We’ve all heard the simple view on diabetes: “Just watch your carbohydrate intake to keep your blood sugar and insulin levels down.” While it is important to take into consideration your carbohydrate intake, when it comes to diabetes, looking at the bigger picture of food and biochemical individuality can help bring you to an even greater level of vitality.
1) It’s not just about the quantity of carbohydrates; it’s also about the quality of carbohydrates.
You can eat 30 grams of carbohydrates from leafy greens, colorful vegetables, legumes, and fruits (in moderation). You can also eat 30 grams of carbohydrates from bread, cereal, pasta, potato chips, and sugary foods. Despite both being 30 grams of carbs, these different choices of carbohydrates act a LOT differently in the body. The latter foods break down much more quickly in the body, and raise blood glucose levels much greater than eating real, whole foods. Real, whole foods contain antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and fiber, which is especially helpful in blunting sudden spikes in blood glucose (Hagander, Asp, Efendić, Nilsson-Ehle & Scherstén, 1988).
2) Balance your blood sugar by balancing your meals.
I remember a chemistry experiment from my school days where we added three different chemicals into a jar. Suddenly, they interacted and created a different chemical with a different consistency and different properties. Food is very much like this in the body. Mixing foods creates different chemistry in the body, which is why eating colorful produce, healthy fats, and protein at every meal is critical. This balance of healthy carbs, fats, and proteins will balance blood sugar, enhance all antioxidants in the body, and feed all the various components of your body that affect sugar levels.
While we’re on the topic, let’s talk more about carbs, protein, and fats.
Examples: Colorful vegetables, starchy carbs, fruits, legumes/beans, and non-gluten grains like buckwheat, quinoa, oats, etc.
When it comes to carbs, diversity and color are critical to pump the body full of antioxidants and phytonutrients. The more colorful vegetables you eat, the greater amount of amino acids, or proteins, too. This is how some triathletes can get away with being vegan, because their body is able to make all essential amino acids from eating abundant produce.
Also, just because starchy vegetables like potatoes and yams are higher in glycemic load (GL), which measures how much a certain food/amount raises blood sugar, it doesn’t mean you can’t include them in a balanced meal. For example, if you eat a small amount of starchy carbs along with a green leafy salad, chopped vegetables, olive oil/lemon juice for dressing, and pumpkin seeds and sunflower seeds on top for added protein, the total meal will have a low glycemic load and low effect on blood sugar.
Examples: Eggs, organic poultry and fowl, grass-fed beef, organic soy, wild-caught fish, hemp seeds, plant-based protein powders, etc.
Speaking of protein, it should be a staple at every meal to help balance blood sugar, especially at breakfast (Nuttall, Mooradian, Gannon, Billington, & Krezowski, 1984)! Generally, a piece the size of your palm is enough to balance out a meal. How much protein do you really need, though? It’s all a matter of unique biochemical needs based on physical activity, current health status, gut health, and genetics. Protein needs do change, too. For example, if you’re in a stressed state – whether physically, spiritually, or emotionally – your body’s requirement for protein goes up, as it’s a powerful repair molecule.
Note: Many proteins are very hard to digest, absorb, and utilize. These include pork, whey protein powders, fried meats, and even milk. Also, do refrain from eating a meal heavy in protein before bed, though, because it’s hard on the digestive tract and liver. These systems need to rest and rejuvenate at night, and have a powerfully positive effect on blood sugar regulation when they do.
Examples: Avocadoes, olives, nuts and seeds, olive oil, grapeseed oil, coconut oil, wild-caught fish, etc.
Similar to protein, it’s crucial to consume an adequate amount of fat at every meal to blunt the blood sugar release. In America, this is one area that is easy to underdo due to the looming 1970’s FDA fat phobia. Healthy fats are vital for the brain, bones, heart, skin, hormones, cellular communication, etc. Thankfully, this appears to finally be changing (as seen in articles like this!
Note: Omega-3 fatty acids are especially anti-inflammatory and have beneficial effects on body composition (Spencer, et. al, 2013).
3) Where your food comes from affects your blood sugar.
As we’ve discussed, quality of food is vitally important for healthy blood sugar balance. The source of your food is a part of that, too! Foods grown with pesticides, herbicides, hormones, and antibiotics are toxic to the body and liver, and ingestion of these foods may contribute to diabetes. For example, Vietnam veterans who were exposed to dioxin-containing Agent Orange herbicide preparations were observed to have a greater propensity towards diabetes (Fujiyoshi, Michalek, Matsumura, 2006). Be sure to buy from your local farmer and organic/free-range/grass-fed/wild-caught whenever possible (see Dirty Dozen to minimize toxin exposure)!
4) How you eat affects your blood sugar.
Your speed of food ingestion is also critical. When we eat rushed, standing up, and/or on the go, our body shifts to a sympathetic state (“fight-or-flight”) and diverts energy away from digestion. Even multitasking with a phone, computer, book, or TV can activate a sympathetic state. Focus on slowing down and chewing your food well to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (“rest and digest”). This variable may seem small, but any time there is incomplete digestion, it can have a huge impact on your blood sugar levels.
5) When you eat affects your blood sugar.
Timing of meals also impacts blood sugar levels. We all have a natural biorhythm that we naturally gravitate to for eating and sleeping. When we deviate by flying overseas, for example, it has a tremendous impact on our blood sugar levels (Gale, et. al, 2011). This is because our adrenals are geared towards our natural rhythm, so stick to it!
6) Decrease inflammation to decrease blood sugar.
Another thing that needs to be watched is inflammation in the body. Let’s pretend you’re allergic and/or sensitive to nuts. Even though they contain healthy fats and protein and have a low impact on blood sugar, if they evoke an inflammatory response, the opposite effect occurs, causing an elevation in blood sugar levels due to irritation to the gut wall.
Similarly, if you’re chronically stressed, have an infection, or some other cause of inflammation, it will affect blood sugar levels the same. Address, remove, and heal all underlying causes of inflammation to improve blood sugar control!
Many of these considerations may seem unimportant or minute, but when it comes to diabetes, they add up to big changes on a molecular level. Don’t feel like you have to master all of these at once, though! Start by focusing on one aspect for the first 1 – 2 weeks, and then move onto the next one. Above all, be sure to enjoy your food, ideally with loved ones, and appreciate its power to heal!
Fujiyoshi, PT, Michalek, JE, Matsumura, F. (2006). Molecular Epidemiologic Evidence for Diabetogenic Effects of Dioxin Exposure in U.S. Air Force Veterans of the Vietnam War. Environmental Health Perspectives. Volume 114, no. 11.
Gale, JE, Cox, HI, Qian, J, Block, GD, Colwell, CS, Matveyenko, AV. (2011). Disruption of circadian rhythms accelerates development of diabetes through pancreatic beta-cell loss and dysfunction. J Biol Rhythms. Oct; 26(5): 423-33. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21921296.
Hagander, B., Asp, NG, Efendić, S, Nilsson-Ehle, P, Scherstén, B. (1988). Dietary fiber decreases fasting blood glucose levels and plasma LDL concentrations in noninsulin-dependent diabetes mellitus patients. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/47/5/852.abstract.
Nuttall, FQ, Mooradian, AD, Gannon, MC, Billington, C, Krezowski, P. (1984). Effect of protein ingestion on the glucose and insulin response to a standardized oral glucose load. Diabetes Care. 7(5): 465-70. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/6389060.
Spencer, M, Finlin, BS, Unal, R, Zhu, B, Morris, AJ, Shipp, LR, Lee, J, Walton, RG, Adu, A, Erfani, R, Campbell, M, McGehee, RE Jr, Peterson, CA, Kern, PA. (2013). Omega-3 fatty acids reduce tissue macrophages in human subjects with insulin resistance. Diabetes. May; 62(5): 1709-17. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23328126