While many of us may not be suffering from a serious blood sugar disease like diabetes, understanding that certain foods or methods of eating may have an effect on our blood sugar can form part of optimising appetite control, weight management and energy.
What happens to us when our blood sugar is not in ‘balance’?
Blood sugar regulation is a complicated balancing act that the body does quite well in most cases. We can, however, give it a really good helping hand through good diet. When we don’t get enough of the nutrients we need or eat in the right way, this is when little cracks in the equilibrium may occur and we can experience symptoms of blood sugar fluctuations. If this is experienced regularly, it can – over time – create imbalance in other sometimes seemingly unrelated areas of health including our weight, hormone balance and response to stress.
Blood sugar problems, mood and weight?
Gentle ‘ups and downs’ of blood sugar are normal but if we subject our bodies to extreme blood sugar fluctuations on a regular basis it can cause us to feel over-stimulated, anxious, sleep poorly and affect our energy. This cycle can also affect our weight because it causes our body to release stress hormones known as adrenaline and cortisol. Research has shown that imbalances in these hormones as well as the hormones insulin and glucose can cause us to gain weight (in the form of abdominal fat) around the middle. This ‘yo-yo’ blood sugar pattern can also affect your food choices and appetite. Research has shown that blood sugar imbalance can make us feel more hungry, more often and can cause us to choose ‘high sugar’ or ‘high fat’ foods. Therefore supporting healthy blood glucose levels is a fundamental aspect of any sustainable, healthy weight loss programme.
Extreme changes in blood sugar levels can also affect our mental health. Symptoms include irritability, anxiety, hyperactivity followed by slumps in mood.
Why does the food we eat make a difference?
When we eat foods containing sugars, the pancreas responds by releasing insulin to push the blood sugar into the cells. If we eat foods higher in fast releasing sugars, insulin will be used to remove that sugar quickly because it’s not safe for us to continue experiencing high blood sugar. However, sometimes this process can cause a sudden ‘high’ in blood sugar levels followed by a more dramatic drop or ‘low’. Symptoms of low blood sugar may include not being able to go for more than 1-2 hours without food, not experiencing fullness from meals (being more prone to snacking after meals) and experiencing dizziness, nausea, fatigue and mood swings when feeling hungry. Another sign of blood sugar fluctuations may be sugar cravings or a ‘sweet tooth’. We can moderate this process by eating foods that support this process better.
What can we do then to help limit and manage any fluctuations?
Be your own sugar-detective – high sugar foods are not always obvious. Here are just some of the hidden sugars you may be eating daily.
White Flour products:
These are often both nutrient poor and release glucose quickly into the blood stream. Avoid all white flour carbohydrates such as white bread or pasta. Switch to brown rice, quinoa, oat or buckwheat. Ideally stick to a fist-sized amount of carbohydrates and have generous servings (ie half your plate) of vegetables and salad and proteins like meat, fish, eggs, beans and legumes. Avoid white potatoes and switch to sweet potatoes instead. You can also use vegetables as a starchy carbohydrate replacement. For example, a raw carrot and beetroot salad instead of brown rice.
Getting the right ratio of fruit and vegetables in your diet is also important. Try to stick to 2 pieces of fruit per day to minimize fructose (fruit sugar) and choose fruit lower in fructose such as pears, apples, plums and any berries. If you do suffer from blood sugar fluctuations you may wish to avoid bananas, mango and pineapple. Dates have become enormously popular with health food blog recipes but they are very sweet, so you only need a few (not 10 or 20)! A good trick to slow down the release of sugar is to combine fruit with nuts and seeds so you might eat 1 apple alongside 4 almonds and a small handful of pumpkins seeds. All vegetables are great but be careful to either moderate your intake of starchy vegetables such as parsnips and pumpkin and preferably eat them with plenty of protein and healthy fats (see point no 2). Generally try to avoid fruit juice, as the fruit sugar will be released more quickly than when eating whole fruit because fruit juice lacks the fibre.
If you want to sweeten a hot drink, try a little maple syrup, natural stevia root powder or coconut sugar. Honey is OK if local or manuka (some bees are fed sugar to make commercial honey so avoid these where you can). Be vigilant about checking snack food labels for glucose syrup, dextrose syrup and high fructose corn syrups, as these types of sugars will cause blood sugar levels to soar. We recommend avoiding sweeteners, as even these have been show to affect blood sugar levels as the sweet taste still signals insulin production in the body.
Watch out also for sugary drinks and alcohol which often contain quite a lot of sugar too.
Eat protein and healthy fats with every meal: All meals should include protein (e.g chicken) and healthy fats (e.g avocado), as these food groups take much longer to break down in the stomach and provides a slow and steady source of energy – imagine a dripping tap of sugar rather than a tap turned on full blast.
Managing your stress levels: When our adrenal glands produce stress hormones such as cortisol, our liver also releases stored glucose called glycogen. In more primitive times, this was so we would have the energy to fight or run away from danger. However our daily ‘stresses’ are more desk bound than mammoth based which means that the released glucose is now circulating in the blood stream and more likely to be converted into unwanted fat in the body. Simple tips to improve this include getting enough rest, eating well and cutting down on caffeine containing drinks. Supplementing your diet with magnesium (pictured above by Wild Nutrition) and adaptogenic herbs like ashwagandha as well as practicing calming exercise such as yoga or Pilates can be very supportive too.
Supplement with Chromium. (Pictured above by Wild Nutrition) This mineral is required for normal blood glucose concentrations and the maintenance and achievement of normal body weight. Research has shown that chromium works by supporting insulin sensitivity by optimizing the receptor sites on the cell wall. Back to our analogy, this is basically all about helping to get our ship with sugar cargo get into the harbor by the aid of the lighthouse and lighthouse keeper. Chromium may also be really helpful taken alongside a healthy diet for weight management.
Eat breakfast: research has shown that those who eat a good solid breakfast each day are less likely to experience blood sugar fluctuations throughout the day. Aim for a balance of food groups rather than just a plain piece of toast or cereal. Try a bowl of wholegrain muesli with full fat milk or full fat yoghurt with nuts, seeds and berries or sliced pear on top OR wholegrain (or rye) brown toast with scrambled eggs, half an avocado and a green smoothie.
Get your ‘Z’Ss – Research has shown that getting enough sleep can improve blood glucose levels and how effectively our body uses insulin. Practice winding down earlier in the evening and aim form 8 hours sleep, preferably between 10.30pm-6.30am. If you find it a challenge to fall asleep try chamomile herbal tea or a valerian based natural sleep aid.
For press interviews or content from Nutritional Therapist and author Henrietta Norton or for information on WILD NUTRITION food-state products contact Claire Norrish PR.