Low-glycemic foods are slower to raise a person’s blood sugar levels than foods with moderate or high scores on the glycemic index. But which are the best low-glycemic foods to eat?
Review studies suggest that a low-glycemic diet may help reduce blood pressure in healthy adults.
A low-carbohydrate diet may also improve blood glucose levels in people with type 2 diabetes, though the current 2019 guidelines do not recommend any specific carbohydrate count or diet plan for people with diabetes.
This article takes a look at some of the best low-GI foods and gives dietary tips for people following a low-GI diet.
How the scale works
Low-GI foods, such as sweet potato, have a score under 55.
The glycemic index (GI) is a scale from 1–100. Each food gets a score, and the lower the score, the longer that food takes to raise a person’s blood sugar levels.
The GI indicates how quickly carbohydrate-containing foods increase blood sugar levels, compared with pure glucose.
The GI score for glucose, and white bread, is 100. Here is how the scale works:
- low-GI foods score under 55
- medium-GI foods score 55–70
- high-GI foods score above 70
The table below provides examples of foods with low, medium, or high GI scores.
|Low-GI foods (under 55)||Medium-GI foods (55-70)||High-GI foods (over 70)|
|rolled or steel-cut oats||brown or basmati rice||russet potatoes|
|barley, bulgar||couscous||white bread|
|butter beans and peas||wholemal bread||cookies|
|non-starchy vegetables||rye bread||breakfast cereals|
|milk||quick oats||instant pasta|
|sweet potatoes||honey||short-grain white rice|
|most fruits||orange juice||pineapples and melons|
Below are six of the best low-GI foods, based on the International Tables of Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load Values: 2008. We also discuss the health benefits of these foods and how to enjoy them.
1. Oats – 55
With a GI score of 55, rolled porridge oats are low-GI breakfast cereal option. Oats contain beta-glucan, a type of fiber with a number of health benefits.
Authors of a 2014 meta-analysis suggest that the beta-glucan fiber in porridge oats may improve blood cholesterol. Beta-glucan may also help a person feel fuller for longer.
Steel-cut and rolled oats have the best health benefits and the most favorable GI score. Quick and instant oats are more processed than steel-cut or rolled oats, and they have a higher GI score.
Muesli that contains steel-cut or rolled oats can be a good option for people following a low-GI diet, though the GI scores vary substantially among brands.
Porridge is easy to make at home. Simply add oats and milk — or a plant-based milk alternative — to a pan and stir while heating. The porridge is ready when the oats have absorbed the milk and the mixture has thickened.
2. Milk – 37 to 39
A healthful addition to morning porridge, milk is a low-GI dairy product. The GI score for skimmed milk is 37, while full-fat milk has a score of 39.
Milk is rich in calcium, which is important for bone health. Research suggests that drinking milk regularly may reduce the progression of knee osteoarthritis in women.
Reduced-fat soy milk can have a GI score of between 17 and 44, and full-fat soy milk may score 44. The specific GI score will vary among brands.
Some people enjoy a glass of milk with their dinner. Another idea is to add it to a smoothie that contains low-GI fruits, such as apples, bananas, grapes, and mangoes.
Most fruits have low GI scores because of their fructose and fiber contents. Fruits with medium- to high-GI scores include melons, pineapples, and dried fruits, such as dates, raisins, and cranberries.
3. Chickpeas – 28
Chickpeas have a low GI score and are a good source of protein and fiber.
Chickpeas, or garbanzo beans, are a low-GI legume, with a score of 28 on the scale.
Chickpeas are a good source of protein and fiber, with 11.8 grams (g) and 10.6 g per cup, respectively. They also contain key nutrients, such as calcium, potassium, and vitamin B-9, which is sometimes called folate.
People can use chickpeas as a substitute for potatoes or white rice, which have high GI scores. Roasted chickpeas make a quick and easy snack. Here’s an easy recipe for spicy roasted chickpeas.
Another tasty way to eat more chickpeas is by making hummus. This popular Middle Eastern dip is straightforward to prepare. Here’s how to make hummus from scratch.
4. Carrots – 39
With a GI score of 39, carrots are a healthful alternative to bread for dipping into hummus.
Carrots contain beta-carotene, which is good for eye health. They are also a great source of antioxidants, which help protect the body’s cells from damage.
People may enjoy carrots boiled or steamed as a side vegetable with any dish.
5. Kidney beans – 24
With a GI score of 24, kidney beans are a versatile low-GI food.
These beans are rich in protein and fiber, with 13.36 g and 11 g per cup, respectively. They also contain potassium and are very low in fat.
Kidney beans make a great addition to meat-based or vegetarian chili. Here’s a simple veggie chili recipe to try.
6. Lentils – 32
Scoring 32 on the GI scale, lentils are a great low-GI addition to lunches and dinners.
Lentils are rich in protein, with 17.86 g per cup, and fiber, with 15.6 g per cup. They are also a good source of phosphorus and potassium.
An Indian dish called dhal is a wholesome and tasty way to enjoy lentils. Suitable for vegans, dhal is also easy to make at home. Here’s a simple dhal recipe to follow.
What affects GI?
Using an acidic seasoning lowers a meal’s GI score.
Many factors influence a food’s GI score, including:
- Level of processing: More processed carbohydrates tend to have higher GI scores.
- Ripeness: The sugar in fruit breaks down as the fruit ripens, increasing the GI score.
- Preparation: The cooking process can break down carbohydrates, increasing the meal’s GI score.
- Dressing: Using an acidic seasoning, such as lemon, lowers a meal’s GI score.
- Type of starch: Amylose has a lower GI score than amylopectin.
Tips for following a low-GI diet
The foods that we discuss above are a good place to start for people interested in a low-GI diet.
When following the diet, it is important to remember than high-GI foods are not banned; a person should just use moderation.
Anyone on a low-GI diet can also enjoy foods that do not contain carbohydrates, such as the following:
- olive oil
For anyone looking to determine a food’s GI score, the University of Sydney in Australia provides a handy GI search tool.
Low-GI foods have a GI score below 55. They contain carbohydrates that take the body longer to break down than high-GI foods.
Low-GI foods raise a person’s blood sugar levels more slowly than moderate- or high-GI foods.
The American Diabetes Association no longer recommend specific meal plans for people with diabetes.
Instead, their Standards of Medical Care in Diabetes — 2019 guidelines recommend following individualized meal plans based on a person’s current eating patterns, preferences, and goals. People can work with their healthcare providers to draw up these meal plans.
Research into the various health benefits of a low-GI diet is ongoing.