Good Nutrition For Kids: All About Low-GI Foods

Words by Christine Rocha

You may have seen the phrase “lower-GI” attached to healthy recipes or articles about managing blood sugar levels or diabetes. But unless you’ve taken a particular interest in finding out more, you may not know just how beneficial low-GI foods are for all of us – and especially our kids.

What’s “low-GI” all about?

It starts with carbs: they’re the largest source of energy in our diets and are found in a variety of foods, everything from rice, noodles, pasta, breads, cereals, legumes and starchy vegetables, to high-kilojoule foods like chips, lollies, biscuits, cakes, pastries and soft drinks. Our body turns all carbs into glucose or sugar, which our body uses as fuel – and just like a car runs on petrol, certain major organs, like the brain and liver, use only glucose to function.

Have you heard of “good” carbs and “bad” carbs? It’s true: not all carbs are created equal, and some have better nutritional quality than others. The glycaemic index, or “GI”, is a tool nutritionists use to rank the carbohydrate-quality of foods on a scale of zero to 100. A food is allocated a GI value based on how quickly or slowly it raises blood sugar levels and, like the story of the hare and the tortoise, faster is not always better! Higher-GI foods (like the chips, lollies, biscuits, cakes and soft drinks) are digested very quickly, meaning a rapid rise in blood sugar levels followed by a sharp drop, leaving you feeling hungry soon after you eat. Lower-GI foods (like the bread, cereal and vegies) are digested gradually, giving your body a slow and steady release of energy that keeps you feeling fuller for longer. (This is why lower-GI foods are great for weight management.)

Why is low-GI good for kids?

Smarter kids   Low-GI foods ensure that children are have a constant, steady supply of fuel for cognitive brain function, allowing them to better concentrate.

Healthier kids  High-GI foods put a greater strain on the pancreas than low-GI foods. (The pancreas pumps out insulin, the hormone that open up cells so glucose can enter and be used as fuel.) So for the same amount of carbohydrates eaten, a high-GI diet requires a lot more insulin to be produced by the pancreas than a low-GI diet requires. 

Lower-GI foods can help you get a hold on tantrums and mood swings caused by drops in blood sugar levels

Lower-GI foods can help you get a hold on tantrums and mood swings caused by drops in blood sugar levels

Happier kids High-GI foods, like chocolate, lollies and biscuits, are digested quickly and are responsible for soaring spikes and plummeting drops in blood sugar levels. Opting for low-GI foods means your child’s blood sugar is consistently stable for a longer period of time, helping to head off temper tantrums, mood swings and bad behaviour brought about by hunger.

How can you tell if a food is low GI?

As a general rule, whole and minimally processed foods are great low-GI choices: dairy, fruits and vegetables, beans, legumes and pasta are all good examples. Products that contain whole grains, wholemeal or whole wheat as main ingredients are also safe bets. Exercise portion control when it comes to sugary dairy items, like ice creams and custards, which are considered “sometimes only” foods. Low-GI foods also provide more bang for your buck – quality nutrition coupled with a sustained energy release. The GI-ranking system is a very helpful tool that can help steer you in the right “carbohydrate” direction.

Great low-GI snacks for kids:

  • Yoghurt
  • Popcorn
  • Fruit buns
  • Hot chocolate
  • Peanut butter on grainy toast
  • Carrot sticks and cherry tomatoes with hummus 
  • Wholegrain crackers with cottage or cream cheese spread
  • Berry smoothie (blend frozen or fresh berries with milk)
  • Fruit, especially apples, pears, kiwifruit, grapes, berries, mandarins and stone fruits like peaches, nectarines and plums

For more posts by Christine Rocha, click here.