Everything old is new again. The latest buzzword in weight management and nutrition may be “low glycemic,” but Dr. Atkins was on to it many decades ago. With Atkins, it’s easy to know which foods have the lowest glycemic impact.
You’ve probably heard the term “low glycemic” bandied about in the media and in discussions about weight loss. You may have even come across some food products labeled as such. How exactly does glycemic impact relate to the Atkins Nutritional Approach™(ANA™)?
It’s All About Sugar
“Glycemic” simply means “relating to sugar.” The higher the glycemic impact of a food (more about this below), the greater and more rapid its effect on your blood sugar when you eat it—and the more insulin required to return your blood sugar to normal. Since insulin is a fat-storage hormone and since overweight people often already produce too much of it, high blood sugar and high insulin can sabotage your weight-loss efforts. Eating lower glycemic foods is definitely the way to go.
Atkins has always been a low-glycemic approach. Almost 40 years ago, Dr. Atkins stressed the effect of food on blood sugar and insulin levels and explained in great detail why foods with a significant impact on blood sugar—meaning processed carbohydrates—were exactly what you don’t want on your plate, whether you’re concerned with your weight or your health. But how do we measure the glycemic impact of foods containing carbs? And how does that translate into deciding what to eat and what to pass up?
The Glycemic Index…
The first ranking, known as the glycemic index (GI), measured the relative impact of carbohydrate foods on blood sugar. The GI of a particular food is determined by comparing the effect of a 50-gram portion on blood sugar to that of a 50-gram standard such as a glucose solution or white bread1. The higher a food’s GI, the faster and greater its effect on your blood sugar. Although the connection between high-sugar diets and obesity and diabetes has been obvious for some time, recent research has also shown a connection between high-glycemic diets and both cardiovascular disease and cancer2,3,4.
…And Its Limitations
Ironically, just at the time when the public is learning about the GI, this particular approach to measuring the impact of food on your blood sugar is already out of date. Here’s why: The GI does not take into account the portion size you actually eat. Carrots, for example, have a very high GI rating for the standard 50-gram portion, which could comprise 3 cups, or 6 servings, of carrots. But you’d never eat such a large portion of carrots. There are only about 3 or 4 grams of net carbs in a carrot, so assuming you eat one or two servings of carrots at a sitting, the GI alone significantly overestimates this food’s glycemic impact.
Pasta, on the other hand, has a moderate GI rating, but a 50-gram portion of pasta which is about one-third of a cup is hardly a typical portion—in most restaurants you’d be served six times that. In the case of pasta, the “real-life” effect on your blood sugar is significantly underestimated by the GI. Because the GI does not take into consideration portion size, Dr. Atkins didn’t recommend using it as the sole way to determine which foods to eat. The GI simply doesn’t reflect our actual eating habits.
The Glycemic Load
The glycemic load (GL) improves on the measuring process of the GI. Because it does take portion size into account, it gives a more accurate reading. But it is still difficult for consumers to figure out; you need the formula—(the food’s GI multiplied by the number of grams of net or available carbohydrates divided by 100)—plus a scale and a carb gram counter.
The Atkins Glycemic Ranking
Dr. Atkins looked at all the research on the GI and GL and came up with a clear, easy-to-use rating system, which was first published in Atkins for Life in early 2003. He placed common carbohydrate foods into three groups, based on their relative impact on blood sugar and called it the Atkins Glycemic Ranking (AGR). As long as you focus on the foods in the lowest group, eat moderate amounts of foods in the middle group and rarely eat those in the highest group, you will be consuming a low-glycemic diet.
The bottom line: You want to eat low-sugar foods and control your blood sugar and insulin levels. As a practical measure of a food’s impact on your blood sugar, GL is preferable to GI—but using the AGR is the easiest approach for choosing which carbohydrate foods to reintroduce and with what frequency. It’s even easier to simply follow the four phases of the ANA, which starts with carbohydrate foods that have the lowest glycemic impact and gradually reintroduces those with higher impact. Each person individualizes the program to suit his or her tolerance for higher glycemic impact foods.
Glycemic Impact of Atkins Products
Atkins Nutritionals is so committed to informing consumers about the low-glycemic impact of its food products that it has developed a patent-pending clinical method to substantiate the impact and confirm the accuracy of Atkins net carb labeling claims. To learn more, go to The Net Atkins Count.
1. Foster-Powell, K., Holt, S.H., Brand-Miller, J.C., “International Table of Glycemic index and Glycemic Load Values: 2002.” Am Journal of Clinical Nutrition, July, 2002;76(1):5-56.
2. Dickinson, S., Brand-Miller, J., “Glycemic Index, Postprandial Glycemia and Cardiovascular Disease.” Current Opinions in Lipidology, 16 (1), pages 69-75, 2005.
3. Brand-Miller, J.C., “Glycemic Index in Relation to Coronary Disease.” Asia Pacific Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 13(Suppl), page S3, 2004.
4. Michaud, D.S., Fuchs, C.S., Liu, S., et al, “Dietary Glycemic Load, Carbohydrate, Sugar, and Colorectal Cancer Risk in Men and Women.” Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers Prevention, 14(1), pages 138-147, 2005.