Why It’s Good for Women to Eat More Low-Glycemic Foods
What are the leading causes of death in women in the United States?
Heart disease and cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), these two diseases were the leading causes of death in women in 2014, which is the latest year for which they have complete data.
What’s one way you can reduce risk of both of these diseases, as well as the 7th leading cause of death—diabetes?
Eat more foods that are low on the glycemic index.
You may have thought the glycemic index was only for people with diabetes, but a number of scientific studies have suggested that it could be beneficial for all women. Here’s why.
What is the Glycemic Index?
The glycemic index (GI) is a system that measures the blood glucose (or blood sugar)-raising potential of foods. Those that can raise it significantly have a higher rating on the index, while those that raise it less noticeably have a lower number.
A professor of nutrition at the University of Toronto named David Jenkins created the glycemic index in 1981 to help people with diabetes. These people have higher blood sugar levels than normal, which can lead to serious health problems like heart disease, stroke, nerve damage, kidney disease, vision problems, and more.
In his research on food and blood sugar levels, Jenkins found some surprising things—mainly, that foods like white bread caused blood sugar levels to spike higher than ice cream did! Obviously, there was something about these foods that were dangerous for diabetes patients.
As he continued his studies, he realized that foods contain different types carbohydrates—nutrients that supply energy to the body. Some of the carbohydrates (or carbs) broke down quickly into glucose (sugar) in the body, and some took longer to do so.
Those that broke down more quickly resulted in higher blood sugar spikes after a meal—dangerous for diabetic patients, and unhealthy for people without diabetes, too. So the professor created an index to help diabetes patients choose foods that would break down more slowly, and thus help them keep their blood sugar levels stabilized.
How We Gain Energy from Food
Carbohydrates are an important source of energy for the body. The digestive system converts them into glucose, otherwise known as blood sugar, which the body then uses for energy in the cells, tissues, and organs. Extra glucose is stored in the liver and muscles for later use.
We need carbohydrates for a healthy life, but our modern-day diet involves a lot of what is called “simple carbohydrates” that break down quickly. This is great if we need fast energy, but when we eat too many of these types of foods, the body can have a hard time keeping up with processing the glucose, leaving too much in the blood. Over time, this can lead to type 2 diabetes.
According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), in 2015, 30.3 million Americans, or 9.4 percent of the population, had diabetes, with 1.5 million more diagnosed every year. This is an astounding increase from the year 2000, when only 12.05 million people had the disease, according to the CDC. Diabetes is currently the 7th leading cause of death among women and men.
The Connection Between High GI Foods and Health Problems
Studies have connected high-GI diets to a higher risk of health problems, even in people who don’t have diabetes. That’s because having a high blood sugar level damages the body in several ways. Here are some examples:
- Reduces levels of nitric oxide in the blood, increasing risk of high blood pressure and narrowing blood vessels.
- Damages nerves in the hands and feet, as well as in the stomach.
- Damages small blood vessels in the retina, causing vision problems.
- Creates “sugary blood,” which is thicker and stickier than normal blood (imagine a sugary beverage)—this type of blood damages blood vessels in the kidneys, eyes, and heart.
- Overtaxes the kidneys—they have to work overtime trying to filter out that extra glucose. Eventually, they don’t function as well as they used to.
- Affects the brain—that sugary blood damages blood vessels in the brain, too, which can create memory problems and may even increase risk for dementia.
- Dries out the skin. High blood glucose levels sap the body of fluid, which shows up in dry, cracked, and itchy skin.
Having too much sugar in the blood is just plain bad for you. Over a long period of time, it can increase a woman’s risk of all these problems and more, including the leading cause of death—heart disease. Keeping blood sugar levels steady, however, can create significant health benefits.
4 Ways Controlling Blood Sugar Benefits Women
Studies on the glycemic index have shown that adhering to a diet of foods with lower ratings may create the following benefits for women.
1. Lower risk of heart disease.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death in women, and we all know that eating a healthy diet can help us avoid it. But in the past, we’ve mostly been focused on lowering fat. Recent studies, though, have suggested that may have been a mistake, as some fats are actually good for us.
Could it be that we’d be smarter to focus on carbohydrates? One large study of 75,000 women suggests we might be.
Researchers recruited women aged 38 to 63 who had not been diagnosed with diabetes or any cardiovascular disease. They followed them for 10 years, and calculated the average glycemic load of each one. They found that women who consumed a diet with more foods high on the glycemic index were more likely to suffer from heart disease than those who ate more foods with low GIs. Researchers concluded that a diet with a high glycemic load increased the risk of coronary heart disease, independent of any other risk factors.
Other studies have suggested that eating more foods with low GIs could improve cholesterol levels, which could also decrease risk of heart disease.
2. Reduce risk of type 2 diabetes.
This one makes sense, as the glycemic index diet was created for diabetic patients in the first place. But even if you don’t have diabetes, it may be wise to eat low-GI foods to help prevent it. As mentioned above, more and more people are being diagnosed with this serious disease every year, and many of you reading this article are already at risk.
Ask yourself—are you…
- Overweight or obese?
- Inactive (need to exercise more)?
- Suffering from high blood pressure and/or high cholesterol?
- Black, Hispanic, American Indian, or Asian-American (these races are at higher risk)?
- Suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)?
- Forty years or older?
All of these factors increase your risk of type 2 diabetes. If anyone in your family has it, you are even more vulnerable. Fortunately, studies show that diets with lower glycemic loads were associated with lower rates of diabetes.
One trial followed over 65,000 women for 6 years. Those who ate more high-GI foods had a 47 percent increased risk of developing diabetes, compared to those who ate more low-GI foods.
3. Lower risk of breast cancer.
Studies on glycemic index and breast cancer have been inconsistent, but there is some evidence that eating low-GI foods may help reduce risk. In a 2015 study on 1,000 women with breast cancer and 1,074 matched controls aged 35 to 69, researchers found that high carbohydrate diets were associated with an increased risk of breast cancer among premenopausal Mexican women.
An earlier 2008 study found similar results, with “rapidly absorbed carbohydrates” (foods with a high GI) being associated with postmenopausal breast cancer risk among overweight women. And in 2004, researchers reported that a high glycemic load increased risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women with low levels of activity.
These studies suggest that particularly if you’re overweight and getting little exercise, you may be wise to choose more low-GI foods.
4. May help you lose weight.
You may have heard that eating fewer carbohydrates could help you lose weight. Studies are mixed, but there is some evidence that choosing carbohydrates that break down more slowly in your system can help you feel fuller, longer, and thereby increase your resistance to overeating.
A 2012 study of overweight or obese people found that low- or moderate-carbohydrate diets and low-fat diets were equally effective at reducing body weight and waist circumference. Lowering the GI of conventional diets has also proven to be more effective at helping moms reduce postpartum body weight.
Other studies have shown no effect on weight when eating low-glycemic foods, so we still don’t have all the answers, but we have enough evidence to make it worth a try if you want to shed a few stubborn pounds. Going low-glycemic may be just what you need to do to get you over the hump.
How to Choose Low-Glycemic Foods
If you’re interested in the low-glycemic index diet, what do you do?
It’s easy, really. You can simply refer to the glycemic index, which is available on a number of websites across the Internet. But you can also understand that most foods that have high numbers are not really good for you anyway. They include highly processed foods and sugary items:
- Highly-processed foods made of white flower, including white bread and baked goods
- Candy, cookies, donuts, and other sweet treats
- White pasta and white rice
- White bagels
- Potato chips
- Sugary cereals
- White potatoes
To choose a low glycemic diet, add more of the following to your daily diet. Combining low-GI foods with high-GI foods can also help you avoid blood sugar spikes, and adding fiber helps slow food breakdown in your system:
- Wholegrain bread, pasta, rice, cereals, and crackers
- Sweet potatoes rather than white potatoes
- Fiber-packed veggies
- Bran flakes (instead of corn flakes)
- Thin-crust pizza loaded with veggies (rather than thick crust)
- Nuts and seeds
- Whole fruits (with the skin)
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Martin Lajous, et al., “Carbohydrate intake, glycemic index, glycemic load, and risk of postmenopausal breast cancer in a prospective study of French women,” American Society for Clinical Nutrition, May 2008; 87(5):1384-1391, http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/87/5/1384.full.
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