Don’t be fooled; Not all sugars are created equal

Austin family practice sugars glycemic-indexEver heard of the term glycemic index?  Do you know what glycemic index means?  If you do not, you are probably in the same boat as most Americans.  Let’s take a look into it together.

In order to understand what glycemic index really means, you have to understand a few key terms.

Key Terms:

Carbohydate is a fancy name for the entire family of sugars, and it is also frequently called carbs.

Sugar at the dinner table usually refers to Table Sugar which is a specific type of Sugar called Glucose.

Sugar in the medical sense is any molecule that is utilized like glucose (a type of sugar) by the body.  Sugar molecules can be glucose, fructose, lactose, sucrose, and anything else that ends in -ose.  In medicine, sugar is usually interchangeable with carbohydrate.

For this article, when I refer to sugar, I am speaking of it as a general carbohydrate, and it can be found in almost all foods.

Now that we have a few definitions down, let’s move to the next topic:

Simple versus Complex Sugars (or Carbohydrates).

The difference between simple and complex carbohydrates is simply its chemical structure.

Simple sugars include glucose, fructose, lactose, and sucrose.  Foods that contain simple carbohydrates include table sugar, products with white flour, honey, milk, yogurt, candy, chocolate, fruit, fruit juice, cake, jam, biscuits, molasses, soda and packaged cereals.

Complex sugars are simple sugars that are strung together like a pearl necklace.  Each individual pearl is a simple sugar, but when they are strung together, it is called a complex carbohydrate.  Your body must cut out each individual pearl before utilizing the sugar molecule.  Complex carbohydrates are commonly found in vegetables, whole-meal bread, and whole grain cereals. Examples of foods that contain complex carbohydrates include spinach, yams, broccoli, beans, zucchini, lentils, skimmed milk, whole grains and many other leguminous plants and vegetables.

As you can see, complex sugars require more work by your body to utilize the food as an energy source.

Now that you understand the difference between a simple and complex sugar, you will be able to understand Glycemic Index.

The glycemic index is based on how quickly a sugar enters your blood stream.

High Glycemic Index Foods:

As you can imagine, a simple sugar enters your body fully broken down and ready to be burned.  Therefore, if you eat a spoonful of table sugar, it will enter your blood stream almost immediately (this is why we give diabetics juice when their blood sugar is too low).  With such a rapid rise in blood sugar, your body is forced to respond with a large amount of insulin.  Large amounts of insulin cause the body to pull sugar out of the blood stream, and it will do one of two things with this sugar surge:

1)   Store it as fat

2)   Burn it – If you are not exercising, it will inevitably store it as fat.

This is the mechanism behind weight gain and the low carbohydrate diet (Atkins).

High carbohydrates à high insulin level à weight gain à Diabetes.

Low carbohydrates à low insulin level à no weight gain

Have you ever noticed that you feel sick after eating a lot of candy?  You feel great for the first 20 – 30 minutes, then you feel like you have “crashed?”  This is because your body made too much insulin and devoured all the sugar.  Now, your blood sugar is dropping into the low blood sugar (hypoglycemic) range.  This happens to normal, healthy people.  Have you ever eaten a really sugary cereal like Lucky Charms in the morning, then, about 1 hour later, you felt ill, sweaty, and lightheaded?  This is called Hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar caused by too much insulin being released.

Low Glycemic Index Foods:

Now, we will discuss the more ideal version of a carbohydrate meal on the system.  If you eat complex carbohydrates that require your body to break it down, the sugar released into the blood stream has a slow rise, and it never sees a “surge in blood sugar.”  Therefore, your body makes an adequate amount of insulin without producing a subsequent drop in blood sugar.  Low glycemic foods have another advantage, they are usually found in foods with higher amounts of fiber.  Fiber in food does not stop your body from digesting the sugar, but it makes the body fight for it since the fiber holds onto the sugar molecules.  The addition of fiber to complex carbohydrates causes an even slower rise in blood sugar.

Most of the time it is fairly easy to determine which food has a lower glycemic index or more complex sugars.  Let’s put you to the test:

Which food has a lower (better) glycemic index?  Answers at the bottom of the page.

1)   Snickers or Almonds?

2)   Whole Grain Cereal or Lucky Charms?

3)   Yogurt  or sweet potatoes?

Take Home Message: 

Complex Sugar = Low Glycemic Index

Eating more complex sugars = Eating low glycemic index foods.


#GlycemicIndex #Sugar #Carbohydrates #Carbs #Diabetes


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