
The first mistake is thinking that glucose is the cause of Diabetes and Metabolic Syndrome when it isn't. Internally without our awareness, our body allows a certain amount of glucose to be in the bloodstream, at any given time. This amount has very narrow limits in a healthy individual and is referred to as homeostasis. A combination of the immune system and the hormonal system maintain the balance of glucose in the blood such that we have the energy for muscles, organs, and the brain necessary to live happy, active lives. When these internal mechanisms go wrong, the body does extreme things to remedy the levels.
With too much glucose in the blood, glucose is diluted by shedding water from the body (all parts of the body). We call this type II Diabetes. Systemic dehydration will suffocate and kill tissue all over your body starting with your brain and nervous system.
When we have too little glucose in our blood, the body will reduce fat and protein to glucose, type I Diabetes. The person wastes away, having less and less energy and body mass.
The real issue is that the hormonal system and immune systems are compromised. How does this happen? Western Medicine says that the cause of type I Diabetes is genetic or a mystery. As for type II, you eat too much sugar.
Causes of Diabetes
Type I is likely caused by chemicals, processed foods, and environmental toxins that damage the pancreas. For instance, the chemical used to bleach bread, alloxan damages the pancreas and its beta cells, which secrete insulin. Also, arsenic is used widely in the poultry industry; same thing, it damages the pancreas. Basically, industrial chemicals are to blame and the genetic disposition to pathology by various common toxins.
Type II is a little more involved. It is a combination of light pollution and fructose consumption. As everyone should know these days, fructose is in almost everything; the quantity is ever increasing. You must make a practice of reading all labels on packaged food to realize the full extent of this food adulteration. The bulk of fructose is turned directly into fat. At the same time, fructose creates insulin resistance and damages the liver (non-alcoholic steato-hepatitis, fatty liver disease). Insulin tells muscles, organs, and fat cells to intake glucose. If insulin fails to be received correctly, more insulin is produced. Fructose consumption alters the chemistry of the body such that insulin levels are maintained at higher and higher levels. As a result, when insulin is being received correctly and at high levels, more and more glucose is being turned into fat as opposed to energy. Muscles and organs can take glucose up without insulin being involved. When insulin is in action, a certain percentage of glucose will get shunted to fat production as well as to the organs and muscles. The result is that massive quantities of food need to be eaten to feel good; that is, to have the energy you need to do the activities you desire and enjoy doing them, to feel alive. All the while, you are getting seriously overweight.
There is a common misunderstanding that table sugar means glucose. Most forms of sugar (table sugar, honey, maple syrup, molasses, cane sugar, beet sugar, and coconut palm sugar, for example) in food today are primarily composed of sucrose, which is half glucose and half fructose. The glucose is fine. The fructose isn't. This is a strange thing in that the glycemic index measures glucose levels and not fructose levels. So people mistakenly are led to believe that fructose is good and glucose is bad. The important distinction to make here is that fructose causes Diabetes type II but is not the main concern of Western Medicine in the management of Diabetes. Once the hormonal system is compromised, it is important to watch glucose intake because we have to attempt to balance our blood sugar levels in a gross dietary way which is somewhat in opposition to what we would do from a healthy point of view.
The glycemic index takes on its most important and relevant usage, that of externally managing blood glucose levels within somewhat normal ranges, for unhealthy individuals. Only if life were that simple! As it turns out, most people have some level of compromise to their hormonal system. So we are in a grey area as to how the glycemic index applies to most people. I'll come back to this.
Light, Hormones, and the Immune System
A huge factor in Metabolic Syndrome is overexposure to artificial light. Natural light informs our internal clock and drives our hormonal and immunological systems. From an evolutionary point of view, the quantity of light in a day is an indicator to our bodies as to the season of the year and the type of foods we should eat. In our modern world, we live bathed in light unto the wee hours. This tricks our internal clock into thinking that we live in an eternal state of summer. Summer is the one time of year that we stock up on carbohydrates in high gear as we are preparing for fall and winter and hibernation. We crave caloric food in the summer or excessively lighted living arrangements. Excessive consumption leads to being overweight and being overweight is an important factor in becoming Diabetic.
Besides craving carbs, excessive light messes up basic daily hormonal balancing. The more we get out of balance with nature, the more likely our immune system, which is not ours so much as extension of Nature's overall immune system, will switch over from protecting us to getting rid of us. If we are not capable of competing with natural selection (sexually vital and active), Nature immunizes us to make room for healthy individuals. One of the major factors in autoimmune situations is that a person's lifestyle and body management have gotten so out of balance that Nature starts taking them apart. We are not separate from Nature. This is highly evident in how the immune system behaves, which is a mystery to modern medicine. The immune system is not ours; it is Nature's immune system working for us or against us to meet the overall needs of a particular geography. Metabolic Syndrome and Diabetes are part of that equation. Living in balance with natural light cycles is crucial to overall health. In the very least, you should balance your exposure to light and dark. Make your bedroom pitch black at night and until you decide to get up.
Often what we think about when we think about the glycemic index of foods and what we should avoid, if we had discipline, is focused on sugar: sweets, candy, ice cream, cake, donuts ... junk food that is sweet. An important thing to realize is that processed foods that are stripped, whitened, and/or puffed breakdown into simple sugars very quickly and rate with high glycemic indexes. These foods do not have to be sweet. Managing blood sugar levels has more to do with eating artificial foods than sweet foods. For instance, fruit like an apple (GI 38) is sweet and in a raw, ripe, organic state is very good for most people; whereas, popcorn (GI 55-89) is not so good because it is cooked and popped.
For a healthy individual, I recommend eating whole, ripe, raw, organic foods with simple ingredients; the more variety the better. For a person with a compromised hormonal system including Diabetes, I recommend the same thing except that consumption of sweet foods, like fruit, and natural foods that are not sweet but break down into simple sugars quickly and easily like white potatoes should be minimized. Whole grains and complex starches are very important for Diabetics.
In all cases, I recommend avoiding processed foods. There are loopholes and loopholes and loopholes to avoid telling you what is actually in processed food. Buy all the ingredients and make your own food.
Where it concerns sweeteners, glucose is your friend, just not too much too fast. Alternatives get increasingly worse. Stay away from packaged food with anything advertising
diet in it. Chemical sweeteners, fructose, excitotoxins, and other strange things are used in place of glucose.
The glycemic index can be useful to help avoid unobvious foods that break down into simple sugars quickly. Foods with fructose or artificial sweeteners rate low on the glycemic index and are misleading. Zero calories, zero glycemic index ... and all that jazz; if it is too good to be true, it usually is.