What Does Glycemic Mean? Examples and Importance

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Testing blood glucose to find out how food affects blood sugar.. Mark Hatfield/E+/Getty Images

Definition: adj. Literally, "causing glucose (sugar) in the blood". Blood glucose levels are closely related to the amount and type of carbohydrates consumed. Glycemia is the related noun meaning glucose or sugar in the blood. High-glycemic foods cause a larger rise in blood glucose, which can last for a longer time as well. Low-glycemic foods tend to cause small blood sugar rises that don't last as long.

For diabetics, glycemic control is a primary goal.  Prediabetics and those with metabolic syndrome or insulin resistance also have health improvements if blood sugar is more or less stable, as well as people with reactive hypoglycemia.

Another good reason to keep blood sugar stable is appetite control.  It has been shown that people are hungrier when eating high-glycemic carbohydrate compared to the same amount of carb that is less glycemic.

Obviously, foods with a lot of sugar in them tend to be very glycemic. But people are sometimes surprised to hear that the starches in foods such as potatoes, bread, and grain products are made up of long strings of glucose, so these foods can be as or more glycemic than sugary foods. Also, the more processed a food is, the more glycemic it will be. So, for example, instant oatmeal in the packets is more glycemic than quick-cooking oats, which in turn are more glycemic than steel-cut oats.

The Glycemic Index can give us ideas about which foods will raise blood sugar more, although the index itself has its flaws.  The glycemic load is somewhat of an improvement, but is based on the index.  These measures can give us hints about how much a food will raise blood sugar, but there are a lot of variabilities and I don't think they should be relied on as having anything close to pinpoint accuracy.

Examples of High-Glycemic Foods: Potatoes, parsnips, rice cakes, most commercial cereals, candy, sugar-sweetened drinks, dates, crackers, cookies, ripe bananas, baked goods and other products made with flour.

Examples of Low-Glycemic Foods: Foods high in protein such as meats, eggs, and soy foods, foods high in fats such as nuts, avocados, and oils.  Low-glycemic foods with carbohydrate include beans, barley, steel-cut oats, other grains cooked whole, non-starchy vegetables, grapefruit, and berries.

Pronunciation: gly SEE mik

Alternate Spellings: glycaemic (British)

Common Misspellings: glyceemic

See the Glycemic Index Food Lists to learn more about the glycemic index of various foods.


Leroux, MarcusFoster-Powell, Kaye, Holt, Susanna and Brand-Miller, Janette. "International table of glycemic index and glycemic load values: 2002." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol. 76, No. 1, 5-56, (2002).

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