What are carbohydrates?
Carbohydrates are natural substances that contain oxygen, hydrogen and carbon. We need carbohydrates to fuel our brains and give our bodies energy.
We get carbohydrates from:
- starchy foods like bread, pasta, rice, cereals and potato
- fruit and vegetables
- dairy products like milk and yoghurt
- table sugar and honey
- foods with added sugar, like ice-cream, biscuits, soft drinks, puddings, slices and cakes.
What is the glycaemic index (GI)?
Our bodies get energy from carbohydrates by turning them into simple sugars – mainly glucose. This glucose is released into our bloodstreams for our bodies to use as energy.
The glycaemic index (GI) measures how quickly our bodies get energy from carbohydrates. It does this by measuring how quickly different carbohydrates break down into glucose and raise blood glucose levels. Different carbohydrates break down into sugars and go into our bloodstream at different rates.
The glycaemic index (GI) ranks foods on a scale from 0-100.
Healthy eating for children means eating a wide variety of fresh foods from the 5 food groups. GI is an extra thing you can consider when you’re choosing healthy food for your child. Low-GI foods can have benefits when they’re part of a healthy diet overall.
Low GI-foods have a ranking of 0-55. They provide steady, long-lasting energy. This is because the carbohydrates in these foods break down into glucose slowly, causing a steady and long-lasting rise and fall in blood glucose levels.
If your child has plenty of foods from the 5 healthy food groups each day, they can get additional benefits if some of those healthy foods are also lower-GI foods:
- If your child eats more low-GI foods than high-GI foods throughout the day, it’ll help your child concentrate better and keep going for longer.
- Lower-GI foods might keep your child feeling fuller for longer. This can help your child stay at a healthy weight because your child is less likely to snack on unhealthy foods.
- If your child does endurance sports like long-distance running, low-GI foods help to keep up their energy levels.
Here are examples of low-GI foods:
- barley, bran, dense wholegrain bread, paratha, Basmati rice, Doongara rice, black rice, natural muesli, pasta, pearl couscous, quinoa and traditional oats
- Carisma potatoes, fruits (except melons) and vegetables (except most potatoes)
- legumes like lentils, beans or chickpeas
- milk and yoghurt.
When you’re looking for low-GI foods, it’s a good idea to look for the Glycemic Index Foundation’s GI symbol. Foods with the symbol must be low GI and meet strict standards for kilojoules, saturated fat, sodium and, where appropriate, fibre and calcium.
Intermediate-GI foods have a ranking of 56-69. These foods cause a moderate rise and fall in blood glucose. This is because the carbohydrates in these foods break down into glucose at a moderate rate.
Here are examples of intermediate-GI foods:
- Arborio rice, long grain rice, rice noodles, buckwheat noodles, pita bread, wholemeal bread and some breakfast cereals including Weet-Bix
- soft drink
- sweet biscuits and cakes.
High-GI foods have a ranking of 70-100. These foods cause a large and fast rise and fall in blood glucose. This is because the carbohydrates in these foods break down into glucose quickly.
Here are examples of high-GI foods:
- hot chips/French fries, lollies, most crackers and savoury snacks
- jasmine rice, sticky rice, congee, white bread, naan bread and most highly processed breakfast cereals including flaked corn and puffed rice
- most potatoes (unless boiled and cooled)
- sports drinks and energy drinks.
Different varieties and brands of food have different GI values. It’s best to look for the Glycemic Index Foundation’s GI symbol or speak to a dietitian for more information.
Using GI to plan healthy family eating
The first step to healthy family eating is choosing plenty of fresh food from the 5 healthy food groups. On top of this, you can also think about GI when you’re planning what your family will eat.
Getting a balance of high and low GI
It’s OK to eat some high-GI foods. But it’s important also to include a low-GI food for your family at each meal and snack.
High-GI foods and low-GI foods combine in your child’s body for a medium GI – they balance each other out.
When you’re choosing which foods to offer your family, it’s important to think about not just the GI rating, but how much of these foods you’re eating – that is, portion size. This is sometimes called the glycaemic load (GL).
A big serving of a high-GI food like potatoes or lollies will have a big effect on your child’s blood glucose levels. So if your child has small serves of high-GI foods and larger, more frequent serves of low-GI foods, this can balance things out.
When to eat your carbohydrates
As a general guide, it’s good for your child to have 3 regular meals and some nutritious snacks each day. This way, your child gets an even spread of energy from carbohydrates across the day.
This keeps your child’s blood glucose levels and energy levels steady. This is essential for adults and children with diabetes, but it’s also important for people who want to keep up good general health.
It’s always best to consider a food’s nutritional value before looking at its GI value. Low-GI foods are generally healthier than high-GI foods, but not always. For example, chocolate has a low GI, and watermelon has a high GI. But watermelon is healthier because it’s packed with nutrients, whereas chocolate is high in saturated fat.
Making the change to lower-GI foods
Switching to lower-GI foods is easy. And there’s a good chance your family won’t notice the difference.
If you swap at least half your carbohydrate food choices for lower-GI options, your whole family can reap the benefits.
For example, you can swap:
- white, naan or wholemeal bread for multigrain breads, paratha, pita bread or genuine sourdough bread
- processed breakfast cereals like porridge with quick oats, Rice Bubbles or Corn Flakes for unrefined breakfast cereals like porridge with rolled oats, All Bran, Special K or Weet-Bix
- plain biscuits and crackers for biscuits made with dried fruit and wholegrains
- cakes and muffins for cakes and muffins made with fruit, oats and wholegrains
- white potatoes for low-GI potatoes like Carisma, sweet potato, corn, pasta or legumes
- most rices for Basmati, Doongara or black rice.
Some foods with a lot of fibre can slow the breakdown of carbohydrates, giving it a lower GI. By choosing high-fibre foods like green leafy vegetables and wholegrain foods, you can get your family eating more low-GI foods.
Encouraging your child to eat low-GI foods
Here are ways to encourage your child to eat and enjoy low-GI foods:
- Set a good example and show your child that you enjoy eating many different low-GI foods.
- Offer low-GI foods at meals and encourage your child to taste them. It’s OK if it takes a while for your child to enjoy some new foods and flavours.
- Keep low-GI foods as ‘everyday’ foods and high-GI options as ‘sometimes’ foods.
GI and diabetes
If your child has type-1 diabetes or impaired glucose tolerance, your child’s blood glucose levels might rise above a normal level more quickly than other people’s.
Eating low-GI foods can help children manage their blood glucose levels. And eating moderate amounts of low-GI foods regularly over the day will help your child keep consistent blood glucose levels.
If your child has a medical condition like diabetes, it’s important to talk with your GP, dietitian or specialist before making any changes to your child’s eating.
Eating too much added sugar can contribute to weight gain, and being overweight increases the risk of developing type-2 diabetes.