Blood sugar balance 101
Most of us know that the foods we choose to eat have a big impact on our health, but how can you know what’s right for you? Our responses to food are all unique and a one-size-fits-all solution won’t work for everybody as it is important that we need understand our individual physiology.
Understanding why peaks and dips matter
Blood sugar levels rise and fall after every meal or snack we eat that contains carbohydrates (breads/fruit/veggies/juice/cookies etc). Our body breaks down these carbohydrates into simple sugar molecules, including glucose. Glucose is absorbed by the gut into our bloodstream, which results in increased blood sugar levels.
When this happens, Insulin, one of the main hormones involved in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is secreted by the pancreas in response to elevated blood sugar levels. This facilitates glucose from the bloodstream into cells to be used for energy and storage (it acts like a key that ‘unlocks’ the door to your body’s cells).
The key differences between a ‘healthy’ and ‘unhealthy’ blood glucose response are:
How high your blood sugar goes after you eat
How long it stays high
Whether your blood sugar goes too low before stabilizing again
A healthy blood sugar response is one where blood sugar levels don’t spike and can come down again fairly quickly after eating. An ‘unhealthy’ blood sugar response is characterized by a rapid spike in blood sugar followed by a dip below baseline levels, known as a blood sugar crash.
How can I tell if my blood sugar is out of whack?
Balancing blood sugar is critical for many aspects of your health.
In the short-term, a blood sugar crash can leave us feeling tired, irritable, and hungry.
If you notice a blood sugar crash, usually an hour or two after eating a meal high in carbohydrates, it is because your blood glucose rises too high too fast and your insulin overcompensates, causing your blood sugar to drop rapidly.
You may feel sweaty, shaky, light-headed, or experience ‘brain fog’.
Another sign is strong carbohydrate cravings, especially in the afternoon or evening — it’s usually a sign that you haven’t properly fueled your body throughout the day.
Repeated often enough, blood sugar peaks and dips can result in a cascade of inflammatory responses, insulin resistance, and weight gain, which are associated with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Remember, glucose levels are never a flat line and are influenced by many factors, including:
The type and quantity of food you consume and when you consume it.
The amount and the intensity of physical activity you engage in.
Any medications you may be taking.
Medical conditions and chronic illnesses you may have.
How old you are.
The amount of stress you’re under at the time.
Issues like dehydration.
Menstrual periods and where you are in your monthly cycle.
The amount and frequency of alcohol intake.
So, is following a low-carb diet the way to go?
A common debate in the world of nutrition is between those who believe that low-carbohydrate diets are key to balancing blood sugar, reversing insulin resistance, and losing weight and those who favor other approaches.
If only it were that easy. For men and menopausal women, lowering carb consumption may be beneficial, but often not for women of reproductive age, because eating too low carb puts stress on the adrenals and can lower sex hormone production.
When people aren’t eating enough carbs, they’re irritable, anxious, not sleeping well, and often wired but tired.
Carb tolerance is different for everyone - some people need a little more, some people need a little less. Some people do better with eating more of their carbs earlier in the day, some people do better with eating more low-carb throughout the day and including some slow carbs at dinner.
Eating the right foods for your body is key
The reality is that different people can have very different results, even if they have the same diet. There is no one-size-fits-all approach here: what works for one person’s body may not work for yours.
A good rule of thumb is to make sure every meal and snack is well balanced (with protein, fiber, carbohydrates, and healthy fats) to maintain stable blood sugar levels.
Most people aren't eating enough protein, especially for breakfast, which sets the tone for the day. Fiber in the form of fruits, veggies, and whole grains will slow the rate the carbs get absorbed into your bloodstream. And finally, eating enough fat to keep you satisfied is very important.