By now it’s safe to say we all know that sugar is bad for us. When we were children, our parents told us it was bad for our teeth. But what about the rest of the body? What exactly happens when sugar is consumed and how does the body compensate for such high concentrations of sugar? You may have heard how important blood sugar balance is in the body, but why? What is ‘low glycemic,’ and how is weight gain associated with sugar? This blog is Sugar Basics 101 and includes which foods and lifestyle suggestions might be helpful when it comes to this balancing act.
Did you know that steady blood sugar levels are the one thing that every person who lives over 100 (centurion) has in common? Research shows that the best foods for enjoying good weight are those that don’t cause a sharp rise in blood sugar levels. Balanced blood sugar is associated with physical and emotional health, as well as, and of course, longevity.
If you are having problems losing weight, if you are feeling moody, and if you constantly feel the need for caffeine, you may have a problem balancing your blood sugar. Fortunately, not all blood sugar imbalances require drug treatments, and by taking control of your sugar consumption, you can greatly improve the way you feel.
Blood sugar refers to glucose carried in the blood stream. Glucose is the immediate source of energy for all of the body’s cells. The levels of glucose in the blood are monitored by the pancreas and tightly regulated by several hormones. The body has the ability to store glucose in the form of glycogen in the muscles and the liver. When sugar or refined carbs are digested, they are initially absorbed in the small intestine, however they do not enter the blood circulation directly. They have to go to the liver first. Under hormone control, the liver will release an appropriate amount of sugar into the blood stream to make it available to other cells, especially the brain. These hormones include insulin, glucagon (secreted by the pancreas), and cortisol and catecholamines (secreted by the adrenal cortex and medulla.) Insulin lowers the blood sugar while the cortisol and catecholamines increase it.
Today, over a third of the calories we consume come from sugar or white flour, which is highly refined and acts just like sugar in our system. When these foods are consumed, your blood sugar spikes creating alarms to sound in your bloodstream, which forces the release of insulin into the blood to turn the blood sugar into energy. Once turned into energy, your blood sugar should start to return back into the acceptable range. When a soda or a piece of candy is consumed, our bodies struggle physiologically to cope with such enormous potency of sugar. The human body doesn’t have a compensatory mechanism or the ability to adapt to the massive quantities of sugar we consume today.
The body’s natural response to deal with the sugar overload is to release insulin into the blood stream to uptake the sugar molecules. However, the body doesn’t always know when to stop releasing insulin, which can then create low blood sugar, and that is what we call “the crash”. When the body’s blood sugar is low, moodiness, irritability, and cravings come into play, making you eat more sugar and thus promoting a vicious cycle. What is news to some people is that the simple and refined sugars aren’t the only culprit. Simple and refined carbohydrates such as white rice, pasta, and potatoes are broken down into simple sugar molecules once they hit the small intestine, creating a similar response in the body.
For some people, the process of insulin changing blood sugar into energy doesn’t work efficiently. This can lead to some grave health issues, including insulin resistance or even diabetes. Other symptoms of insulin resistance include: cravings for sugar, intense hunger, weakness, poor concentration, emotional instability, memory loss, lack of focus, feelings of anxiety or panic, lack of motivation and fatigue. High insulin also damages your arteries and puts you at a greater risk of developing heart disease and stroke, type 2 diabetes, gout, polycystic ovary syndrome, and high blood pressure. Too much insulin will also result in excess unutilized blood sugars being stored as fat.
For many years we have been taught to stay away from fat and eat ‘low fat and/or no fat’ foods. However, we now know that in many cases FAT is not the problem. Sugar is.
It’s important to remember that not all carbs are bad. There are two types of carbohydrates: complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates. Both give you energy. However, complex carbohydrates break down more slowly in your body and are full of fiber, which leaves you feeling satisfied longer and balances out your energy levels. The brain operates with glucose, so it’s important to have some readily available for energy and ATP conversion. Tips for Healthy Blood Sugar Balance:
1) Focus on complex carbohydrates — there are two types of carbohydrates: complex carbohydrates and simple carbohydrates. Both give you energy. However, complex carbohydrates break down more slowly in your body and are full of fiber, which leaves you feeling satisfied longer and balances out your energy levels. Examples of complex carbohydrates include brown rice, quinoa, and other whole grains, beans and legumes, and root vegetables like sweet potatoes or butternut squash.
2) Eat your breakfast! By eating protein within one hour of waking, amino acids are provided, which can be used as an alternative fuel for the body. When eaten with carbohydrates, it will slow down the release of glucose into the system.
3) Eat plenty of fiber: legumes, beans, flax seeds, chia seeds, oats, hemp seeds, nuts and seeds. Fiber will keep you full longer and help you crave less sugar.
4) Stress management: Reduce mental/emotional stressors. Long-term stress may result in adrenal fatigue, which affects blood sugar.
5) Choose low glycemic foods: These foods release glucose at a slower rate because they take longer to break down in the intestine. Examples include: sweet potato, green apples, berries of any kind, beans and oats.
6) Increase anti-oxidants: Raw cacao, açai berry, blueberries, prunes, pomegranates, kale, brussel sprouts, beets, and red bell peppers.
7) Increase essential fatty acids: Cold water fish, nuts, seeds, hemp seeds.
8) Eat cinnamon: Traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic health systems have used cassia (cinnamon) to reduce fasting blood sugar levels. Real cinnamon contains polyphenols that help maintain insulin sensitivity.
Things to Reduce or Avoid:
- Concentrated sweets: soda, candy, cakes, cookies, etc. Too much fruit eaten alone or fruit juice.
- Minimize gluten-containing grains. Gluten may cause an undesirable response and can continue to promote blood sugar imbalances.
- Alcohol and caffeine
Foods that are helpful for stabilizing blood sugar:
- Almonds: A study published in the International Journal of Obesity shows that people eating a diet rich in almonds lost more weight than those on a high-carb diet with the same number of calories. This goes to show that weight loss is not as simple as calories in vs. calories out. Almonds are bulky and filling, so you feel that you are getting some substance without the spike in blood sugar.
- Quinoa: Although quinoa looks like a grain, it’s actually the seed of a green leafy plant. It is one of the best sources of amino acids and is a good source of iron, potassium, and B vitamins. The reason why quinoa is an incredible super food for weight loss is that it’s packed with protein, but its grain-like texture makes it a fantastic substitute for rice, couscous, and other carbohydrates.
- Millet: This is rich both in fiber and protein, which keeps your blood sugar even. Studies have shown a link between millet and weight loss. Some researchers believe that the combination of phytonutrients and fiber is responsible for the lower rate of colon cancer in people who eat millet, rather than fiber alone.
- Hummus: Because hummus is packed with protein, it fills you up, but again without any blood sugar spiking. Try to get hummus with olive oil rather than sunflower oil… or better yet, make your own hummus.(See our recipe section OR our new Food as Medicine Cookbook)
- Avocado: Avocados are nature’s perfect food! They offer a range of nutrients and help you absorb other nutrients more effectively. They are also creamy and bulky at the same time, so they help people feel satisfied.
- Lentils: Lentils are nutritious, flavorful, and are easy to prepare. Lentils, like beans, are a good source of protein. They also provide calcium and phosphorus, vitamin B and iron.
- Walnuts: Walnuts are a great snack food that will fill you up and help you to feel less hungry. They contain anti-inflammatory omega-3 fats, which makes them a powerful way to balance blood sugar.