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Using the glycemic index to stave off holiday weight gain

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The Science behind Holiday Overeating

During the holiday season, it’s common to indulge in treats and sweets, but have you ever wondered why you can’t resist the office cookie tin or the dessert platter at a party? According to the glycemic index, a measure of how fast carbohydrates are turned into sugar, these high glycemic index foods could be the culprit. Foods with a high glycemic index provide a rush of energy, but they leave you feeling hungry and craving more food within a few hours, setting the vicious cycle of holiday overeating in motion. In this article, we’ll explore how high glycemic index foods make you hungrier and heavier, and how to use the glycemic index to make healthier choices at holiday parties.

Why High Glycemic Index Foods Make You Hungrier and Heavier

Dr. David Ludwig and his colleagues at the New Balance Foundation Obesity Prevention Center at Harvard-affiliated Boston Children’s Hospital have discovered some clues to why people on a high-glycemic index diet find it harder to lose weight and keep it off. In 2012, the team determined that people who had lost 10% to 15% of their body weight burned fewer calories, and so were more likely to gain weight back, if they ate high-glycemic foods instead of low-glycemic foods. In 2013, they found that after people consumed a high glycemic index meal, they were hungrier, had lower blood sugar, and had more activity in the area of the brain that is associated with craving and reward than after they ate a low glycemic index meal containing the same number of calories. In effect, they were more likely to want another high glycemic index snack to boost their blood sugar.

Using the Glycemic Index at Holiday Parties

“A low glycemic diet is pretty easy to follow, since it’s based on natural foods that keep us filled up,” says Dr. Ludwig. Here are some tips to help you avoid high glycemic index minefields at holiday parties:

  • Eat low glycemic index meals before the party to avoid arriving feeling ravenous.
  • Choose nuts, olives, small pieces of cheese, crudités, or fruit from the appetizer tray, and avoid pastries, breads, and crackers.
  • Pass up potatoes, white rice, and dinner rolls at the buffet table, and fill your plate with salad, vegetables, fish, or poultry.
  • Refrain from dipping into the punch bowl. Holiday punches, eggnogs, and glugs are likely to contain sugars, sweetened mixers, or fruit juices, all of which have a high glycemic index. Sparkling water, or a glass of champagne or wine, is a better alternative.
  • If you can’t resist dessert, choose a small portion of something containing chocolate. You’ll be getting a little sugar, but you’ll also benefit from the heart-healthy antioxidants it contains.

Understanding the Glycemic Index and Low Glycemic Eating for Life

Understanding the Glycemic Index

The glycemic index measures how quickly carbohydrates are turned into sugar. Foods with a high glycemic index release sugar into your bloodstream quickly, which can lead to a rush of energy followed by hunger and food cravings within a few hours. On the other hand, low-glycemic foods take longer to digest and release sugar into your bloodstream gradually, which keeps you full for longer and reduces the likelihood of overeating. Foods with a glycemic index rating of 70 or higher are considered high, while those under 55 are low.

Low Glycemic Eating for Life

Dr. David Ludwig recommends a low glycemic index eating plan that emphasizes natural foods with minimal ingredients. The Mediterranean diet is a great example of this, as it centers around whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, nuts, vegetable oils, and fish, with limited amounts of dairy, poultry, red meat, and sweets. Following a low glycemic index eating plan has been shown to reduce the risk of various health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and certain cancers.

Tips for Low-Glycemic Eating

To follow a low glycemic index eating plan, it’s important to choose foods that take longer to digest and release sugar into your bloodstream gradually. Here are a few tips to get started:

  • Choose whole foods that are minimally processed and resemble things found in nature.
  • Emphasize fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and healthy oils.
  • Limit dairy, poultry, red meat, and sweets.
  • Use the glycemic index and glycemic load to make informed food choices.
  • Eat low-glycemic meals before attending events with high-glycemic foods.
  • Opt for low-glycemic appetizers like nuts, olives, cheese, and vegetables.
  • Avoid high-glycemic foods like pastries, bread, crackers, white rice, and potatoes.
  • Be mindful of high-glycemic drinks like fruit juices, punches, and eggnogs.
  • Choose heart-healthy desserts with a small amount of sugar, such as dark chocolate.

By following these tips and choosing low-glycemic foods, you can maintain a healthy eating plan and reduce the risk of various health conditions.

Caroline Buckee

Caroline Flannigan is an epidemiologist. She is an Associate Professor of Epidemiology and is the Associate Director of the Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics.

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