Balancing your blood sugar

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Did you know that balancing your blood sugar can be an important part of a healthy lifestyle and can help to prevent disease? When eating food, our body breaks it down, and depending on what type of food it is, it can result in elevated blood sugar levels. While our bodies can usually control blood sugar levels on its own, sometimes this may not be the case, and prolonged elevated blood sugar levels can negatively impact overall health. Here we will help you to learn about what affects blood sugar levels and how to balance them through a healthy diet and exercise to ensure that our bodies are able to perform optimally.

Your body and your blood sugar

When we eat food, our body works to break down that food into different nutrients needed for energy, building blocks and other body functions. Specifically, the carbohydrates we get from starchy foods such as rice, pasta and bread, or fruits and vegetables, are broken down in the stomach into sugar (referred to as glucose) to be used in the body. Our bodies then take up this glucose into our blood, causing our blood sugar levels to rise. In response to this raised blood sugar level, our body signals the release of the hormone insulin, which helps the cells throughout the body to absorb glucose and use it for energy to move, exercise, heal and grow or to store as fat to use later (1). With the help of insulin, sugar is removed from the blood by cells and blood sugar levels can return to a healthy range. However, if your body cannot efficiently use the insulin it produces, glucose builds up in the bloodstream instead of being used by cells (2). Over time, high blood sugar levels may be harmful to the eyes, kidneys, nerves or heart. Due to this, it is important to know how to sufficiently manage your blood sugar levels through diet and other tips to help prevent disease.

Foods that affect blood sugar

The foods we eat can impact our blood sugar levels in different ways. Carbohydrates directly affect blood sugar levels, because they are broken down into the glucose that causes blood sugar levels to rise. However, the type and quality of carbohydrates that you eat also makes a difference. There are two types of carbohydrates: simple (fast) carbohydrates or complex (slow) carbohydrates. These carbohydrates are identified by how quickly they are broken down by the body and taken up by cells to use as energy. Simple carbohydrates are digested quickly and send immediate bursts of glucose (energy) into the bloodstream (3). This causes blood sugar levels to increase rapidly, usually followed by a rapid decrease which is often referred to as a “sugar crash”. Simple carbohydrates are mostly found in processed foods such as white bread, white rice, candy, and table sugar. These types of simple carbohydrates provide energy, but may lack the vitamins, minerals and fiber also needed to maintain a healthy diet.

Complex carbohydrates are digested more slowly and supply a lower more steady release of glucose into the bloodstream (3). This causes blood sugar levels to increase slowly, supplying the body with a longer period of energy so you don’t get that “sugar crash” feeling. Complex carbohydrates also provide essential vitamins, minerals and dietary fiber needed by the body. Good sources of complex carbohydrates to incorporate into your diet include whole grains such as oats, brown rice, barley, whole wheat breads and pastas, and starchy vegetables such as carrots, zucchini, and beans. The amount of carbohydrates and energy your body needs vary based on gender, age and activity level. When choosing carbohydrates for an overall healthy diet, choose complex carbohydrates and eat simple carbohydrates in moderation. Need some inspiration? Check out this Banana Oat recipe from Lifesum for a meal packed with complex carbs and essential nutrients.

Proteins and fats you get from food also play an important role in helping to balance blood sugar levels and are an overall part of a healthy diet. Proteins and fats keep you full, and have other benefits to the growth, repair and functioning of the body. Include lean protein sources such as chicken or turkey, fatty fish such as salmon, or plant-based proteins such as lentils, hummus and tofu. When choosing fats, it is important to incorporate foods that are rich in unsaturated fats and lower in saturated fats. Saturated fats can raise cholesterol and have been associated with increased risk for heart disease, while unsaturated fats can lower cholesterol levels (4). Foods such as nuts, seeds, fish, avocado and olive oil are good sources of unsaturated fats.

Tips to help balance your blood sugar

1.  Consistency is key. It is important to try to stick to a regular, consistent meal schedule. Eating properly portioned meals throughout the day can keep insulin working regularly to ensure sugar levels remain balanced, instead of spiking too high or dropping too low, which can have a negative impact on the body.

2. Balance your plate. Just like when you eat is important, what you eat is just as important to balancing blood sugar. Fill half of your plate with fruits or vegetables, a quarter with a serving of protein, and the last quarter with a serving of whole grains.

3. Read the nutrition label. Total carbohydrate on the label includes all types of carbohydrate – sugar, starch and fiber- and is important to consider the total grams when choosing which foods to include in your diet (5). Some foods might also have higher amounts of added sugar which can have an impact on your blood sugar levels. Be sure to look for sugar’s other names in the ingredient list such as sucrose, honey and high fructose corn syrup. Apps such as Lifesum can help you make better choices with a feature that shows the rating of a food based on if the food is processed or not, or if the food has too much salt, sugar and/or saturated fat.

4.  Move more. – Adding physical activity to your daily routine is also important in managing blood sugar levels. When you’re active, your cells become more sensitive to insulin so it works more effectively (6). Start slow and go for a walk around the block after dinner.

5. Small swaps can make a big impact. Choose whole wheat over white products. Drink water instead of sugary drinks. Eat whole fruits instead of dried fruit or fruit juice. 

Following an overall healthy diet to maintain blood sugar levels, especially if your body can not use insulin efficiently, can have a big impact on managing your health. Little changes, whether it is balancing your plate, following an eating schedule, or moving more, can have positive effects. What small changes will you make to help balance your blood sugar?

References

  1. American Heart Association (AHA). Prediabetes and Digestion. 2015 https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/diabetes/about-diabetes/prediabetes-and-digestion (Accessed 2020-6-24)
  2. American Heart Association (AHA). What is Diabetes? 2015. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/diabetes/about-diabetes (Accessed 2020-6-24)
  3. American Heart Association (AHA). Carbohydrates. 2018. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/nutrition-basics/carbohydrates (Accessed 2020-6-25)
  4. American Heart Association (AHA). Dietary Fats. 2014. https://www.heart.org/en/healthy-living/healthy-eating/eat-smart/fats/dietary-fats (Accessed 2020-6-25)
  5. American Diabetes Association (ADA). Making Sense of Food Labels. 2020.https://www.diabetes.org/nutrition/understanding-food-labels/making-sense-of-food-labels (Accessed 2020-6-26)
  6. American Diabetes Association (ADA). Fitness Overview. 2020. https://www.diabetes.org/fitness (Accessed 2020-6-26)

With Lifesum, tracking your healthy habits (and the not so healthy ones) becomes a breeze. We’ll help you pick the right food, and eat the right portion sizes, to reach your personal health goals.

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