An edited version of this article written by Lela was published in issue 45 of The South African Journal of Natural Medicine, available in stores nationwide on a monthly basis or on: www.naturalmedicine.co.za.
Balancing blood sugar through diet.
When I was a child and was having a tantrum about something, the first thing my mother would ask was, ‘Have you eaten?’. At the time I couldn’t understand why this was important and as a teenager I was convinced she was encouraging an unhealthy emotional relationship with food but now, as so often happens in hindsight, it seems that my mother, was right.
I have since discovered that I have a family tendency to hypoglycaemia, also known as low blood sugar and thus I have to be very conscious of keeping my blood sugar levels stable as this can often be a precursor to adult onset diabetes. As a result I have tried and tested various ways of eating until I found what works for me. Even if you are not hypoglycaemic, balancing your blood sugar through diet is a great way to keep your mood and energy levels up and your weight down.
How does it work?
In order to understand how to keep your blood sugar on an even keel, you first need to understand how your body keeps it balanced.
Blood sugar is mainly controlled by two hormones, glucagon and insulin. Glucagon increases the breakdown of fat into fatty acids in adipose tissue which causes fatty acids to be released into the blood and so providing energy for the cells, it also stimulates glucose release into the blood. All of this has the effect of helping blood sugar rise to a normal level.
Insulin on the other hand, stimulates most of the body cells to take up more glucose from the blood. It also increases the rate at which glucose is used as an energy source. This has the effect of helping blood sugar to drop to a normal level.
Thus, how it works is as follows: When you eat a meal which for example contains high levels of carbohydrates which causes the blood sugar levels to rise, a signal gets sent to the beta cells of the pancreatic islets, part of the pancreas. This signal tells them to secrete the hormone insulin so that the body cells can take up excess glucose from the blood, use glucose faster as an energy source and that glucose from the liver and skeletal muscles is to be used to form glycogen and fat is to be made from the glucose in fat tissue and liver cells. All of these effects then cause a drop in the blood sugar level. After a few hours the blood sugar level will drop below normal or set point level when the nutrients supplied by the meal have ceased circulating in the blood. When blood sugar drops like this, the pancreas are signalled to stop secreting insulin and start secreting glucagon, this time from the alpha cells in the pancreatic islets. This then has the effect of causing glycogen in the liver and skeletal muscles to be broken down into glucose more quickly, fats to be broken down into fatty acids and glycerol in fatty tissue and these then being released into the blood as an alternative energy source to glucose. An increase in glucose synthesis from the glycerol absorbed from the blood takes place as well as an increase in the release of glucose into the blood. All of these effects cause the blood sugar to rise again to a normal or set point level.
Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load
When we balance our blood sugar through our diet we need to know how certain foods will affect our blood sugar levels and this is done by looking at the glycemic index or the glycemic load of a food.
The Glycemic Index is a way of measuring how much of a rise in blood sugar levels are caused by different carbohydrates. A numerical system is used and foods are compared to glucose which is given a value of 100. The higher the number given to a food, the greater the rise in blood sugar caused by that food. Thus a low GI value means a small rise in blood sugar and a high GI value means a greater rise in blood sugar. A GI of 70 or more is considered high, a GI of 56-69 is considered medium and a GI of 55 or less is seen as low.
Glycemic Load is a more recent way of assessing a foods effect on blood sugar levels. With this system the carbohydrate content of a food is taken into account and the Glycemic Load is worked out according to that. With GI we determine how quickly a particular carbohydrate turns into sugar. With GL we determine how much of that carbohydrate is present in a serving of that food, thus it gives a more accurate reflection of a particular foods effect on blood sugar levels. A GL of 20 or more is high, 11-19 is considered medium and a GL of 10 or less is low. The GL is calculated by taking the GI and dividing it by 100 and then multiplying that number by the available carbohydrate content in grams per serving. (1)
Foods beneficial to blood sugar balance.
There are many commonly available foods which can form a part of a blood sugar balancing diet.
When testing the effect of common foods on blood sugar, Richard Anderson at the US Department of Agriculture’s Human Nutrition Research Centre in Beltsville, Maryland, found that apple pie spiced with cinnamon actually had a beneficial effect on blood sugar levels. Just half a teaspoon of cinnamon a day can help to significantly lower blood sugar levels.
Oats contain beta-glucan, a type of fibre, which is said to lower cholesterol and ensures that oats causes a much lower rise in blood sugar than other more refined foods. Oats also contain magnesium, which is a co-factor for certain enzymes involved in insulin secretion and the body’s use of glucose. Home made muesli is easy to prepare and gives you a healthy start to your day.
Barley contains the same kind of cholesterol lowering fibre as oats, meaning that it is digested by the body more slowly than for example white rice and thus it gives what is called a sustained energy release to the body, preventing dramatic blood sugar highs. Barley is great added to winter soups or cold summer salads with a mint and yoghurt dressing.
This versatile fruit contains fibre meaning that when it is added to a meal it helps to slow down the rise in blood sugar one finds after eating. The healthy fats in avocadoes also help to raise insulin sensitivity in the body, making them great for blood sugar control. Knowing this you now have an excuse to make dark rye toast with guacamole and cayenne your blood sugars new best friend.
Tests have found that the high sulphur and flavonoid content of onions cause a significant drop in blood sugar levels of diabetics when they consumed 2 ounces of this food per day. Thus having onion in your soup, salad and on your lunch-time sandwich may have blood sugar benefits.
Garlic has been shown to lower blood sugar by increasing the body’s insulin sensitivity and also raising insulin production. Garlic can be used in salad dressings and pasta sauces or added to home made vegetable stock or broth.
Due to their high fibre content, sweet potatoes are much lower on the glycemic index than regular potatoes and thus are a good alternative for those wishing to balance their blood sugar levels. Have them baked or steamed or treat yourself to homemade fish and chips with a twist.
Other foods beneficial to blood sugar control include cherries, nuts, brown basmati rice, flaxseeds, apples, cooked beans and sprouts.
Do it your way.
The best way to have a healthy balanced diet which also helps to balance your blood sugar is to follow these guidelines, outlined by UK nutritionist Patrick Holford in his GL diet:
1. Reduce the total amount of carbohydrates in your diet.
2. Choose carbohydrates with a low GL, think oats with soya milk for breakfast and steamed sweet potatoes and green beans with home made mayonnaise for dinner.
3. Combine carbohydrates and protein for sustained energy release, have brown basmati rice with salmon and vegetables or whole wheat pasta with butter beans and sundried tomatoes.
4. Cut back on stimulants and stress. Replace your morning coffee with a mint and lemon tea, drink more water and take time every day to sit quietly and contemplate your goals and dreams for 10 minutes.
Whatever your reasons are for wanting to balance your blood sugar, doing it is easy and affordable, all it takes is a little knowledge, a willingness to try different foods and the decision to be conscious of how you fuel your body throughout the day.
Oh and remember, sometimes, just sometimes, your mother did know best!
Sources: 1 – www.mendosa.com
2 – Staying Healthy with Nutrition by Elson Haas M.D
Recommended reading: The Holford Diet by Patrick Holford.
Staying Healthy with Nutrition by Elson Haas MD.