Do you get cravings for sugary items? Do you feel like you are addicted to bread? Do you get tired or irritable in the afternoon, maybe reaching for a snack or caffeine? If you answered yes to any of these questions and are interested in making changes to take control of your hunger and energy level, read on. Blood sugar balance may explain why you answered yes to these questions, and I will give you some tips to help regulate it.
I think that the foundational principle of blood sugar balance is the driving force behind any healthy way of eating. I am not alone. All of the fad diets that easily come to my mind because of their popularity ultimately take different approaches to balancing blood sugar. For example, Atkins, South Beach, Whole30, and the Ketogenic diet all take slightly different approaches to a way of eating that will moderate blood sugar better than the typical american diet. I am not a fan of dieting because it doesn’t work for the majority of people in the long run. However, if you better understand the principles behind their success, perhaps you can incorporate those foundations within your lifestyle, which will lead to better long term health as well as more consistent energy throughout your day. Ultimately, regulating blood sugar will help you regulate hunger. You will feel more energetic. You may lose weight. Your overall outlook on life may improve.
So what do I mean by blood sugar balance and the blood sugar roller coaster?
When you consume carbohydrates in any form, your body converts them into glucose and it enters the blood stream. The hormone insulin then acts to move the glucose from the blood stream into your cells where it can be used for energy. This is great, you want to have glucose available at a steady rate throughout the day, you just do not want it to get too high or too low.
Different foods are converted to glucose at different rates. If we eat a large amount of foods that quickly convert to glucose, blood sugar levels rise very quickly. This signals our body to produce insulin. However, if the blood sugar levels get too high, we produce too much insulin, which removes more glucose from the blood than our ideal range. This causes the blood sugar level to drop below the optimum level. When this happens, we are likely to feel irritable, possibly unfocused, likely tired, and probably very, very hungry. Because our blood sugar is now below the optimum range, our bodies want to get it back up and quickly, and we are likely to crave another quick energy source, something that will quickly boost our blood sugar up again. When we eat these foods, we feel great!! But it doesn’t last. Those foods are going to again cause blood sugar to rise too quickly, back up above the optimal range, again increasing insulin levels that will send blood sugar again below optimum. Thus putting us on a roller coaster cycle.
I will not go too far into the long-term effects of the roller coaster, but it is important to cover briefly, and it may tie this concept into other things you have heard or possibly what you are feeling. Over time, if we consistently eat foods that cause a quick spike in blood sugar, and therefore consistent spikes in insulin over time, we stop being able to regulate as efficiently. Our bodies stop responding as well to the insulin to move glucose out of our blood and into our cells where we want it, and therefore we spend even more time outside of the optimal blood sugar range. This is called insulin resistance and ultimately this is the path that will lead to diabetes.
How do you stop the roller coaster and maintain your blood sugar levels in the optimum range?
Eat whole foods
Generally, natural and whole foods that have not been processed are safe bets to avoid the blood sugar roller coaster. Consume lots of water, vegetables, herbs, and healthy fats (here is another post on healthy fats, and another). And if you wish, regularly consume whole grains (and another post), legumes, nuts & seeds, whole fat dairy, whole fresh fruit, meat, fish, and eggs. (Links included to prior posts covering some of these food types more in depth in terms of good choices to make). If you are eating lots of these healthy whole foods but still feel that you are getting a blood sugar spike (again, that could be irritability, tiredness, extreme hunger vs. a growing, building hunger), then consider looking at dairy and fruit consumption. Both have higher levels of natural sugars and you can try cutting back to see how you feel.
Combine foods to slow the conversion into glucose
Simple example: if you want an apple for a snack, put one or two tablespoons of nut butter on it. This will help to slow down the conversion of the simple sugar in the apple into glucose. I refer to this in snack form because if you have an apple with or after a meal, so long as you have fat and protein in the meal, the fruit is unlikely to create a blood sugar spike. This is a good natural example, but even if you do choose to have more refined carbohydrates such as bread, dip it in some olive oil or top with avocado.
Cut down or avoid refined carbohydrates
Foods with added sugar and any type of flour should be limited or avoided. (Yes, this means any refined flour, including whole wheat. Check out this post for a more in depth explanation about the processing of grains to create flour and a better explanation of why even whole wheat flour may cause a blood sugar spike).
The standard american diet is predominately processed and refined carbohydrates. Therefore, making a switch can be difficult, especially because sugar and other refined carbohydrates are truly addicting. If this post rings true to you and you want to make changes for you and your family, make it your goal to cut back but be kind with yourself. Take the time to learn and change slowly in the right direction. Diets do not work because they restrict too much and then people often end up adding everything back in and more, but slow and steady lifestyle change can last forever. And it doesn’t mean you have to give up bread or brownies forever, just focus on limiting and saving certain things for only special occasions.
Wondering where to start? Breakfast is vitally important because if you start off on the roller coaster, it is difficult to stop for the rest of the day. Focus on getting protein and fat with breakfast, not just easy carbs, and also sufficient calories, to set you up for success.
Let me know if this helps explain some of your behaviors and feelings. And if it inspires change, let me know one single thing you will implement in the next week.