What Is Glycemic Load?

By Laura High  @YourCareE
February 24, 2023
What Is Glycemic Load?

What is glycemic load? Many alternatives have been developed to evaluate how foods affect blood sugar. Glycemic load might be a better way for diabetics to monitor blood sugar levels.

The human diet consists of three macronutrients: protein, fats, and carbohydrates. For most people eating a Standard American Diet, carbohydrates make up the bulk of what’s consumed, and that’s as it should be. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends that 45 to 65 percent of your diet should be carbs.


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Carbs and blood sugar

In recent years, carbohydrates have gotten a bad rap as a culprit in the obesity epidemic and the concurrent and related spike in cases of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. People who have type 2 diabetes are cautioned against consuming too many and the wrong kind of carbs. But carbohydrates are an essential part of your diet because they are the primary source of energy for cells in your brain and muscles. Without them, your body will turn to protein from your muscles for fuel.

There are basically three kinds of carbs — starch, fiber, and sugar — and not all are created equal. Most carbohydrates occur naturally in plant-based foods, for example vegetables and grains, but carbs are also added to many processed foods in the form of sugar or starch.

What’s the best way to decide which ones are OK to eat?

What are simple carbs?

Sometimes carbs are classified as either simple or complex. Simple carbohydrates are sugars (for example, fructose, and glucose) and are so called because they have simple chemical structures that your body can quickly turn into fuel, leading to a rapid rise in blood sugar when you eat them.

Simple carbs are found in:

  • Candy
  • Sugar
  • Syrup
  • Baked goods
  • Breakfast cereals
  • Soft drinks

What are complex carbs?

As their name implies, complex carbohydrates have a more complex chemical structure and take longer to digest. This leads to a slower, sustained rise in blood sugar. Complex carbs are commonly found in whole plant foods, including:

  • Fruit
  • Vegetables
  • Beans, lentils, and peas
  • Whole grains and foods made from them
  • Starchy vegetables, such as potatoes and winter squash

But simply dividing carbs into simple or complex doesn’t really provide enough information about which ones are better or how they will affect your blood sugar.

The role of low glycemic index foods

To address this shortcoming, the glycemic index (GI) was developed. GI places food on a spectrum of low (1 to 55), medium (56 to 69), and high (70 to 100). A food is ranked according to how much it raises your blood sugar level compared with pure sugar (GI of 100). Foods with a low GI are digested slowly, causing a gradual and sustained rise in blood sugar, and are therefore favorable over high GI foods, especially for people with type 2 diabetes.

GI, however, doesn’t tell you how much “digestible carbohydrate” — the food’s carbohydrate content minus the fiber — is in a particular food. This is important because, when you eat, your body responds to both the type of carb (where it falls on the GI) and the amount of carbohydrate consumed.

According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a food’s GI ranking is calculated based on a serving that contains 50 grams of carbohydrate minus the fiber. That makes sense for a serving of white rice (GI of 64), which contains 53 grams of carbs per cup. But beets, which also have a GI of 64, only contain 13 grams of fiber per cup.

You’d have to eat a whopping 4 cups of beets to get 50 grams of fiber, and that’s unlikely.

What is glycemic load? 

Another way to evaluate the quality of a carbohydrate is its glycemic load, also known as GL. The formula used to determine glycemic load corrects for the shortcomings of the GI system, combining portion size and GI into one number. The carbohydrate content of an actual serving of food is multiplied by that food’s GI. That number is then divided by 100. 

To figure out the glycemic load for a cup of beets, you’d use the following formula: 13 × 64 = 832 ÷ 100 = a GL of 8.3. 

A glycemic load ranking of more than 20 is considered high, between 11 and 19 is moderate, and 10 or less is considered low. So, although beets have a medium GI ranking, they have a low glycemic load ranking, which is more reflective of the amount you’re actually likely to eat. 

Although glycemic load values may provide a more realistic idea about how a particular food will affect your blood sugar, it assumes that the GI of any given food is known. In reality, that information may not be readily available.

One resource that may help is the international GI database, a searchable database that ranks thousands of foods based on their GI and GL. 

Why glycemic load is important

The food you eat impacts your blood sugar levels. With the exception of recovering from sustained, strenuous physical activity (for example a really hard workout), a big, rapid spike in blood sugar is a shock to your system that results in a drop, potentially leaving you feeling weak and drained of physical and mental energy. If you have diabetes, it’s especially important to keep your blood sugars level, which means you need to avoid foods that cause these spikes. 

There are a variety of tools available to help you monitor how your food may affect your blood sugar. But if you find you don’t have the time or aren’t motivated to track the numbers, eating a healthy diet rich in fresh (not processed) food will go a long way toward maintaining your energy and your health. 


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February 24, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA