What does low-glycemic mean and why does it matter?

The recipes in The Malibu Beach Recovery Diet Cookbook are all low-glycemic. For anyone who isn’t an expert in nutrition science, that might be an unfamiliar term. But it’s useful to understand, especially in the context of recovery.

When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into simple sugars like glucose. The sugar is released into your bloodstream, causing a boost in your blood sugar levels.

However, not all carbs are created equal. Specially, some carbs break down faster than others. For example, your body turns white bread into sugar much faster than it does a bowl of brown rice. This causes your blood sugar to spike, rather than rise gently. 

The glycemic index is a way of measuring how fast carbs are turned into sugar. Carbs are rated from 0-100. The higher the rating, the more quickly the food breaks down. Anything below 55 is considered low-glycemic, while foods that are rated above 70 are high-glycemic. Harvard University Medical School published a helpful list of 100 common foods that scores white bread at 75. Brown rice rates a 50.

Why does this matter to people in recovery? Because foods that cause your blood sugar to spike also cause your brain to release a lot of dopamine at once. 

Dopamine is the neurotransmitter in your brain that makes you feel good when you take a drink or a drug. It’s also released when you eat, as the sugar in your bloodstream flows into your brain. If you eat foods that score low on the glycemic index, the dopamine release gives you a gentle sense of well-being. But if you eat foods that are high-glycemic, you’ll experience something more like a sugar high, followed by a crash.

If you’re in recovery, you'll know that high-and-crash cycle is basically the same one you experienced using drugs and alcohol. It hits the same parts of your brain, in the same way. It makes you feel good, and then worse. 

This can be really triggering, and can make your brain crave something stronger, like drugs and alcohol.

By eating low-glycemic foods, you can avoid this whole problem. Your blood sugar levels stay more stable, and your brain releases dopamine at a slower rate. You feel satisfied, but you don’t get the sugar high and crash that can cause drug cravings. It’s a way of making your diet work to support your recovery. 

Joan Borsten