Understanding Blood Sugar and Sugar’s Effect on the Body
When I was a child, I remember eating sugar and knowing it probably wasn’t very good for my teeth like my dentist told me, but I NEVER once thought about how it might not be good for my BODY! It wasn’t until well into my college years that it dawned on me that sugar might not be a good thing to be consuming. It wasn’t until my first class when studying nutrition that I realized the impact of what sugar did in the body. My jaw hit the floor as I learned about what exactly happens when sugar is consumed and how the body compensates for such high concentrations of sugar.
My grandmother lived to be 99, and I was constantly asking her questions about her diet and lifestyle over the century that she lived. She was a farmer’s wife, and her answers were simple and straight forward. She ate real food that she grew in her garden each year. She made her own bread, drank raw milk, and didn’t eat very much, if any, refined or processed foods. One thing I learned in my research on this topic was that ‘having steady blood sugar levels’ is the one thing that every person who lives over 100 (centurion) has in common. Balanced blood sugar is associated with physical and emotional health, as well as, and of course, longevity.
With so many contradictory messages about nutrition, it is hard to make informed decisions about what is best for your health. So many products are advertised as “low-fat” or “non-fat,” but we know that fat is essential to a balanced, healthy diet. My favorite example of contradictory messages is that we are taught dairy is supposed to be good for our bones, but did you know countries that consume the most dairy products have the most cases of osteoporosis?
By now it is very main stream that sugar in large quantities is bad for us. Our country has tried to modify sugar by making artificial sweeteners and diet soda to avoid sugar. Unfortunately we are learning now that these ‘sugar-free alternatives aren’t any better for the body, and in many cases are much worse for the body than sugar itself!
Many of us experience weight loss issues, mood swings, fatigue, and uncontrollable cravings. But did you know this can be simply due to imbalanced blood sugar levels?
What is blood sugar?
Blood sugar is defined as just that- the sugar in your blood, or amount of glucose in your blood. Glucose is basically sugar, on a molecular level, and it provides energy for all of the body’s cells. To put it simply, sugar is a form of energy, and in moderation, it is beneficial, and even necessary, to our bodies.
Is sugar the only food that affects blood sugar levels?
Over-consumption of sugar is definitely a culprit; however it is important to know that simple and refined carbohydrates, like white flour, white rice, pasta, and potatoes, are treated like sugar in the body, thus contributing to blood sugar levels and imbalances. Sugar and refined carbohydrates are a major part of many people’s diets, even though we might not know it! A granola bar or box of crackers might seem like a good snack option- but be sure to always read your labels. Sugar is added to a lot of foods and packaged items, and the same goes for white flour and other simple carbs.
How does our body process sugar?
Sugar and refined carbohydrates are absorbed in the small intestine first, and the liver produces hormones like cortisol and catecholamines to release sugar into the blood stream, while hormones like insulin moderate and control blood sugar levels. Over-consumption of these foods, and other high sugar foods like soda or candy, will spike your blood sugar levels, forcing a surge of insulin to convert blood sugar into energy. Our bodies aren’t made to consistently handle sugar overloads, and often times this leads to an overproduction of insulin. Of course we know what goes up, must come down. Because the human body doesn’t have the compensatory mechanism to deal with this much sugar in the blood stream, often the body turns into a temporary state of ‘insulin resistance’ because there is too much insulin in the blood stream, and the cells are unable to house anymore glucose. This sharp spike and drop in blood sugar is what creates the roller coaster of cravings, mood swings, and the constant need for yet even… more… sugar…
Why is it important to balance blood sugar?
Blood sugar imbalances can seriously affect our quality of life. It contributes to feelings of irritability, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, brain fog, unpredictable moods, difficulty losing weight, excess fat in certain parts of the body (like the gut), intense hunger or thirst, variety of cravings (sugar, alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes), depression, lack of motivation, sleep issues, fatigue, and feeling weak or sluggish. All the above are symptoms of insulin resistance, which is a contributing cause of type 2 diabetes. When there is excess sugar in the blood stream, it is often stored as fat, which is why people with blood sugar imbalances may have trouble losing weight. Blood sugar imbalances can also contribute to damaging your arteries and increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, gout, high blood pressure, and polycystic ovary syndrome.
Tips for blood sugar balance
Most of the time, there are changes we can make to our diet and lifestyle to help balance our blood sugar. Try incorporating some of these tips below into your daily life!
1. Read your labels: The first part of controlling your blood sugar is being aware of what you are putting in your body! Mentioned above is the fact that many foods and packaged items have added sugar and other things you might not want to be putting into your body. Knowledge is power! And when in doubt, just eat real food.
2. Balanced breakfast: Balance is important with every meal, but if that feels overwhelming, focus on breakfast because it will set the pace for stabilizing blood sugar throughout the day. Think 20-30% protein, 40-50% carbs, and 30% fat. Eating protein within one hour of waking provides amino acids as fuel for the body, and a complex carb will help slow the release of sugar into the bloodstream. A healthy fat will support energy levels and keeping you full. Breakfast should be the largest meal of your day.
3. Pick your carbs wisely: We talked about simple carbs being treated like sugar, but complex carbs, such as brown rice, quinoa, beans, sweet potatoes and butternut squash, are high in fiber and break down more slowly, leaving you satisfied longer and keeping your energy levels balanced. However, there is even some controversy about complex carbs, specifically whole grains, in relation to inflammation. Root vegetables may be the best option for you. Think sweet potatoes, carrots, beets, etc.
4. Fiber: As mentioned above, fibrous foods make your feel fuller longer and help combat sugar cravings. Beans, legumes, hemp seeds, chia seeds, flax seeds, oats, nuts, and seeds are good sources of fiber.
5. Essential Fatty Acids: EFA’s help with insulin resistance and the body’s sensitive to insulin. Some of the items mentioned above, such as chia, flax, hemp, and nuts contain EFA’s. Try adding these to your diet, as well as cold water, fatty fish, such as wild-caught salmon.
6. Low Glycemic Foods: These foods break down more slowly in the intestine, which means sugar is released more slowly into the bloodstream. Go for veggies, legumes, nuts, seeds, berries, green apples, sweet potatoes, and whole grains.
7. Protein-rich snacks: Protein aids in pulling the sugar from the bloodstream and into your cells to be used for energy. A small snack between meals will help moderate blood sugar and keep you feeling full. Try keeping some hummus on hand or having a lentil salad.
8. Stress Management: Long-term stress contributes to adrenal fatigue, which affects blood sugar. Eliminate mental and emotional stressors, and add activities to your life that help relieve stress. Remember- sleep can be an important part of this!
Things to avoid:
Even with all the positive changes and additions, blood sugar will not balance unless we kick old habits. Here are some major contributors to blood sugar imbalance:
1. High sugar content: soda, candy, cookies, cake, juice, sports drinks, etc. This also includes eating a large amount of fruit alone in one sitting.
2. Refined /simple carbohydrates: white bread, bagels, white rice, pasta, etc.
3. Artificial sweeteners: Packed with synthetic chemicals, artificial sweeteners actually have the same effect on our blood sugar as sugar does. Time to kick that diet soda habit…
4. Gluten: Some grains are controversial, but it is safe to say that gluten-containing grains are definitely a no-go. A slice of wheat bread actually spikes your blood sugar MORE than table sugar.
5. Stimulants: Alcohol, caffeine, nicotine.
Best Blood Sugar Regulation Snacks:
1. Brown rice tortilla, cracker or slice of gf bread with nut butter
2. Piece of fruit (green apple and berries are best) with a handful of nuts
3. ½ avocado with a few multi-grain (gluten-free) crackers
4. Hummus or guacamole and veggie crudets
5. A protein bar or shake with high quality ingredients
6. ½ a sweet potato with ghee or grass-fed butter
7. Sprinkle cinnamon on everything! It is a great blood sugar regulator