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Understanding the glycemic index

Along with identifying the amount of carbohydrate in a meal, the glycemic index (GI) is an important dietary strategy used to manage blood glucose levels (BGLs), and the overall health of people living with diabetes. These two concepts are key, as all carbohydrate in food breaks down into glucose within approximately two hours of digestion.

Glucose metabolism

Carbohydrate is a macronutrient found in foods such as rice, bread, quinoa, pasta, cereals, fruit, starchy vegetables, legumes/pulses, milk, yoghurt and custard. It is also found in more processed, nutrient poor foods such as cakes, biscuits, chocolate, chips, lollies and sugar sweetened beverages. When we eat foods containing carbohydrate, they are digested and broken down into smaller sugars called glucose, fructose and galactose.

Glucose is immediately absorbed across the stomach lining into our bloodstream and fructose and galactose are converted to glucose before being absorbed into the blood stream. The rate at which glucose enters the blood stream from the food depends on a range of factors – this rate is the GI. Insulin is responsible for transporting this glucose from the blood stream into the trillions of cells in your body to be used for energy production.

The GI

As previously mentioned, the GI is used to rank carbohydrate containing foods according to their rate of digestion and therefore effect on BGLs after eating. Low GI foods are slowly digested and absorbed and produce small fluctuations in blood glucose and insulin levels.

In comparison, high GI foods are rapidly digested and absorbed, producing a more pronounced fluctuation in blood glucose levels.


Historically, carbohydrate foods were referred to as simple or complex, suggesting that ‘simple’ carbohydrate foods are digested more quickly compared to more ‘complex’ carbohydrates. However, the introduction of the GI illustrated the complexity of this topic and made the words simple and complex terms of the past.

It is also commonly believed that low fibre foods have a high GI and in comparison, high fibre foods have a low GI. This is not always the case. It is not the amount of fibre or carbohydrate that determines the GI of a food.

Factors influencing the GI  

Some of the factors influencing the GI include:

  • The type of starch (amylose versus amylopectin) found in the food – amylose breaks down slower into glucose therefore foods with a lower amylose content will have a higher GI (e.g. Jasmine rice).
  • The type of sugar – the disaccharides (two simple sugars joined together) fructose and lactose will breakdown more slowly compared to glucose, this is why milk, yoghurt and most fruits have a low GI.
  • The physical state of the food – highly processed foods often have a high GI because the processing makes the starches and the sugars more easily digested. This is why instant oats have a higher GI than traditional rolled oats.
  • The fat and protein content of the food or whole meal – remember, we eat foods in combination (not isolation). If a meal has a high fat or protein content the digestion of the whole meal, including the carbohydrate content, will be delayed. This is why pizza and chocolate have a low GI. Did we mention that low GI doesn’t always mean healthy!
  • The acidity of the food – adding acid (e.g. lemon or vinegar) to a meal will lower the GI.


The amount is still key

Although the GI is important, the amount of carbohydrate eaten is still key. Enjoying a low GI carbohydrate food in a large portion size will still produce a high blood glucose response. As a general rule, most people should allocate just one quarter of their plate to low GI carbohydrate foods. Bulk up your meal with non-starchy vegetables and enjoy a small amount of a quality protein source (think eggs, chicken, tuna and salmon) for muscle maintenance and a sustained appetite.

Health benefits of more low GI foods

Switching your staples to low GI options is beneficial for your overall health and wellbeing. In the short-term, these foods will help to control your appetite, stabilise your energy levels, optimise your concentration levels and reduce the blood glucose response to a meal.

This will reduce the insulin spikes (where relevant) and improve insulin sensitivity – great for BGL and weight management. In the long term, these foods will help you manage a healthy weight, reduce levels of unhealthy blood fats, and help to prevent diabetes related complications.

Read the original article

Click here to read the original article. Published in Diabetes SA Living Magazine – July 2016, page 15.

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