In last week’s post, I discussed why blood sugar is one of the most important factors in disease prevention. An easy enough thing to say, but how exactly does one go about limiting spikes or even chronically elevated levels of blood sugar?
One thing is for certain, much of the advice given by the government on what is healthy can be discarded. You can just take a look at recent history with the demonization of fats and decide whether the official advice is something you would want to follow. Because of the dogma that was spread saying that fats should be avoided at all cost, the resulting flood of low-fat products basically ruined the western world’s health.
Things that normally contained fat were instead pumped full of sugar to make up for lost calories and taste. Natural foods to our diet like animal fats, butter, and full fat dairy, were replaced by margarine, sugary yogurt and skim milk, and lean chicken breast instead of beef. We started eating a very high-glycemic diet (the speed at which foods raise our blood sugar). Obesity rates skyrocketed. Type-2 diabetes increased. Cancer rates increase. This is starting to come to light.
In this review for example, full fat dairy was shown to be protective against the aforementioned things we were told it would cause.
What is the underlying driver of those diseases? At their core they are metabolic conditions, meaning they are driven by an imbalance in our energy metabolism. When glucose is flooded into our body on a constant basis, and our energy needs do not match with the amount of energy we are giving our cells, problems start happening. Here are a few tips on optimizing your diet for lower blood sugar.
Fat and Protein: Eating For A Low Glucose Response
The safest possible foods that we can eat in order to not stimulate blood glucose are two things: fat and protein. Some of my favorite fats include butter, tallow, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, and red palm oil. So why should we ignore conventional wisdom and eat good quality fat? Because intake of dietary fat does not raise blood glucose like carbohydrates do. When fats enter the bloodstream they do not need to be immediately stored like glucose. They can go right to cells for use as energy or be stored in the body.
Fats are a remarkably efficient fuel for our cells and a much more sustainable one. Instead of having a blood sugar crash after every carb-laden meal, your body sending stress hormones like cortisol flooding out because of the perceived lack of energy, fats provide a continuous source of energy that can either come from our plate or our body. replacing carbohydrates with fats can actually lower both our fasting and post meal blood glucose and raise our sensitivity to insulin. This systematic review found in over 102 trials that when carbohydrates are replaced with fat blood glucose, HbA1c, and insulin sensitivity were dramatically improved.
Protein is a nutrient that we simply need to survive. We cannot make it endogenously, nor access stores of it like we can with fat. Protein is broken down into amino acids to be used as energy, used for hormone signaling, or can be broken down into glucose if necessary by means of a process called gluconeogenesis. Protein is essential because it triggers many hormonal processes in our body.
It is especially important for weight loss and blood glucose/insulin control. increasing protein in this review was found to improve appetite, cardiovascular risk, and weight management.
Here’s another study showing significant improvements in blood glucose control on a high-protein diet in Type-2 diabetics.
Carbs: What Kinds and How Much?
I’ll start with the short answer: carbohydrates need to be limited to manage blood sugar. There are a few foods that we can immediately discount not only for their high carbohydrate content but for their low nutrition and anti-nutrient content.
- Processed grains, even “healthy whole grains”, skyrocket your blood sugar. The myth that whole grain bread is better for you is simply that, a myth. When grains are ground into a flour it doesn’t matter if it has all the fiber still attached to it, it does the same thing as white bread. This includes all grain based breads, pastries, and cereals.
- Sugar. The highest glycemic food. Yes this includes your agave syrup, coconut sugar, and raw cane.
Just by getting rid of those big offenders, the carbohydrate content of your diet will dramatically decrease. A diet based around these foods could be in excess of 500 grams of carbohydrates a day. With the ability of our body to store about 500 grams of glycogen (stored glucose), eating that way our whole lives leads to a serious energy imbalance. Most of us aren’t nearly active enough to be doing heavy anaerobic exercise to burn of that muscle glycogen to allow for it to be replenished constantly through diet.
Now that the biggest offenders are out of the way, what carbohydrates does that leave us with? Fruit, starchy vegetables, and legumes. These three foods are all rich in carbohydrates and affect our blood glucose in various ways. Here we can look at the glycemic index for help. This is a list of every food and how fast the carbohydrates are absorbed into our system. Foods under a score of 55 are absorbed more slowly into our system and cause a slower rise in blood glucose/insulin. For a sweet fix, berries are very low on the glycemic index and are a go to of mine.
When Should Carbs Be Eaten?
I recommend tailoring your carbohydrate intake to your activity level. If protein and fat make up the base of your diet, carbohydrates can be added in when you are doing more movement than usual for the day. This could be anything from a hard workout, a run, a long hike, or swimming. Anything that is causing you to tap into those stored glycogen reserves. This makes more room for a few dietary carbohydrates.
A BIG BUT HERE. If the goal is to lose weight/ get insulin and blood glucose under control, it is not necessary to replace carbohydrates after moving. I know, you parked at the far end of the parking lot and walked an extra 400 steps that one day. It will not help weight loss goals or glucose control to constantly be topping of the glycogen reserves with more carbs. When we are in a glycogen deficit, our body becomes metabolically flexible and can start to burn fat for fuel. Specifically, fat on the body can become fuel in between meals and in a fasted state. We become more sensitive to insulin. We teach our body to switch between fuel sources.
A study was conducted in which adults ran for 90 minutes, then given either a placebo or real sugar drink to replace carbs burned, then ate a low carb meal that evening. The goal of the study was to see how glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity were affected by replacing or not replacing the glycogen that was burned in exercise. The findings:
- The next morning the adults with the post-workout carbohydrate replacement had impaired glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity.
- The carbohydrate replacement group had impaired fat oxidation post-workout. (burned less body fat)
So, if the goal is to lose body fat and improve glucose tolerance, eating carbohydrates is not necessary. If you are at a comfortable weight, can efficiently burn fat and process carbohydrates, a few carbohydrates here and there will not hurt, and will benefit high intensity exercise like sprinting.
It is important to not overdo this concept and be slamming down baked sweet potatoes drenched in grass-fed butter, or eating an entire bag of organic root vegetable chips fried in coconut oil. Don’t let it get away from you. We can still easily overeat carbohydrates by consuming too much fruit or starch relative to our activity level. Most activities aren’t burning that much stored muscle glycogen, even harder workouts.
Put It Into Action
When I was first getting grains and sugar out of my diet, I relied on fruit to take the place of dessert. Consuming a bowl of berries or a ripe banana with some almond butter was my nightly routine to break my sugar addiction. Since I did not have excess weight to lose, this was an effective strategy. Eventually I settled into how I eat now, which is a ketogenic diet. This is the near absence of all carbohydrates and focuses on fat and protein. This has allowed me to put on muscle and maintain a body composition i am comfortable with.
Try cutting the worst offenders out of you diet like grains and sugar, and see what happens. If you hit a plateau and are not losing the weight, try reducing carbs at a comfortable rate and replacing them with quality protein and fat. This will increase satiety and probably decrease overall calories eaten. Steak and eggs, anyone?
Thats it for this week. Thanks for following along, and leave any questions or comments below!