Blood sugar is literally that: the sugar in your blood. Your blood contains all kinds of important nutrients and other substances that you need to be healthy. Including sugar. Blood is the liquid transporter that distributes these compounds to all parts of your body.
Sugar (a type of carbohydrate) is one of your body’s main fuels. The other two fuels are fat and protein. I call it “fuel” because your cells literally burn it to do work. It’s this “biochemical” burning of fuel in all of our cells that is your metabolism.
So, how does blood sugar get too high? What diet and lifestyle upgrades can you do to manage it?
In this post, I’ll talk a bit about blood sugar balance, insulin resistance, and diabetes. Then I’ll give you 11 proven strategies that can help you manage your blood sugar level naturally. The good news is that blood sugar levels are responsive to diet and lifestyle upgrades.
You have power to help manage your blood sugar with these key strategies!
NOTE: There are several medical, diet, and lifestyle approaches to managing medical conditions. None of these are a substitute for professional medical advice. If you have any of these conditions, or are taking medications for it, please make sure you’re being monitored regularly.
Blood sugar balance
Your body strives to be in balance. It exerts a lot of energy to make sure that your different systems are all running smoothly – your digestive system, nervous system, cardiovascular (heart & blood vessels) system, etc. And this includes your blood too. Your body wants and tries to balance your blood pressure, blood volume, blood sugar, etc.
There is a normal and healthy range of sugar levels in your blood. The problem doesn’t start until these levels are out of range, i.e. too high for too long.
Here’s how your body strives to maintain optimal levels of blood sugar:
- You eat a food containing carbohydrates (i.e. sugar and/or starch).
- Your digestive system breaks down the sugar and/or starch into smaller sugars like glucose. These smaller sugars are then absorbed into your bloodstream. This naturally raises your blood sugar level. This allows sugar to be transported to your different organs so they’ll have fuel/energy.
- When your blood sugar gets too high, the pancreas (a gland in your digestive system) sends out insulin. Insulin is a hormone that tells your muscles, liver, brain, nerves and, ultimately, fat cells to grab that sugar from the blood. These cells use the sugar they need for energy now, and store the rest for later.
- The muscles and liver store sugar (e.g. glucose) temporarily. When you need it, your muscles and liver give up their sugar into the blood. This happens, for example, when you haven’t eaten for a few hours (i.e. in between meals or while you sleep), or when you’re exercising, or when you’re under stress.
As you can see, the amount of sugar in your blood is constantly in flux. Up when we eat; down when the insulin tells the cells to pull it out of the blood. Then up again when we eat again and/or start using some of the stored glucose. And down again as it’s used (burned) or stored.
This is all good and healthy! This is normal. This is what we aim for.
Blood sugar imbalance (insulin resistance & type-2 diabetes)
The problem is when the balance is thrown off. When the blood sugar ups and downs become unhealthy. When the “ups” get too high, and they stay there for too long.
Too much blood sugar can cause heart rate issues (arrhythmia), and in extreme cases, even seizures. Too high blood sugar for too long can eventually cause long-term damage to organs and limbs. This includes eye damage, kidney damage and nerve damage.
A healthy blood sugar balance is key.
A common way your blood sugar gets too high is when you eat a lot of sugar in a short period of time. Especially with foods that have a lot of concentrated added sugar, like soft drinks/pop, energy drinks, desserts, candy etc. Your digestive system’s job is to absorb as much sugar as it can from the food you eat. This is an evolutionary thing and enabled up to survive as a species.
We inherited this from thousands of years ago when food was scarce and the next meal was unknown. Our bodies adapted to crave, absorb, and store as much sugar as possible in one sitting, because it didn’t know how long it would be until the next meal. It’s a survival mechanism.
Over the years, if we frequently eat a lot of sugar and have increased body fat, our bodies can change. The muscle and liver cells start ignoring insulin’s call to absorb sugar from the blood. They become “insulin resistant.” When this happens, the sugar stays in the blood for a lot longer than normal. Blood sugar levels become too high for too long.
But this doesn’t stop the pancreas from releasing even more insulin. When this happens you have the paradox of high blood sugar and high insulin.
Some symptoms of insulin resistance are:
- Fatigue after meals;
- Sugar cravings that don’t go away, even if sweets are eaten;
- Increased thirst;
- Frequent urination.
Too-high levels of both blood sugar and insulin is not a healthy place to be in. In fact, it can be dangerous and lead to pre-diabetes, and eventually type 2 diabetes.
Type 2 diabetes is a long-term (a.k.a. “chronic”) condition of too high blood sugar, insulin resistance, and inflammation. It increases the risk of many serious conditions like heart disease, kidney disease, blindness, and amputation. Not to mention the number of medications often prescribed to try to keep blood sugar balanced.
DIABETES TYPE 1 vs. TYPE 2: Type 1 diabetes is when your immune system actually destroys the insulin-producing cells in your pancreas. It’s an “autoimmune” condition where your pancreas literally cannot make insulin. This is often diagnosed early in life (childhood/adolescence) and requires lifelong insulin injections. Less than 10% of people with diabetes have type 1 diabetes; everyone else has type 2.
These are the connections between blood sugar balance, insulin resistance, diabetes, and their symptoms and risks.
The good news about blood sugar imbalance
The good news is that improved blood sugar balance can be achieved with proper nutrition and lifestyle! What you eat, how you eat it, how much exercise and sleep you get, and how you handle stress are all factors that you can improve.
CAUTION: If you’re already diagnosed, and/or taking medications or insulin injections, make sure you speak with your doctor and/or pharmacist before making any changes. They may also want to monitor your blood sugar levels a bit closer when you start making diet and lifestyle upgrades.
11 tips for keeping blood sugar balanced
Here are my 11 best tips to help you better balance your blood sugar with diet and lifestyle upgrades.
1 – Stop eating and drinking things that are mostly sugar
First things first. If a food or drink is mostly sugar, please try to reduce, or even cut it out of your diet. I’m talking sweetened beverages (e.g. soda pop, juice, energy drinks, candy, etc.). Many desserts, breakfasts, and even seemingly-healthy choices like some granola bars often have a lot of sugar.
Significantly reducing these will give you the most bang for your buck when it comes to better blood sugar levels. That’s why it’s my number one recommendation. For some tips, check out my handout Dealing with sugar cravings
2 – Don’t eat too many carbohydrates
Your body digests starches by breaking them down into sugar. By reducing the amount of sugars and starches (carbohydrates) you eat, you can reduce that blood sugar spike that happens right after you eat. This has been shown in many studies.
It’s been said that one of the strongest predictors of blood sugar response is the total amount of carbohydrates in a meal.
Reducing your overall carbohydrate intake can help to reduce your blood sugar levels. This doesn’t mean to go ultra low carb, or keto etc but eating less rice or potato etc at a meal and loading up on Non Starchy Vegetables
3 – Choose “low glycemic” starches
If you’ve already cut out a lot of sugary foods and want to reduce your starch intake, then start by ditching the “high glycemic” (i.e. ones that raise your blood sugar too high) starches.
As you can imagine, researchers have measured how fast and how high blood sugar increases with different foods. Foods that are “high glycemic” quickly raise blood sugar quite high. “Low glycemic” foods raise blood slower and to a smaller extent.
This “glycemic effect” is the result of the components in the food itself. Things like the amount of carbohydrate, the type of carbohydrate (i.e. sugar vs starch), and what other nutrients are in the food (i.e. protein, fibre, etc.) as well. The fibre, fat and protein in a food slows down the digestion and absorption of the carbohydrates, so the blood sugar rise slows down too. This results in a lower “glycemic effect.”
High glycemic foods (i.e. ones to avoid) include sugary foods, as well as starchy foods like white bread, many pastas, and rice. Low glycemic foods include ones that are higher in fibre, fat and protein. Examples are meat, seafood, eggs, legumes, sweet potatoes, and most fruit and non-starchy vegetables.
NOTE: Eating a low glycemic food along with a high glycemic food will help to slow down the blood sugar rise from the higher glycemic food. It’s not just the single food that matters, but the rest of the meal also affects your blood sugar.
Which leads us to…
4 – Eat more fiber
You’ve heard that “fiber makes you regular,” right? It’s so healthy. Most people don’t eat nearly enough. The recommended daily intake of fibre for adults is 25 g for women and 38 g for men per day.
This nutrient is not just for “regularity” and gut health, but also for blood sugar balance too.
It works by mixing with the carbohydrates in your meal, and slowing down the absorption of the sugars from those carbohydrates.
Some of the highest fibre foods include cocoa powder, flaxseeds, & legumes.
Feel free to add a spoon of cocoa powder to your smoothie, sprinkle flaxseeds on your cereal, and/or add some legumes to your soup or salad.
5 – Eat your protein and fibrous vegetables first
Since blood sugar is affected by the amount of carbohydrates you eat, studies have also looked at the order in which you eat different foods.
A few small studies looked at adults with type 2 diabetes. They all had the same meal, but some were asked to eat their protein and fibrous (i.e. non-starchy) vegetables first; while others ate their carbohydrates first. They found that people who ate the protein and vegetables first had better blood sugar control. One of the studies also showed lower levels of post-meal insulin when the carbohydrates were eaten last.
Another study found these blood sugar benefits to be true even in people without type 2 diabetes.
It’s thought that when we eat carbohydrates first, we start digesting them right away. But, if we eat them after our protein and fibrous vegetables, they have a chance to mix in with the rest of the food in your stomach. This can slow down their absorption, which slows down how fast and high our blood sugar gets after we eat.
The effects of changing food order hasn’t been tested in many big studies, but it seems to be a simple and safe habit to get into to help our bodies better regulate blood sugar levels.
Try to eat your protein and fibrous vegetables first, and starches last.
Which of these will help you to better control your blood sugar levels?
In Part 2, we’ll cover blood sugar control tips 6 to 11. Be sure to check back!
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