Now that I’ve covered how the body maintains blood sugar balance and why it’s important (reminder: without it, you are damaging your body and on a path to type 2 and/or 3 diabetes), it’s time to talk about what you need to do in order to achieve it.
Oh, wait. Before we get to that, I want to give you a couple of statistics so that my recommendations will make more sense…
The following graph shows the percentage of U.S. adults who are overweight (BMI ≥ 25), obese (BMI ≥ 30) or extremely obese (BMI ≥ 40). The blue arrow indicates the year (1980) that the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans was released. In it, Americans were encouraged to reduce their intake of fat (especially saturated fat and cholesterol) and increase consumption of carbohydrates to replace the calories lost by reduced fat intake.
This graph shows the millions of people diagnosed with diabetes in the U.S. from 1980 to 2012. The blue arrow indicates the year (1994) in which the American Diabetes Association began recommending that people should consume 60 – 70% of their calories from carbohydrates and < 10% of calories from saturated fat.
You don’t have to be a statistics whiz to see that the incidence of diabetes and overweight/obesity has increased significantly over the last 20 years.
As well, there is at least a correlation, and possibly causation, between these conditions and changes in our eating patterns. In fact, the early 1990s are considered the real beginning of the low fat craze when super market shelves were packed with low fat (i.e., high sugar) “healthier” processed foods, in response to people’s decreased desire for fat and disregard for carbohydrate’s impact.
What is this data telling us?
Consuming a large number of carbohydrates (i.e., 60 – 70% of calories) is not helping the incidence of diabetes (which is currently our best marker of blood sugar control) or body composition. (As noted previously, fat storage is a form of protection to get stuff – like glucose – out of our blood before it wreaks havoc).
I fully recognize it’s a gross oversimplification to say “carbs are bad and fat is good” (which is why I won’t say that). After all, the source of the carbs and fat matters.
Also, our food system changed dramatically starting in 1996 when the planting of GMO foods sky-rocketed, as did the use of glyphosphate. There is little doubt that both of these have also contributed to the increased incidence of overweight/obesity, diabetes and many other chronic diseases and conditions.
How do we keep our blood sugar under control?
The simple answer is this: we need to eat real food in appropriate combinations and quantities that slow-roll the uptick in blood glucose following meals.
Some simple steps to do this (in order of importance as it relates to blood sugar regulation)…
- Eliminate or significantly reduce your intake of sugar and processed carbohydrates (anything made with flour or that is “quick-cooking” like certain types of oatmeal and rice).
Yes, I know that the American Diabetes Association and US Department of Agriculture recommend that everyone eats a large amount of non-produce-based carbohydrates every day. The data says they are wrong. No one needs bread, pasta, pizza, muffins, crackers, tortillas or any other kind of starchy carb product to be well-nourished and perfectly healthy. In fact, we’re probably less healthy because we consume them so. flippin’. often.
By the way, this does not mean that you should start eating sugar-free snacks, which use artificial sweeteners and lots of other chemicals to make them taste good. Artificial sweeteners cause all sorts of problems in our bodies and everyone would be much better off completely removing these from their lives.
I don’t say “all” snacks, because some times it’s necessary to grab some baby carrots and go. At the same time, consider how you can incorporate healthy fats (like olive oil, avocado, coconut milk/oil and grass-fed butter) and high-quality protein (like nuts, seeds, grass-fed meat/poultry/eggs and wild caught fish) into as many meals and snacks as you can.
By doing this, you will feel more satisfied, and your blood sugar levels won’t spike. This is for two reasons: 1) sources of fat and protein have none to very little carbohydrate; 2) the protein and fat get in the way of digesting and absorbing the carbohydrates either within these foods or in carbohydrate-containing foods consumed at the same time.
- Consume 4 – 9 servings of vegetables every day, primarily colorful vegetables like orange, red, blue/purple and green.
Not only will you be filling yourself up with water and fiber, but you’ll also be getting lots of phytonutrients, some of which (like chromium and polyphenols) help the body regulate blood sugar more efficiently.
- Consume 2 – 3 servings of fruit every day (unless you are sensitive to fructose, then limit it to 1 or less).
Honestly, you don’t have to consume fruit at all. But it does make for an easy snack or dessert for many people. Increasing your veg intake to 6 – 11 servings and eating no fruit at all would be ideal (from a health perspective). If you are going to have fruit, focus on the low fructose fruits like berries, cherries and some citrus fruits (grapefruit, lemon and lime).
Also, go for whole, fresh fruit rather than dried fruit or fruit juice. Although dried fruit has the same nutrition, you’re missing out on all the water that fresh fruit has which means it will take more dried fruit to fill you up than it will fresh fruit. Also, fruit juice (even if it’s 100% juice with no added sweetener) is missing the fiber that comes with whole fruit.
- Consume plenty of fiber every day… so if you still have room after all those veggies, look to legumes, nuts, seeds, berries and avocado.
Fiber helps slow down digestion, makes us feel full, and keeps our gut bacteria populated correctly so it can help us. Again, the goal is to slow down how quickly the glucose in our food gets into our blood, since the primary source of blood sugar is dietary glucose.
- Only consume whole grains once you’ve met all of the above recommendations.
Whole grains are digested into glucose. Without other foods (like protein, fat and fiber) surrounding it, that glucose can be absorbed into the blood quickly and can cause a spike. Perhaps the spike won’t be as high as if you sat down and ate sugar, but it will be high enough! Plus, whole grains don’t always have as many micro- and phytonutrients as vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts and seeds, so they aren’t considered to be as nutritiously dense.
Whew! That’s it.
Hopefully, this series on blood sugar control has helped you understand why it’s important, how it works and what you need to do. If you still have any questions leave them in the comments below.
- There are supplements out there that supposedly prevent you from absorbing sugar/glucose. However, I don’t know what other things they stop you from absorbing (like vitamins, minerals and medications). And, if you have to rely on them, aren’t they really just band-aids for a crappy diet?!? After all, a healthy diet (with the occasional indulgence, of course!) will maintain healthy blood glucose and insulin levels… while also giving you all of the nutrients your body needs to function properly.
- Some nutrients, like chromium, berberine and cinnamon, help your body control blood sugar by boosting your body’s natural abilities. However, none of them on their own can make up for an unhealthy diet. As such, I encourage you to follow the steps above and then, if that’s not enough, seek out an integrative healthcare practitioner (like me!) who can help with supplements, hormone balance and other factors that may be preventing you from achieving your blood sugar goals.
— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National diabetes statistics report: estimates of diabetes and its burden in the United States. Atlanta, GA: US Department of Health and Human Services. [Original data pulled from 2014 report. Note that the report is updated every year and this link goes to the latest report.]
— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Number (in millions) of civilian, noninstitutionalized persons with diagnosed diabetes, United States, 1980–2011. In Diabetes Public Health Resource. Accessed on June 10, 2015.
— Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Table 64: Healthy weight, overweight, and obesity among adults aged 20 and over, by selected characteristics: United States, selected years 1988-1994 through 2009-2012. In List of Trend Tables. Accessed on June 10, 2015.
— Flegal KM, Carroll MD, Kit BK, Ogden CL. (2012). Prevalence of obesity and trends in the distribution of body mass index among US adults, 1999-2010. Jama. 2010; 307(5): 491-497.
— Ogden CL, Carroll MD. Prevalence of overweight, obesity, and extreme obesity among adults: United States, trends 1960–1962 through 2007–2008. National Center for Health Statistic. 2010; 6: 1-6.
— Perlmutter D. Grain Brain: the surprising truth about wheat, carbs, and sugar–your brain’s silent killers. Hachette UK; 2013.
— Swanson NL, Leu A, Abrahamson J, Wallet B. Genetically engineered crops, glyphosate and the deterioration of health in the United States of America. Journal of Organic Systems. 2014; 9(2): 6-37.
— U.S. Department of Agriculture. Nutrition and Your Health: Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 1980. Accessed on June 10, 2015.
— Wheeler ML. Cycles: Diabetes nutrition recommendations–past, present, and future. Diabetes Spectrum. 2000; 13(3): 116.