Unsugarcoated: The high glycemic path to metabolic disease

When people hear mention of the glycemic index, they often think about measuring carbs.

But in my last post, I hope I made it clear that the glycemic index is also about measuring disease risk.

That’s because insulin, produced and excreted from your pancreas, is the all-important hormone for each cell of your body; it is the “key” that opens the gate (on the cell membrane) for glucose to enter.

In addition to causing sugar to enter the cell for energy production, it also stimulates your liver to store glucose (as glycogen).

We know that consuming high glycemic foods spikes your blood sugar, which in turn stimulates insulin secretion.

What’s so bad about these repeated insulin surges?

The repeated insulin surges lead to insulin resistance (insulin stops being effective). What happens to blood sugar in this case? It remains elevated in the bloodstream — a condition known as diabetes.

Insulin resistance, therefore, is the main problem behind metabolic syndrome — a cluster of conditions that increase your risk for many other diseases.

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Metabolic syndrome

In 1998 the World Health Organization defined “metabolic syndrome” as the combination of hypertension, low HDL, high triglycerides, insulin resistance, glucose intolerance or type 2 diabetes, high waist-to-hip ratio, and albumin protein in the urine (microalbuminuria).

Remember that high-glycemic food consumption causes:

  • Increased production of free fatty acids and fat storage (obesity). It is thought that your body changes sugar into 2 to 5 times more fat in the bloodstream than it does starch (starch is a complex carbohydrate that does not surge insulin nor cause obesity)
  • Decreased fat oxidation (i.e. fat does not get used as an energy source)
  • 2 hours after consuming high glycemic foods (e.g. a glazed donut) the nutrients are gone but the insulin surge remains… so you get a drop in your blood sugar, which then triggers hunger even more
  • It is known that high glycemic foods increase the amount of food that you eat

Therefore, high-glycemic food consumption directly promotes metabolic syndrome, obesity and disease.

The high-glycemic foods

The Glycemic Index (GI) gives a number value to foods relative to glucose itself, which is 100 on the GI scale. It ranks food as to how quickly they get absorbed across your intestinal wall and into your blood. As a general rule:

  • Low-GI foods are below 55
  • Moderate-GI foods are 56-70
  • High-GI foods are above 70.

Here are some examples of foods and their GI score:

  • Glucose                     100
  • Mashed potato         87
  • Rice milk                    86
  • Baked potato            85
  • Cornflakes                 81
  • Watermelon              76
  • White bread              71
  • Sucrose                     65
  • White rice                  64
  • Honey                        61
  • Pineapple                  59
  • Muesli cereal            57
  • Sweet corn                54
  • Banana                      51
  • Spaghetti                   42
  • All-bran cereal          42
  • Boiled carrots            39
  • Raw apple                 36
  • Soy milk                     34
  • Kidney beans            28
  • Peanuts                     16
  • Fructose                    15

You will find it interesting to see the GI of many other foods listed on the Harvard Health website.

Note that foods high on the glycemic index (GI) not only produce more sugar in your bloodstream, but they are low in fiber and micronutrients.

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Advantages of a low-glycemic diet

People dieting on a Low-GI diet had many advantages over those on a high-GI diet even though both groups lost the same amount of weight:

  • Low-GI dieters lost more body fat
  • Low-GI dieters lost less muscle
  • Low-GI dieters’ decline in calorie burning was half that of high-GI dieters
  • Low-GI people kept weight off better after calorie restriction was lifted
  • Low GI diet people had better satiety

Furthermore, in a crossover study of two groups of men who spent equal time on a low-glycemic diet as they did a high-glycemic diet, there was equal weight loss, but the low-GI diet period resulted in greater fat loss and lower waist circumference compared to their high-GI diet period.

Now when you add in a high fiber component to the diet, you have even more benefits — and we’ll talk about that in my next article.

Michael Cutler, M.D.


  1. Beck, Nielsen H, Pedersen O, Schwartz S. Effects of Diet on the Cellular Insulin Binding and the Insulin Sensitivity in Young Healthy SubjectsDiabetologia. 1978;15:289-296.
  2. Nutrition Health Review. Fall 85. “Sugar Changes into Fat Faster than Fat”
  3. Allen S. Levine, Catherine M. Kotz, and Blake A. Gosnell. Sugars and Fats: The Neurobiology of Preference — J. Nutr.2003 133:831S-834S.
  4. Yoo, Sunmi, et al. Comparison of Dietary Intakes Associated with Metabolic Syndrome Risk Factors in Young Adults: the Bogalusa Heart StudyAm J Clin Nutr. 2004 Oct;80(4):841-848.
  5. “Bupropion SR in obesity: A randomized double-blind placebo-controlled study.” Gadde KM, et al. — Duke University Medical Center. Presented at the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting, May 18, 1999.
  6. Munro, JF, et al. Comparison of Continuous and Intermittent Anorectic Therapy in ObesityBritish Medical Journal 1:352-354,1968.
  7. Munro JF. “Clinical aspects of the treatment of obesity by drugs: a review” — Int J Obes. 1979;3(2):171?180.
Dr. Michael Cutler

By Dr. Michael Cutler

Dr. Michael Cutler is a graduate of Tulane University School of Medicine and is a board-certified family physician with more than 20 years of experience. He serves as a medical liaison to alternative and traditional practicing physicians. His practice focuses on an integrative solution to health problems. Dr. Cutler is a sought-after speaker and lecturer on experiencing optimum health through natural medicines and founder of the original Easy Health Options™ newsletter — an advisory on natural healing therapies and nutrients. His current practice is San Diego Integrative Medicine, near San Diego, California.