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insulin response

Q. I was recently advised to avoid white potatoes because they are a “high glycemic index” food. Is the glycemic index a useful tool for diabetics, and can I eat sweet potatoes in place of white?

YES, and YES! Although white potatoes are technically a complex carbohydrate, not all complex carbohydrates behave the way you expect them to. White potatoes, behave more like simple sugars, breaking down quickly into glucose and causing a sharp insulin response.

Learning how to choose complex carbohydrates that release glucose more slowly into the bloodstream is important for overall blood sugar management, and this is where Glycemic Index can be helpful.

The Glycemic Index (“GI”) is a ranking of foods based on their immediate effect on blood sugar levels. The higher the GI of a food the faster the resultant rise in blood sugar after eating it, and therefore, the higher the body’s insulin response tends to be. Conversely, foods that break down slowly, releasing glucose gradually into the blood stream have a low index value.

Selecting foods with lower GI levels promotes normal blood sugar levels, and enables the body to stay in a fat burning mode. For ease of use, you can think of foods as being in three general categories: High, Medium, and Low, and there are many books and websites that categorize and list the glycemic index of foods. The Diabetes Coach Approach Workbook, which can be found at has a section with details on how to use the glycemic index and how different foods are categorized.
Knowing the exact glycemic index of foods is not necessary in order to utilize the “GI” principles, but having a general understanding of GI principles will help you when making food choices. Here are some tips for using the glycemic index to your advantage:

  • Eat lots of non-starchy vegetables and low index legumes.
  • Go easy on starchy vegetables which tend to be higher on the GI Index.
  • Go whole grain & remember that the less processed and rougher the grain or flour, the lower the GI will be. Select bread with at least 2-3 grams of fiber. (Sprouted grain breads are optimal.)Consider all of the nutritional qualities of a food before rejecting or consuming it. For example carrots are higher on the GI index, but they have significant nutritional value and you would need to eat a lot of carrots before they have a detrimental effect on your system. Peanut M&M’s are low on the glycemic index, but are generally not a good choice for maintaining optimal health. When it comes to potatoes, sweet potatoes are high in fiber and nutrients and are a better choice than white potatoes which have a more dramatic effect on blood sugars. Sweet potatoes are a rich source of antioxidants, especially beta-carotene, vitamin A, and potassium. They also contain health promoting phytochemicals, such as quercetin, a powerful anti-inflammatory, and chlorogenic acid, an antioxidant. There are two types of sweet potato: moist (orange fleshed) and dry (yellow fleshed). The moist fleshed are often called Yams, but this is a misnomer as true Yams are a very large root vegetable grown in Africa and Asia and are rarely seen in the Western world.

    The great thing about sweet potatoes is that they are so versatile and can be prepared in a number of ways. Below are some ideas for preparing sweet potatoes. (For any of the recipe ideas you can either remove the skins or keep them on which will increase the amount of fiber.)
    Bake a sweet potato and enjoy it with a small amount of healthy butter alternative and a dash of agave syrup. Cut in wedges for healthy baked sweet potato fries. (Janet’s “My Italian Kitchen” cookbook, has a great recipe for Baked Sweet Potato Fries.)
    Cut up 1-2 sweet potatoes into cubed pieces. Then coat with olive oil, a sprinkle of balsamic vinegar and your choice of seasonings and roast until soft and the outside is caramelized.
    Add sautéed onions and peppers to roasted sweet potato cubes for a healthier version of sweet potato hash browns

  • Add roasted sweet potato cubes to oatmeal
  • Mash sweet potatoes with some cinnamon and vanilla for a creamy alternative to white mashed potatoes
  • I find that sweet potatoes, in moderation, are a satisfying substitute for sugar laden foods, and that including them in my food plan helps to cut back on sugar cravings. So the next time you get a craving for white potatoes, try some sweet potatotes instead, and ENJOY!