Original title: Don’t focus only on glycaemic index: Experts

The low-GI counterparts of popular foods – from bread to chocolate cake – are now a regular sight on supermarket shelves.

This is good news for Singapore’s 400,000 diabetics, many of whom rely on such foods to help keep their blood sugar levels in check.

But experts caution that although the glycaemic index can be a very useful tool, someone who focuses only on a food item’s GI value could still end up making unhealthy meal choices. They say it is necessary to assess the overall nutritional value of a food item, rather than just zoom in on its GI.

For example, chocolate may be low-GI, but it is not as nutritious as other foods with a higher GI, said said Ms Ong Li Jiuen, a principal dietitian with Changi General Hospital's Dietetic and Food Services.

Another example is fried rice, noted Ms Kala Adaikan, who is a senior principal dietitian at the Singapore General Hospital's dietetics department.

“Fried rice would have a lower GI (than white rice) because of its fat content, which slows the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream,” she said. “However, fried rice is a lot more energy-dense – also due to its fat content.”

In other words, you would be eating a lot more calories, and that could contribute to obesity.

Ms Adaikan said that things get more complicated when meals consisting of many different ingredients – including carbohydrates, fats and proteins – are consumed at the same time.

“In addition, the processing method, cooking method and cooking time will also alter the GI,” she said.

The glycaemic index, which uses a scale from 0 to 100, is a measure of how food affects a person’s blood sugar levels. High-GI foods such as white rice, which has a GI value of between 70 and 100, cause rapid spikes in a person’s blood sugar level.

But low-GI alternatives are “slow burning” and cause blood sugar levels to rise more gradually, which is why they are considered healthier.

At supermarket chain FairPrice, sales of low-GI products have grown by about 20 per cent since last year. It attributed this to a greater awareness of such foods among customers and a wider range of low-GI options.

Ms Gene Tan, who runs specialised store The Diabetic Shop, noted that it was a different picture just a few years ago. “When I first opened the shop back in 2011, no one wanted to talk about diabetes or being diabetic,” she recalled.

These days, supermarket chains approach her to help stock their shelves with diabetic-friendly products, she said.

Ms Esther Bong, a nurse educator at Touch Diabetes Support, said that she has noticed more low-GI options in supermarkets, especially with staple foods and soft drinks.

However, some of these are high in carbohydrates per serving, which may cause blood sugar spikes.

What then is the ideal diet, if low- GI is not a panacea?

Ms Adaikan stressed the importance of understanding one’s own dietary needs, rather than following food labels or the latest diet fads.

“They give customers the impression that to achieve good glycaemic control, one should eat that particular food and that the products are essential to their well-being.”

“The challenge may lie more with diabetics making good and informed choices in what they purchase and how they prepare their meals at home,” Ms Bong added.

Eating healthy with diabetes

Apart from swopping out white rice for brown rice, or regular pasta for the wholewheat variety, how can you lower the glycaemic index (GI) of the foods you take? Here are some tips from dietitians.

SGH, CGH dietitians on low GMI diets