Do you regularly experience food cravings, mood swings, irritability or fatigue? If so, you may have a blood sugar imbalance. According to the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1/3 of Americans are at imminent risk of becoming diabetic, and 90% of those at risk don’t even know it! Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is crucial for optimal health and minimizes your risk of chronic conditions such as diabetes, metabolic syndrome, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.
Understanding Blood Sugar
When you eat sugars and simple carbohydrates, these foods release glucose into the bloodstream very quickly, spiking your blood sugar. This spike forces the pancreas to produce excess insulin, which escorts the sugars out of the bloodstream and into the cells. Over time, when insulin levels are driven up over and over several times a day (due to too much sugar in the blood), the pancreas gets worn out and cells become resistant to accepting any more sugar.
This excess sugar in the blood keeps blood sugar levels unnaturally high and insulin ends up storing it as fat. This can lead to visceral (abdominal) fat, weight gain and unhealthy cholesterol.
As you can see, it’s not a good situation! And if left unchecked, a situation that can put you in the danger zone for diabetes and associated degenerative health concerns. But the good news is that it can be reversed through a healthy diet and lifestyle that balances your blood sugar. Below are some strategies to help you do just that!
12 Ways to Balance Blood Sugar
1. Learn about the glycemic index
Foods low on the glycemic index release energy slowly into the bloodstream and cause only minor changes in blood sugar levels. These include animal protein, nuts and seeds, oils and fats, beans and lentils, whole grains, many vegetables and some fruits (berries and stone fruits are best).
A few examples of high glycemic foods are bread, crackers, corn, white rice, white potatoes, muffins, cookies, fruit juices and sports drinks. Minimize these foods as much as possible, but if you are going to eat them, have them in their natural state (i.e., eat a potato instead of potato chips) and pair them with protein to slow down the injection of sugar into your bloodstream.
2. Eat three well-balanced meals per day
This is crucial to support blood sugar stability. To build a balanced meal, include all three macronutrients: protein, carbs and fat. Pick a protein, such as fish, chicken, meat, eggs, beans, tempeh or collagen protein powder. Include a natural source of carbohydrates, such as vegetables, fruits or whole grains. Then add a source of healthy fats like coconut oil, olive oil, ghee, butter, avocado, nuts, or seeds.
3. Don’t skip breakfast
Breakfast sets your metabolic tone and lays the foundation of your blood sugar stability for the rest of day. Aim to eat within 90 minutes of waking up. Make sure your breakfast includes protein and fat, as these satiating macronutrients release energy slowly, keeping you full and your blood sugar stable. Try these easy BLT egg cups or this sweet potato breakfast hash.
4. Eat more pungent, bitter and astringent foods
Including more of these foods in your diet will help balance blood sugar and offset your addiction to the sweet taste. Pungent herbs/spices include basil, cinnamon, cumin, chili, garlic, ginger, pepper, oregano, thyme and turmeric. Bitter and astringent fruits and veggies are things like leafy greens, celery, broccoli, beans, lentils, apples and pomegranate seeds.
5. Avoid the refined sugar roller coaster
Refined sugars include white sugar, corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, dextrose and fructose. These, along with processed carbs like pastas, bread, cereal, cookies, bagels and chips, cause your blood sugar to spike up and then quickly crash. This crash, aka hypoglycemia, is a state of low blood sugar, which can bring on various negative symptoms like brain fog, difficulty concentrating, feeling “hangry,” anxious and fatigued. It’s also often accompanied by cravings for more carbs and sweets or caffeine as a “pick-me-up.” Talk about a blood sugar roller coaster!
6. Get the sweet taste from vegetables
We all crave the sweet taste every once and a while. Rather than bombarding your body with processed sugar and inflammatory refined grains, add naturally sweet vegetables to your diet to satisfy your sweet tooth. Sweet vegetables include sweet potatoes, yams, parsnips, beets, carrots, onions and winter squashes. These are all great sources of complex carbohydrate to eat as part of a balanced meal.
7. Avoid sweet drinks
Drinking a sweet drink is like hooking yourself up to an IV of sugar because the sugar has nothing (fiber, protein, fat) slowing down its release into the bloodstream. A 12-ounce Coke contains 39 grams of sugar which equates to about 10 teaspoons of table sugar.
Many “healthy” beverages have almost as much. A bottle of Vitamin Water has 31 grams and eight ounces of orange juice has 24. At the store, read labels to check the sugar content, even on green juice! Plain, filtered or flavored water should be your best friend. Also, herbal teas are great! My personal favorite is rooibos chai.
8. Eliminate artificial sweeteners
If you thought sugar was bad, artificial sweeteners are worse! Artificial sweeteners, such as saccharin (Sweet N Low), aspartame (Equal) and sucralose (Splenda) send a sweet taste to the brain and never deliver any real energy (glucose) to the body. This creates an even stronger message of hunger and desire for sweets, leading to sugar cravings all day long.
Despite being calorie-free, artificial sweeteners have been found to actually increase weight gain as they disturb metabolic hormones like leptin and insulin. Most artificial sweeteners are made of excitotoxins which over-stimulate, exhaust and deplete the nervous system. And some are even carcinogenic! Read labels and ditch all “diet” drinks and foods!
9. Exercise daily
Exercise reduces blood sugar by improving glucose metabolism. It helps the body usher sugar out of the bloodstream and into the tissues and muscles to be used as fuel. Exercise (like resistance training on a ball or working the arms with a band) also helps build muscle, and the greater your lean body mass, the better your body will be able to control blood sugar levels.
10. Prioritize sleep
Sleep deprivation wreaks havoc on blood sugar. Not getting enough sleep reduces glucose tolerance, meaning your cells have a harder time taking up glucose, which leads to higher blood sugar. The other problem with inadequate sleep is that when you’re tired, you eat more because your body is desperate for energy. And usually you want to eat sugary, carby foods that will spike blood sugar levels.
11. Consider nutritional supplements
Cinnamon, chromium and gymnema sylvestre are three of my favorite supplements to support healthy blood sugar levels. Cinnamon is a delicious and effective way to lower fasting blood glucose. Half a teaspoon of cinnamon a day has been shown to significantly reduce blood sugar levels and triglycerides in people with Type 2 diabetes. I love sprinkling cinnamon on oatmeal, in smoothies and on roasted sweet potatoes!
Chromium supplementation has been shown to improve insulin receptor function, reduce hemoglobin A1C, decrease inflammation and normalize blood glucose levels. Gymnema sylvestre is known as “sweet destroyer” because it contains substances that block the absorption of sugar through the taste buds and the intestinal wall. When sugar absorption is blocked, cravings are reduced and natural blood sugar highs and lows are neutralized. Always speak with your healthcare provider before starting any new supplements.
12. Test your blood sugar at home
We can take hints from our body about how stable our blood sugar is, but you don’t really know where you’re at until you test it. Your doctor will test your serum glucose at your physical, but you can be proactive and start using a glucometer at home. Monitoring your fasting blood sugar levels is a cheap and effective way of getting instant feedback on your diet and lifestyle.
Start by testing your blood sugar in the morning when you wake up. Tweak your diet and lifestyle with the suggestions above until you see your fasting morning blood sugar falling into the 70-85mg/dL range.
Photos by Ana Stanciu54