Are you on a daily ‘blood sugar rollercoaster’?
It’s time we all started paying more attention to how the food we eat affects our blood sugar levels, and what that means for our overall health and wellbeing.
We spoke to nutritional therapist Yasmin Muswell to find out everything you need to know about blood sugar levels and how you can make some simple and manageable lifestyle changes to help you get off the rollercoaster once and for all.
What are blood sugar levels?
I think people often complicate the whole concept about blood sugar levels but actually, it’s quite simple.
Our blood sugar levels are how much sugar is in our blood at any given time.
Now, the way the the sugar gets into the blood is where the system becomes a bit more complex. But ultimately it is just how much sugar is present in someone’s blood, at that time.
Our blood sugar levels are dependant on what we eat. That’s the main way that our blood sugar levels are manipulated – by what we eat. How quickly the food can be broken down will determine how quickly our blood sugar levels are affected. You might have heard of the terms ‘Glycemic Index or Glycemic Load’ before.
The Glycemic Index basically means how quickly food is broken down into sugar that enters the blood. Foods are generally measured on a scale of zero to 100, 100 being table sugar.
Table sugar is released into the bloodstream really quickly because it’s already been manipulated, manufactured and processed. The more that’s done in a factory, the less our body has to do. That’s why the body can break down simple sugars really quickly, because there isn’t much left for us to do. The foods that have a lower Glycemic Index are the ones that are more complex to break down.
Fruits, vegetables and grains are less processed, have more fiber and they’re more in the state that they’re found in nature. Because there’s less processing involved, they wouldn’t have necessarily even been in a factory, so that leaves our body more of the work to do. Therefore, the digestive process takes longer and the sugar is released into our blood at a much slower and more steady rate.
People might think that if it takes our body longer [to process foods], then that’s not good, but actually, with sugar levels it works in the opposite way. You basically want your body to work harder. It also means that you’re going to be using more energy to break down that food as well. We want our body to work a bit harder to get the energy, because it means that the energy we do get is being released into the bloodstream at a much slower rate.
What is the ‘blood sugar rollercoaster’?
The ‘blood sugar rollercoaster’ is an analogy that we can use for our blood sugar levels.
If, for example, you wake up in the morning and the first thing you eat are some sweets or some chocolate, they are going to be broken down into our bloodstream really quickly. There’s nothing to them – no fiber or nourishment – and our blood sugar levels will literally spike up within about half an hour. But just as quickly as they go up, they’ll come crashing down.
When our blood sugar levels go up too quickly, often we produce too much insulin. Insulin in the hormone that our body pumps out when our blood sugar levels increase. It’s a normal response, and the insulin is produced by our beta cells which live in our pancreas. Their job is to respond when our blood sugar levels increase. When they do, the insulin is pumped out, and its job is to allow the sugar to leave the blood and enter the muscles or wherever it needs to be used in our cells.
Insulin is like the key that allows the muscle cells or other cells to open and allow the sugar to leave the blood and enter them, which is how we get energy.
Insulin is vital – but when we have these short bursts of sugar from sweets, for example, sometimes we can produce too much insulin, and that will cause our blood sugar levels to crash down, because all the sugar has gone into the cells and we might get a responsive blood sugar low, which is known as a hypoglycaemic response. That’s where you can start to feel lethargic and tired, you might start to get a bit ratty with your mood, and then you’re going to crave the sugar again. When you have the sugar again, you’re carrying on your journey on the blood sugar rollercoaster.
How can we get off the blood sugar rollercoaster?
A really simple way to get off of the blood sugar rollercoaster is to combine different food groups.
This one is actually quite simple to do – you just need to add a few simple things to your meal. Let’s take some breakfast cereal or a piece of bread. If you’re just having it on its own, that is just carbohydrate, so it’s going to be broken down a lot quicker because it’s on its own. If you add some protein and fat into that meal, the presence of those two food groups actually slows down the release of sugar into the blood stream.
So it’s a really good way to make sure that you’re combining different food groups. It might be that you add some peanut butter or almond butter to your slice of toast. That’s going to contain fat and protein. It could also be adding an egg, or some olive oil or butter, or a sprinkle of seeds. Combining the food groups like that is a really simple way to help balance the blood sugar levels.
The blood sugar rollercoaster also puts a stress on the body. Our bodies are supposed to keep our blood sugar levels within a normal range, but when they are erratically up and down, that puts stress on your body. If you’re tired, for example, it’s going to make you even more tired and put even more stress on your body.
Insulin is a hormone, and all of our hormones are connected in a web-like format in the body. For female hormones, if your blood sugar levels are all over the place, the hormones around your menstrual cycle are not going to be in balance.
Is it only carbohydrates that cause increases in blood sugar levels?
Protein does to a much, much lower extent, but it’s mainly carbohydrates. A carbohydrate is a massive umbrella term for anything that can be broken down into sugar, or glucose, by our body. The broccoli or the apple you eat, all the way up to potatoes, lentils and rice, and to white flour and sugar – they are all carbohydrates. That’s why choosing your carbohydrates wisely is also another really important thing for blood sugar levels. We know that they all get broken down into the same thing, but it’s about the route and the process to get there.
Weight is another thing that’s really linked to our blood sugar levels, especially the weight that we hold around the middle (the bottom of the stomach area). That is really linked to our blood sugar levels.
I personally think that balancing blood sugar levels is a cornerstone of nutrition, because it can have such an impact on so many other bodily systems.
For someone who is on the ‘blood sugar rollercoaster’, how quickly can they make changes and notice the effects?
Everyone’s different, and the response will be different for everyone in terms of different foods. There’s research from 2015, where they took a whole bunch of individuals and fed them the same foods and they observed that everyone had different responses. So not everyone’s response will be exactly the same, because we’re different and science is not simple.
There is also current research being done looking into twins and their responses, and their responses are completely different as well. So I think that blood sugar levels and personalized nutrition is definitely an area to look out for.
In terms of getting off the blood sugar rollercoaster, you can start immediately – because it’s something that happens immediately.
Our blood sugar levels respond to what we eat, such as the meal we’ve just eaten. In terms of that, it is meal by meal, but if you are someone who has been on the rollercoaster for some time, it may take you some time to adjust to it. Initially, you might feel a bit more tired, but it’s just your body adjusting to it.
I would say to at least give it two weeks. But generally, in terms of your body’s response, it will be to what you’ve just eaten.
What advice would you give to someone who is looking to change their diet by eating the right kinds of carbohydrates?
My advice is always to start slowly. If you remove all of the refined carbohydrates from your diet overnight, the likelihood of you giving up with it is a lot higher, rather than building up slowly. It’s always best for our bodies to adapt to the change slowly.
Maybe you could just start with breakfast, and for the first week you just focus on nailing that one meal. It can be too much to start thinking about every meal and snack. Start with one meal, and then you can build up.
In terms of swaps, I would say that if you’re someone who consumes breakfast cereals, then try and go for oats. There’s a lot you can do with oats – you can have porridge, do overnight oats or have them as a muesli with milk.
As a general recommendation, I advise switching to wholegrain varieties. There is actually a difference between ‘wholemeal’ and ‘brown’. So if you’re looking at bread, for example, and you normally have a white bread, then switching to ‘brown’ might not necessarily mean that it’s got the wholemeal in it. ‘Brown’ may mean that they have just added some more coloring into it. So always look out for ‘wholemeal’ versions, because they will have more of the fiber and other things in them.
The same goes with pasta. There are pastas that you can get now that are made out of green pea, brown rice and red lentil pasta. They are more popular now, and are really good because they contain more fiber and less carbohydrate. So in terms of blood sugar levels, the response will be a lot better. And they also mean you’re taking in more fiber, which is always a win. Most of us are lacking in the fiber department.
Where you can, choose to snack on fruits and vegetables combined with some nuts. That could be some peanut butter or a handful of nuts with your fruit. Go for snacks that are higher in fiber and lower in refined sugar. Fiber and blood sugar levels go hand in hand. The more fiber, the less quickly the sugar will be released into the bloodstream. It’s a win-win in terms of getting more fiber and helping the blood sugar level balance as well.