Foods with a low Glycaemic Index
- Baked beans
- Kidney beans
- Fruit loaf
- Tinned fruit, natural juice
Foods with a medium Glycaemic Index
- Cous Cous
- Basmati rice
- Muesli bar
- White/wholemeal bread
- Bran flakes
- Pita bread
Foods with a high Glycaemic Index
- Sports drinks
- BagelsBananas (soft)
- Jelly babies
- Jaffa cakes
- Corn flakes
- Bread rolls
Sir Steven Redgrave is used to eating what he wants - copiously. This makes his new commitment to a Gi lifestyle all the more surpirising, finds Elizabeth Grice
As any human rowing machine will tell you, there is no such thing as eating in moderation. It is a concept as alien as throwing £50 notes out of a train window. For athletes competing in this endurance sport, life is one glorious food mountain, high, wide, and replenished several times a day. The licence to scoff is written in syrup.
Steve Redgrave's description of the body fuel he needed to get him through four training sessions a day in the run-up to his fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal is Bunterish in its amplitude, the drooling dream of any pudding-loving member of the human race who has ever grappled with a weight problem.
To keep up the phenomenal energy levels required for a typical day ploughing the water, Sir Steve Redgrave (as he was soon to become) needed to consume 6,000 calories, starting with a hefty four Weetabix for breakfast. Between the first two sessions on the Thames, he would down a bowl of porridge, liberally dressed with sugar, or scrambled eggs on toast and a large jug of fruit juice.
Refuelling between the afternoon sessions usually meant soup, followed by a large pasta dish, pudding and another flagon of juice. Back home to toast or malted loaf - even if on the way he may have stopped for petrol and picked up a chocolate bar, a packet of wine gums and a bag of doughnuts to keep his blood sugar levels up.
For the main meal of the day, spaghetti bolognese would ideally be followed by rice pudding or apple pie and ice cream. A bowl of cereal at bedtime and he would know he had done his bit for England. Arise, if possible, Sir Steve.
Redgrave in retirement is a rather different proposition. His relatively quiet, land-locked life of charity fund-raising, motivational talks and promoting London's bid for the 2012 Olympics is powered by 3,000 calories - which he may or may not bother to count. After 24 years of unremitting discipline, he is doing pretty much as he likes. But oh, the irony of freedom.
"The thing I used to hate about my life was the routine," he says. "Doing the same boring thing, day in, day out. You dream of the day when you can escape from all that. The sad thing now is that routine is what I miss most. In some ways, it would be nice to get up at 6.30am and be on the river at 7.30am knowing exactly what you have got to do.
"When we were rowing as a pair, Matthew [Pinsent] never wore a watch. If he was asked the time, he would say: 'A man with no job doesn't need a watch.'
"We knew our routines. Training out there every day, we only realised it was the weekend because there were more people on the water than there were during the week."
Perhaps it is a product of all those years of regulation, the necessary physical and mental rigour of an elite, competitive sport, or perhaps it is just an anarchic streak, but Redgrave today sounds like a man who makes his own rules. He doesn't like being told what to do. In a Chinese restaurant, for instance, 95 per cent of the dishes he orders will be exactly what he and his family ordered the last time.
They may even be almost identical to the £16.95 recommended Happiness Menu, but the Redgraves would rather starve than go for Happiness on a set menu. Why? "Because we're not going to be told what we're going to have, we want to choose," he says. "We may be creatures of habit, but we don't like to be."
In common with most of his fellow Britons, he doesn't like being nannied. The very idea, then, that this man - a bit bolshie and with no apparent need to punish himself any more - should be throwing his London marathon-trimmed 108kg behind a new "diet" is frankly preposterous. Yet here he is, extolling the virtues of the latest eating habit to uphold the health of the nation - Gi.
For those who have been too busy grazing to notice, low-Gi (it stands for Glycaemic index) is the condition to which all Atkins-exhausted, cabbage soup-sated groupies are being told they can painlessly aspire. Redgrave, who has never been on a slimming programme in his life, is a dedicated practitioner. Oarsmen, says Redgrave, are all disciples of the seafood diet - "see food and eat it".
"Everyone's under the misapprehension that a diet has got to be horrible-tasting and horrible-looking and a hardship," he says. "This one isn't so much a diet as a way of life. It's tasty and nice and it makes sense. The problem with most diets is that they're very boring. You have to be extremely well disciplined to stick to them and you tend to have very few options.
"With this, you've got flexibility, you needn't be hungry and you can eat something different every day of your life. I've found that if you can change your habits to good habits, then it doesn't have to be a sacrifice."
For Redgrave, however, there was another, more dramatic incentive. In 1996, just before he started training for the Sydney Olympics, he was diagnosed with diabetes and the diabetic diet he adopted then was close to what is known as the Gi diet today. The Glycaemic index is a medical term for measuring the speed at which carbohydrates (carbs) raise the levels of sugar in the blood.
Foods are ranked from one to 100, with glucose at 100. Low Gi carbs are digested slowly and cause a gentle rise in the hormone insulin, keeping you feeling full and helping the body to burn fat. Carbohydrates that are digested quickly, causing sugar in the blood to rise sharply, have a high Gi score and have to be treated cautiously.
Because the control of blood sugar levels is the key to managing diabetes, a low Gi diet is vital for people with type 2 diabetes - and a happy spin-off is that it helps weight loss, too.
When Britain's biggest supermarket chain, Tesco, started to mark its foods according to whether they are high, medium or low Gi, Redgrave cheered. "Knowing what you are eating is the biggest issue for me," he says. "If I know whether a food has a high, medium or low Gi, I can judge how much insulin I need. If it's low, I won't need as much insulin as if it's a high Gi. This makes it easier for me to take my own decisions."
Redgrave was 35 when he was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and he thought it was the end of his career. "I wasn't devastated," he says. "It was more: 'What am I going to do?' There was no Plan B. There was no real medical expertise on diabetes and rowing. If you're suffering from the one condition, you don't normally carry on with the other." Only the blind optimism of his diabetologist, Ian Gallen, kept him going.
Redgrave thinks the fact that he went on to win another gold against such desperate odds may have minimised the dangers of diabetes in the public mind. "Steve Redgrave was successful before diabetes and successful after - so diabetes couldn't be that bad," he says.
"You could still achieve your dreams. Yet it is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition. The biggest cause of loss of eyesight in the world is diabetes. It causes more amputations than anything else, including landmines. Forty per cent of heart cases are diabetics. The complications are huge. But if you can get your blood sugar levels under control, these are not an issue."
Attempting to do that by adhering to a Gi-type diet while training for the Olympics was like trying to square the circle and it very nearly scuppered his chances of competing at all. The problem was that Redgrave the rowing athlete needed 6,000 calories a day to keep his energy levels up while training - but Redgrave the diabetic needed a diet that provided only 2,000. If he had been a librarian, there wouldn't have been a crisis.
The inevitable happened. By March 1999, a seriously depleted Redgrave - already suffering from colitis - became ill, despairing and exhausted. In tests on the ergo (rowing machine), he would suddenly stop as if a light switch had been thrown. He had lost a stone of his muscle bulk and his strength was ebbing away. He was eating healthily, but, deprived of his usual mountainous fare, he couldn't function.
"The problem was trying to get enough energy inside me without it dangerously affecting my sugar levels," he says. "Intensive exercise brings blood sugar levels down considerably anyway. So it was a constant juggling act with my metabolism.
"We looked at my body like a Formula One car. You can have this fantastic engine, but if you are putting in a low-grade fuel, it is not going to perform. My engine, my body, had performed as a non-diabetic very well. So we decided to give it the same fuel as before and find another way to control the diabetes. We treated it as a refuelling issue."
So it was back to the four Weetabix for breakfast, the sugar-frosted cereals, the jam doughnuts - but with much lower quantities of injected insulin.
It worked, but as Redgrave admitted in his autobiography: "I was able to stay at the top of the sport, albeit hanging on by my fingernails by the time of the Sydney final."
When his rowing career ended, Redgrave was able to revert to a recognisably healthy regimen, based on Gi foods, and that has been his pattern ever since. "I started thinking about my own mortality," he says.
"I knew that being a diabetic meant that I would be slower to recover from illnesses, but I wanted to live to a healthy old age by controlling my diabetes. It was like starting all over again. I am not eating anything different from when I was an athlete - but I am just eating less."
Over the winter, his 6ft 5in frame was carrying nearly 18 stone. To run the marathon (which he did in four hours 21 minutes), he wanted to lose about a stone. But he did it through exercise and adherence to the broad principles of Gi, not conventional dieting.
"Gi helps people to work towards something realistic, rather than set impossible goals," he says. "It's better to have a level of expectation people can reach than a faddy diet that's going to last five minutes."
I suspect that part of the appeal of the flexible Gi plan is that Redgrave can occasionally fall from grace without it being a mortal sin. He is not ashamed to admit he has never eaten one of the low-Gi staples, bulgur wheat. At functions, he still can't turn down food that is put in front of him - "it's just not in my make up to decline" - but he just piles on less of it. Sweet-toothed and hungry, he can't open a packet of biscuits in the middle of the afternoon without finishing them - old habits die hard - but he will make amends with a simple pasta supper.
And what did Sir Steve have for breakfast this morning? Porridge without sugar? All Bran, perhaps? A low-fat yogurt decorated with five strawberries? "Sugar Puffs," he says with a grin.
Neither of us needs to consult the Gi rating to know that this is a Redgrave blip - but one that will probably be forgiven.