Most of us have at least a vague idea that blood sugar impacts our lives. We talk about kids having sugar highs on Halloween, and maybe have our own experiences of feeling light-headed after going too long without eating on a busy day. But maintaining balanced blood sugar is not just important to feeling good; it’s critical to your overall health, including maintaining your body’s natural weight.
Weight is often thought of as a matter of calories in and calories out. While there’s some truth to that principle, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Anything that spikes your blood sugar (also called glucose) can cause your body to store sugar as fat. The good news is that you don’t necessarily have to change what you’re eating to stabilize this biological system; instead, you should look at how you’re eating. There are many surprising and easy tweaks you can make to avoid the blood sugar surges that, over time, can cause weight gain and other health problems.
The Relationship Between Glucose, Metabolism, and Insulin
If it’s been a minute since high school biology, here’s the gist of how this system works. When you eat a carbohydrate, your body begins the work of breaking it down into glucose, a necessary sugar that fuels the cells and provides nutrients to your body’s organs, muscles, and nervous system. Glucose is also required for the brain to function properly.
But glucose needs to get into the cells somehow. You can think of insulin, a hormone made in the pancreas, as the body’s commuter train that picks up the glucose from the blood and takes it into the cells, where it can do its job generating energy.
This process of turning food into energy is known as metabolism. Your metabolism, or how many calories you burn to create energy, can be affected by a variety of factors, including how much muscle you have, your age (primarily due to the relationship between muscle mass decreasing as you get older), your genetics, and how much you move each day. The bottom line is more muscle and activity is the best bet for a speedier metabolism.
How Unbalanced Blood Sugar Affects Your Health
In addition to building muscle and making sure you’re getting enough exercise, the third consideration when it comes to your overall metabolic health is whether your blood sugar and its pal insulin cruise along happy and balanced or whether their activity mimics a roller coaster ride.
When there is too much of this duo floating around in your blood, you may find yourself gaining weight or having difficulty losing it. Megan Brown, an Austin-based functional medicine practitioner, explains that when you have consistent, excessive spikes in blood sugar, your cells start to say, ‘too much!’ and begin to ignore insulin. Insulin then doubles down, thinking it needs to send even more of itself into the mix. This creates an excess of insulin in the body.
When there is too much insulin swirling around, the body begins to store glucose as fat rather than using it for fuel. This “often looks like weight gain, particularly around the midsection of the body,” Brown explains. In more extreme cases, it can also lead to diabetes.
A spike in blood sugar can be caused by the obvious: eating too much or eating too many unhealthy foods. But it can also be caused by situations that have nothing to do with whether you choose a hamburger or a salad for lunch. Things like stress, your period, being too sedentary, sleep deprivation, dehydration, and how you eat can all mess with your blood sugar balance.
On the other end of the spectrum is low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia. This can be caused by not eating enough or the frustrating cycle your body gets into when it’s trying to level out high blood sugar. It may be counterintuitive, but low blood sugar can cause the same issues with weight that high blood sugar does.
Basically, if your blood sugar isn’t balanced, it’s going to be difficult maintaining good health and a balanced weight.
Tips and Tricks to Stabilize Your Blood Sugar
Just as stubborn weight gain isn’t necessarily tied to how much you’re eating, the tips for how to keep your blood sugar chilling in that sweet spot have more to do with the how of your diet. This means it is entirely possible to balance your blood sugar and still dip into the breadbasket every once in a while.
A few things you can do to keep your blood sugar nice and even are:
Avoid “naked carbs”
Whenever possible, eat your carbs with fat or protein (or some combination of both, like avocado toast). Brown suggests having a handful of nuts along with mango for a snack, or an apple with almond butter. This helps slow digestion and absorption, limiting the amount of glucose that floods the body at once. Similarly, loading up on fiber alongside or before eating carbs can help “significantly slow the absorption of sugars into the blood,” Brown says.
Be mindful of coffee
You may think of black coffee as a “diet food,” but coffee on an empty stomach can spike blood sugar. Caffeine can actually cause a hormonal reaction in the body, and it may cause insulin to take longer to kick in. “Always have coffee with a meal or protein and fat, like cream and collagen,” Brown says.
Pass the vinegar
“Incorporating vinegar into your meals (like in a salad dressing) slows down the breakdown of carbs and reduces the spike in blood sugar,” Brown says. One 2019 study also found that two to six tablespoons of vinegar per day improved the glycemic response (aka the effect food has on glucose levels). That’s a lot of vinegar but if you can stomach it, you could try taking it like a shot before or during your meal.
Check the ripeness of fruit
Picture the difference between an unripe banana and one that is soft with brown spots. The reason it gets squishier (and why banana bread is better made with overripe bananas) is because the starch turns to sugar as it ripens. For this reason, very ripe fruit may spike blood sugar. While it’s fine to eat a banana in its prime, you may want to pair it with a fat or protein, like a nut butter. Also keep an eye on the kind of fruit you’re eating; blackberries and blueberries for example don’t spike blood sugar nearly as much as grapes or watermelon.
Stand up whenever you can
If you can replace sitting with standing – even for as little as one hour per day – it can have a big effect on your glucose levels. Surprisingly, even heel raises while sitting can help. Jessie Inchauspé, French biochemist and author of Glucose Revolution, calls these “soleus pushups” and demonstrates how to do them here.
Enjoy an after dinner stroll
If you’re able to, Brown says that going for a walk after eating has been shown to reduce post-meal blood sugar spikes.
Eat almonds before a meal
Beyond being tasty and a good source of protein, fiber, and fat, eating a handful of almonds (about 15-20) before a meal reduced the glucose spike post-meal by as much as 28%.
Stand in the sun (or take vitamin D)
Low levels of vitamin D have been associated with an increased risk of diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Remember that sunscreen blocks the absorption of vitamin D so — dermatologists, put on your ear muffs — try to get outside for a few minutes sans sunscreen a day, ideally in the morning or evening when the sun isn’t at its peak.
Let starchy vegetables cool before eating
This one seems odd, but it’s true. If you let starchy vegetables cool before eating, they won’t spike your blood sugar as much as their freshly cooked counterparts. “Certain starches like potatoes, rice, and oats when cooked and cooled form resistant starch which is especially beneficial for certain bacteria in our microbiome and have been shown to have a positive effect on insulin sensitivity and blood sugar levels,” Brown says.
Eat broccoli sprouts
You don’t hear a ton about broccoli sprouts, but you can find them at most health food stores (and certain grocery stores, too). They contain glucosinolates which convert to sulforaphane during digestion (dietitian Casey Farlow has a good Instagram post about this). Sulforaphane has been shown to have many hormone benefits, and studies have shown that the broccoli sprouts specifically reduce fasting blood glucose levels.
Skip gluten-free products if you don’t need them
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking gluten-free products are healthier, but keep in mind that gluten itself is not responsible for blood sugar spikes. Inchauspé recently broke down a 2017 study that found that gluten-free pasta made using corn and rice flours actually spiked glucose levels a whole 57% more than its good old wheat counterpart.
It may seem like keeping your body humming along in balance requires a lot of effort, what with all the talk of meditation apps, trips to the yoga studio, and convoluted diets. Fortunately, if you can adopt a few lifestyle and diet tweaks here and there, it’s easier than you may think to keep your blood sugar in the ideal place. This will make you feel healthier, but it also will make it easier to maintain a steady weight or help in your efforts to knock off a few pounds. Plus, who can argue with getting to take more walks and adding cream to your coffee – doctor’s orders!