The low-glycemic diet (for vegans)

When I became chronically stressed a few years ago, I quickly looked at my diet to search for an answer. In the past, diet has always been able to help me overcome my health issues, from headaches to acne. Although chronic stress obviously needs to be solved by removing the source of stress, food can play an important role in aiding the body during stressful times. I have already written about the health benefits of magnesium and general diet tips when stressed, but today I want to turn the focus on the low-glycemic diet.

No carbs?

When I started experiencing stress symptoms, I started removing high sugar foods from my diet. It is well-known that sugar can increase stress. I sound like a broken record when I say that your adrenals produce a hormone called cortisol when you are stressed. Long-term, elevated levels of cortisol can lead to an array of health issues. What does this have to do with sugar? Well, eating simple sugars raises your blood sugar levels. Besides being a stress hormone, cortisol also lowers your blood sugar levels. So, when you eat sugar your body will pump even more cortisol through your body, which will leave you feeling anxious and worried. Cutting out sugary foods (including pasta, white rice, and sugary fruits) is thus very beneficial when stressed.

No fat?

With this knowledge in mind, I started eating a low-carb, high-fat vegan diet. Of course, a vegan high-fat diet will still be higher in carbs than a proper paleo diet. But I swapped the fruit for nuts, legumes, and hummus. At first, this diet made me feel more relaxed and grounded. However, it wasn’t long until I started feeling anxious again. The reason for this is again hormonal. When your body doesn’t get enough carbs, it instead needs to burn fat and protein into glucose for energy. This process is called gluconeogenesis and cortisol again plays a pivotal role in this. When you are not stressed, your body should be able to handle the rise in cortisol (depending on your genetics). But when you are chronically stressed, the extra cortisol is not going to do you any favours.

A happy middle ground

The low-glycemic diet offers a happy middle ground. A low-glycemic diet focuses on eating carbohydrates that do not spike blood sugar and keep you full longer. Examples of low-glycemic foods would be legumes, whole grains, and fresh vegetables. The diet doesn’t spike your blood sugar yet doesn’t require the body to perform gluconeogenesis either. Bottom line, your cortisol levels won’t rise from your diet and your stress symptoms can decrease as a result. A low-glycemic diet also reduces inflammation. This is helpful during stressful times, as cortisol increases inflammation.

Low-glycemic index vs. load

There are two ways to measure the glycemic content of a food: the load and the index. The glycemic load (GL) is simply a ranking of the number of carbohydrates in a serving of food. Anything under GL 10 is considered low-glycemic and anything over GL 20 is considered high-glycemic. The glycemic index (GI) designates the speed with which the carbohydrates are digested and how quick they spike the blood sugar.

The glycemic index is a better indicator of what to eat, whereas the glycemic load tells you how much to eat of a certain food. A food might have a high GI, such as watermelon. But a serving of watermelon has a low GL because a single serving of watermelon contains little simple sugars. Sticking with both GI and GL foods is, of course, the most thorough option. This overview of common foods shows both the glycemic load and index, so it is a great way to see how these two measures can vary greatly. When in doubt though, stick to the glycemic load as a measure of the glycemic content of a food.

Some example meals

So, what do you eat on a low-glycemic diet? It is all pretty straightforward. Avoid processed foods and cereals, as they will always have both a high GI and GL. Avoid large portions of fruit as well, as again they will have both a high GI and GL. Some good low-glycemic meals options can be found below. Keep in mind these options are all vegan, but most animal products will automatically have low GI and GL.

  • Breakfast: oats with almond milk and some berries, tofu scramble with veggies or a green smoothie with a minimum amount of fruit. Beware that highly processed foods (such as juices and smoothies) will always have a higher GI. So, skip smoothies altogether if you want to adhere to the diet strictly.
  • Lunch: veggie salads or hearty soup
  • Dinner: Bean stews and curries with some whole grain rice or quinoa would be great options. The main thing to remember is that the meals should be as unprocessed as possible (without resorting to an all raw veggie diet). They should also always contain loads of fiber, as well as some protein and healthy fats.

Eating a low-glycemic diet can be helpful for a variety of health issues. It certainly can help with keeping a cool head during stressful times. It is easy to maintain and offers great variety for different preferences (vegan, paleo, gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free etc.). There is no need to get religious about this. Just eat whole foods and stay away from obvious sugar spikers, such as large fruit meals or pasta. With this in mind, eating low-glycemic should be easy and fun, while offering an array of health benefits.

*Please keep in mind that I am not a doctor or nutritionist, so please consult an appropriate professional before making any changes to your diet or supplement routine. 

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