updated 6/3/2005 10:36:10 AM ET 2005-06-03T14:36:10

Consumers now worry about which carbohydrate foods they choose, as well as how much of them they eat. Sometimes they worry about the vitamin, fiber, phytochemical, or sugar content of these foods.

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More often people seem to think about the glycemic index, although they are confused about how to apply it. Despite the confusion, the all-important message is still: Eat a mostly plant-based diet.

Carbohydrates that are broken down quickly in the body, rapidly raising blood sugar levels and causing a quick insulin response are said to have a high glycemic index (GI).

These carbohydrates include sweets, potatoes, white rice and refined cereals and breads. High GI foods may make blood sugar control worse in people with diabetes. But everyone may quickly become hungry and fatigued after eating these fast-burning foods.

High vs. low GI foods
Foods with a low GI are digested and absorbed more slowly. They should satisfy hunger and maintain energy levels for longer periods of time. Whole-grain breads, pasta, beans, and most fruits and vegetables all have a low GI.

Low GI foods are often mentioned as aiding weight loss, but a new study suggests that both low and high GI foods may help. In this study, moderately overweight women were divided into two groups and given equal amounts of either low or high GI foods to include in their meals and snacks for 10 weeks. Both groups ate a high-carbohydrate, lowfat diet similar in fiber content. Afterwards, the women reported no differences in hunger or fullness.

Both groups lost weight, and there was no difference in their weight loss or calorie intake. It should be noted, however, that the women who ate low GI foods lost more than twice as much body fat as women eating mainly high GI foods. Although the fat loss was statistically insignificant, it could be more important over a longer period of time.

This study’s attempt at measuring the impact of foods with high and low glycemic indices, however, does not correspond to carbohydrate choices we normally face. This study tried to keep the fiber intake and “energy density” (the amount of calories in a portion size) of the diets the two groups of women ate the same.

Yet low GI foods, which include whole grains, vegetables, fruits and beans, are often lower in calories and higher in fiber than similar portions of high GI foods.

Go for the plant-based diet
The concept of glycemic “load” is related to glycemic index, but it is a more useful term because it refers to the effects of actual amounts of foods eaten.

Glycemic index, on the other hand, is based on a standard amount, which may not correspond to how much you would actually eat. The glycemic index of foods and the portions someone eats of them are used to calculate the glycemic load. Studies suggest that a diet with a high glycemic load may double the risk of heart disease for those who are overweight.

The glycemic index or glycemic load of foods may or may not influence cancer risk. Some studies link high GI foods or high glycemic load with a 24 percent to almost 300 percent greater risk of colon, pancreatic, prostate, uterine, stomach, or post-menopausal breast cancers. Yet other studies show no link at all.

When you think about the concepts glycemic index or glycemic load, keep in mind that it is best to see your diet as a whole package, rather than individual pieces. You shouldn’t choose foods just because they have a low GI, because you may deprive yourself of fiber, vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals and overload your body with fat and protein.

A mostly plant-based diet, which is associated with a lower risk for cancer and heart disease, tends to contain a lot of low GI foods and other beneficial characteristics like fiber. That’s why it’s the best choice for good health.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research   in Washington, D.C. © 2005 MSNBC Interactive


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