Nutritional Therapist Heather Cuthbert explains why it is so important to balance blood sugar levels for optimal health.
What is glucose?
Carbohydrates in food are broken down in our stomach and intestines into simple sugars called glucose. Glucose is important since it is our body’s main source of fuel. In optimal health, glucose is transported from the liver to the blood and then to the body cells at a rate suitable for our needs. However, problems can arise with this physiological process and can lead to an imbalance of blood glucose, otherwise known as dysglycemia.
Why do we need to balance our blood sugar?
Refined sugars and carbohydrates (such as sweets, cakes and white flour products like pasta, white bread, white rice, etc.) are broken down easily during digestion and quickly raise blood glucose levels leading to a burst of energy. Since high blood sugar (hyperglycaemia) can be damaging, our bodies respond by releasing insulin from the pancreas. Insulin is a hormone that helps to remove excess glucose from the bloodstream and transport it to our cells, to either be used as energy stored as glycogen in the liver and muscles or stored as fat for future energy needs. However, if too much sugar is removed from the bloodstream at once then symptoms of low blood sugar (hypoglycaemia) may occur.
What are the long-term implications of dysglycemia?
Weight Gain: Excess sugar in the blood may be stored as fat.
Insulin resistance: The body may become insensitive to insulin, causing high amounts of sugar in the blood, which could lead to a range of chronic diseases.
Type 2 Diabetes: The body doesn’t produce enough insulin to function properly, or the body’s cells don’t react to insulin (insulin resistance).
Cardiovascular disease: A group of insulin-resistant signs and symptoms (e.g. central obesity, high blood pressure) may increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
Polycystic ovarian syndrome: High amounts of insulin could stimulate excess sex hormones, which may lead to infertility, increased body hair and weight gain.
How to maintain balanced blood sugar levels
Eat small meals regularly– Ideally every 2-3 hours. Missing meals could result in low blood sugar, and long periods without eating can be stressful for the body. Stress causes cortisol (stress hormone) to be released, promoting fat storage. Perhaps 3 small balanced meals per day and 2 balanced snacks per day may suit you; listen to your body.
Exercise – Reduces blood sugar and improves insulin sensitivity.
Stress Management – Meditation, yoga, reading, baking etc. The stress hormone cortisol has been shown to raise blood sugar levels.
Eat breakfast: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. After an all-night fast, your body needs to replenish its ‘fuel’ in order to create energy.
Avoid sugar: Sugar and refined foods like white bread, pasta, etc. Refined foods and dietary sugars are converted into glucose and could cause a rapid rise in blood sugar.
Avoid stimulants: Stimulants like alcohol, caffeine, cigarettes and sugar (fruit juice, sodas, honey, glucose, malt and artificial sweeteners) activate the adrenal glands to produce stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol) in order to release stored glucose (glycogen), which can cause blood sugar levels to rise rapidly. This rapid surge is often followed by a significant drop that triggers a demand for more energy.
Eat whole foods: Whole grains (oats, barley, buckwheat, brown rice, wholemeal pasta, rye, millet, etc.), lentils, fresh fruit and vegetables help maintain a healthy level of the blood glucose.
Eat Protein and healthy Fats: To help slow down the release of glucose from other foods.
Good sources of protein are:
- Animal sources: Fish, seafood, lean meat and eggs.
- Vegetarian sources: pulses and legumes.
Good sources of fat are:
- Oily fish (salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, herring, tuna).
- Nuts and seeds; especially flax seeds and walnuts for their omega3 content.
Well-balanced sample days
- Breakfast: Toasted rye bread with a poached egg and grilled cherry tomatoes.
- Mid-morning snack: Apple with a handful of unroasted, unsalted nuts (walnuts/almond/brazil/cashew/pecan).
- Lunch: Chicken and asparagus quinoa salad.
- Mid-afternoon snack: Carrot batons with homemade hummus.
- Dinner: Poached salmon with stir-fried vegetables and brown rice.
- Breakfast: Porridge made with jumbo oats, served with berries and mixed seeds (flax, pumpkin, sunflower, sesame).
- Mid-morning snack: Half, small avocado with balsamic vinegar.
- Lunch: Lentil soup served with two oatcakes and cottage cheese.
- Mid-afternoon snack: Ryvita with almond butter.
- Dinner: Butternut squash and spinach frittata with a rocket and green bean salad.