The lowdown on low-glycemic diets

Lasting weight loss requires permanent, sustainable change without deprivation and crash-dieting.
Low-glycemic Diets
When you think of low-glycemic, think of fresh foods and minimally processed whole grains. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

If you’ve already lost weight but you want to lose more—or you simply want to make sure you keep the old pounds off for good—there’s a food paradigm that can help.

It’s the low-glycemic diet.

It consists primarily of 40 percent total calories from carbohydrates, 40 percent from fats and 20 percent from protein. A great example is the Mediterranean diet.

The low-glycemic diet is the most effective way to burn calories and keep your energy consumption high, even after you’ve lost weight.

Think brown, not white

Spectrum Health outpatient dietitian Irene Franowicz, RD, CDE, recommends going step by step as you ease into a low-glycemic diet. One approach: Choose “brown” instead of “white.”

  • Ditch the saltine crackers for a Kashi whole grain variety.
  • Eat more beans and lentils as snacks.
  • Explore the infinite varieties of hummus: lentil, roasted red pepper, beet, and hummus with blue cheese and chopped walnuts.
  • Skip the white bread, instead choosing a whole grain with oats, grains, seeds and nuts.
  • Skip the white rice and choose the brown variety, or choose quinoa. Liven it up by sautéing some onions, garlic, celery, red peppers and carrots in olive oil, then add spices like cumin and paprika. For more flavor add a chicken or vegetarian mushroom stock instead of water.
  • Get rid of white potatoes and use sweet potatoes—they’re higher in fiber.
  • If you love chips, try smoked almonds instead.
  • If it’s salt you crave, go for popcorn with olive oil and sea salt.

It’s also a great way to curb your cravings for sweet foods, according to Irene Franowicz, RD, CDE, outpatient dietitian with Spectrum Health.

Participants in the Eating the Mediterranean Way program that Franowicz teaches found their cravings for sweets decline after just a few weeks on the Mediterranean diet.

“It can be as easy as switching from a pastry in the morning to steel cut oatmeal with blueberries and walnuts,” Franowicz said. “You can still add a little honey or maple syrup, but you will still have added less sugar than the typical packets of oatmeal, which have at least three to four teaspoons of sugar.”

In a study published in JAMA, researchers had people follow three different weight-loss diets to determine the effects on metabolism. They wanted to identify the best diet not just for losing weight, but losing weight with the fewest side effects.

The study found low-carb and low-glycemic diets produced slightly similar results for weight loss maintenance—they’re in fact both better than a low-fat diet—but a low-glycemic diet may still edge out the low-carb plan.

How so? On the low-glycemic diet, patients don’t seem to experience the negative effects they had experienced on the low-carb diet, such as “physiological stress and chronic inflammation.”

The low-glycemic diet is a viable weight-loss solution. It’s a sustainable diet and it can decrease hunger and improve metabolism, making weight loss easier.

The glycemic index

The glycemic index uses a scale of 0 to 100 to measure the effects of carbohydrate-containing foods on blood sugar levels.

Food will raise your glucose level by varying amounts, depending of course on what it is you’re eating.

A food that triggers a rapid rise in glucose levels has a higher number on the index. The higher range is about 70 to 100, while the moderate range is 56 to 69 and the lower range is about 55 and below. (The University of Sydney has an easily searchable glycemic index database.)

So what happens with glucose and weight loss? High levels of insulin inhibit fat burning and promote fat storage.

High-glycemic foods break down faster during digestion, rapidly releasing glucose into the blood stream. This can stimulate your appetite and trigger higher levels of insulin and triglycerides.

GI
The glycemic index measures the impact a carb-containing food has on your blood sugar level. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

High-glycemic foods are items such as white bread, bagels, low-fiber cereals, baked goods, white potatoes, desserts, sweet drinks and low-fiber or low-protein pastas.

Low-glycemic foods, on the other hand, tend to break down and release slower, making you feel fuller for a longer period. This helps you feel satisfied and, in turn, makes it easier to lose weight.

Foods that are lower on the glycemic index include most fruits, berries, citrus, apples, pears, vegetables, legumes, minimally processed grains, oatmeal, nuts, hummus, kidney beans and chickpeas.

Go low-glycemic

It’s easier than you think to follow a low-glycemic diet. You don’t have to memorize the glycemic index, or even count the amount of carbohydrate grams in your food.

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Low-glycemic menu

Breakfast: Greek yogurt topped with berries and walnuts; coffee or tea for drink

Lunch: Mashed white beans spread on whole wheat pita; Greek salad; citrus fruit

Snack: Baby carrots with hummus dip

Dinner: Roasted fish paired with wheat berry; or, bulgur salad with olive oil vinaigrette, feta, parsley, tomatoes

Dessert: Fresh fruit

This diet emphasizes consumption of healthy carbs, as opposed to no fat or no carbs.

Choose the fiber-rich natural carbs that are found in vegetables, fruits and legumes. Eat them with a source of protein and a healthy fat.

Eat grain products in their least-processed state. For example, simply substitute stone-ground whole wheat bread in place of white bread. It’s also important to limit fruit juice and sugary drinks.

In her Eating the Mediterranean Way class, Franowicz has seen firsthand how the diet can help people turn their lives around.

People who start their day with doughnuts, pastries or highly processed cereals—the ones high in sugar, low in fiber—are starting off on the wrong foot.

“They kickstart something and crave carbs all day long,” Franowicz said.

She teaches people how a low-glycemic diet will not only make you feel better, it will fundamentally improve your health.

“We see great success with pre-diabetics and diabetics bringing their blood sugar down when they start incorporating low-glycemic, whole grains,” she said. “(They) report the weight loss is easier because their cravings are reduced and they feel fuller.”

Register for the next session of Eating the Mediterranean Way at Spectrum Health, or call 616.774.7779 for more information. Read more about blood sugar and the glycemic index.

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