No matter the reason that a client comes to see me for nutritional counseling, whether it’s to lose weight, gain weight or just improve their overall health, I start with the basics. First, I check to see that they are drinking enough water, and then I check to see if they have balanced blood sugar. I’ve already written about the importance of staying hydrated, so today I want to have a more in-depth discussion on the topic of blood sugar balance and overall sugar handling.
I would say that 9 out of every 10 patients that walks through our clinic door struggles with keeping their sugars balanced. Most people tend to be hyperglycemic, meaning their sugar levels are consistently higher than they should be. If you look at the stats, it’s no wonder we’re struggling. We Americans are inundating our bodies with sugar and starchy carbohydrates. The more we consume refined sugars, the more deficient we become in the nutrients we need to regulate our blood sugar, and so the nasty little cycle begins.
The Sugar Roller Coaster
During the night, your blood sugar drops extremely low as you go 8-10 hours without eating. Breakfast is the meal that brings your sugars back up into a more balanced zone, just one more reason why it’s the most important meal of the day! But many Americans start out the day with a starchy carbohydrate such as donuts, a bagel or a bowl of cereal. They may even think they’re making a really healthy choice by choosing a whole-grain cereal and using skim milk. The problem is, many of the typical breakfast foods turn straight to glucose, spiking our sugars from a valley low to a mountain high. Add a little banana to the cereal, and throw in some orange juice or a sugary coffee drink, and you’ll really send your sugars into overdrive!
Just like with any good roller coaster, whatever goes up must come down, and that’s where the sugar crash comes in to play. A couple of hours after eating that morning cereal, waffle, pop tart, bagel or other high-glycemic food, your sugars will plunge back down into the valley. That’s usually about the time that most office break rooms fill up as workers start prowling for more coffee or sweets to perk them back up and get them through until lunch. In a school setting, that’s right about the time that students start struggling to focus or falling asleep.
And so the roller coaster ride continues all day long as we use caffeine, starchy carbs and sugary foods and beverages to lift us up after every crash. We might feel happy and energized for a little while, but it doesn’t last long. Look for another typical low point around 3 p.m., when most people go into what I like to call the carb coma as they crash from their high-glycemic lunches. That’s when many people need those afternoon Dr. Peppers or a Snickers bars just to survive the rest of the work day.
Many of us ride this roller coaster every day and never even realize it. We wonder why we”re tired all the time, why we feel more irritable at certain times of the day, and why our kids have focus and behavioral problems in school. We resort to more caffeine or medications to try to resolve all these problems and regain our quality of life. Meanwhile, diabetes, insulin resistance and other health issues related to blood sugar continue to soar.
If you think you or your children are riding the blood sugar roller coaster, I encourage you to take a closer look at your meals and take steps to make them more balanced. When we start the day out with a high-quality protein (eggs, a protein shake, turkey sausage, etc.), we set the tone for a more balanced day. Fruit is a good thing, but it’s better to have it for a mid-morning snack when blood sugar is more stable than first thing in the morning. As far as the lunch and dinner meals go, I’m a big fan of the 40-30-30 plan. When our meals are balanced, so is our energy, mood and ability focus, and we’re less likely to struggle with sugar cravings.
Also, try to reduce starchy carbs to about 10-15% of your diet, or about one meal a day. So, if you know you’re having pasta for dinner, choose the grilled chicken salad over the grilled chicken sandwich at lunch. Make sweets a special, occasional treat instead of a diet staple. (Hint: If your New Year’s resolution is to lose weight, reducing refined carbs and sugars will also help with that!)
Try to eat regularly throughout the day to prevent big drops in blood sugar. Keep healthy snacks around and never go more than 3-4 hours without eating.
Last but not least, make sure you read labels and pay attention to the amount of sugar in your foods. (Did you know a coke contains 39 grams of sugar?) Some hidden names for sugar include turbinado, high fructose corn syrup, disaccharides, molasses, polysaccharides, sucrose, fructose, invert sugar, dextrose, glucose, lactose, sorbitol, mannitol, malt, maltose and golden syrup. Basically, if it ends in -ose, it’s probably sugar!
Making some small changes in your diet can make a huge difference in your blood sugar and your overall health. Remember, when it comes to balancing sugar, WHEN we eat or HOW we combine our food can be just as important as WHAT we’re eating.
We’re about to start a new year, and now is as good a time as any to get off the sugar roller coaster and step onto solid, steady ground. As always, your questions or comments are welcome!