Unfortunately, our diets are full of sweet and starchy foods that can send us on a wild ride on the blood-glucose (or blood sugar) roller coaster.Here’s the master key to feeling good and shedding weight. Avoid the

The Blood Sugar Roller Coaster

For years, Tausha Moore of Ann Arbor, Michigan, got through her busy workdays by grabbing a granola bar or snack cake as a quick mid-afternoon pick-me-up. She’d get an energy boost, but all too soon Moore felt tired and hungry all over again. It’s a pattern familiar to many. We'll reach for a quick biscuit, chocolate bar or sugary drink (they’re called convenience foods, after all), which are fast-acting, dissolving rapidly in the stomach. 

These foods flood our bodies with glucose and get us going. The trouble is, as Moore experienced, the surge doesn’t last long, leaving us feeling worse off than before—and hungry again well before the next meal time. 

It’s no wonder that many of us weigh more than we’d like to. The all-to-common combination of eating too much and exercising too little get the lion’s share of blame, but yo-yoing blood sugar contributes by starting a chain of events that eventually sends us shopping for bigger jeans. 

“We want to help the body burn fat, but when we eat quickly digested carbohydrate foods, we’re encouraging the body to burn carbohydrates,” says Jennie Brand-Miller, co-author of The New Glucose Revolution and professor of human nutrition at the University of Sydney. “When our carbohydrates stores become low, we keep topping them up by eating. The body has got to put the fat somewhere—it tucks it away in the wrong places.”

 

Sound bad?

Low energy and weight gain are only the tip of the iceberg. Unless we have diabetes, we never give our blood glucose a second thought. But researchers now know that, whether or not we have diabetes, a diet loaded with foods that send blood glucose soaring can increase our risk of heart disease by damaging blood vessels and raising our cholesterol. It may even chip away at memory and increase our risk of certain cancers.

This realisation is a revolution in the way we understand diet and health. Fortunately, none of the damage happens overnight, and even modest changes in the foods we eat every day can start us on a healthier path. 

 

Why blood glucose matters

The body obtains energy from all food types—protein, fat—but the main energy source is carbohydrates. Most foods (apart from meat and oils) contain at least a little carbo-hydrate. Some foods, such as potatoes and sugary snacks, contain more carbs than others. When we eat, our bodies break down carbs into sugars, including glucose, then release them into the bloodstream. Our pancreas simultaneously secretes insulin into the blood-stream, which allows the cells throughout our bodies to absorb glucose for energy.

For most of us, even when our blood glucose soars after a large meal, our body can bring it back to normal in a few hours. But sometimes the body doesn’t respond to insulin as expected, so the pancreas produces more than usual. This can lead to a vicious cycle of insulin resistance, with the pancreas working harder and glucose levels building up in the blood

“There's evidence from animal and cell-culture studies that high glucose may be toxic to cells in the pancreas,” says Dr Christopher Nielson, professor of medicine at the University of Nevada, who has studied the effects of high blood-glucose levels in non-diabetics. “High glucose exposure over time can be associated with impaired insulin synthesis. It’s one reason for controlling blood sugar.”

Increasing Diabetes

Today, 56 million Europeans have diabetes. By 2035, that figure will swell to 69 million, according to the International Diabetes Federation. “What’s the difference between diabetic and pre-diabetic? It’s a continuum and an issue of the definition,” Nielson says. “If your fasting blood sugar is 126, you’re diabetic. If it’s 125, you’re not. The diagnosis of diabetes may depend on a small change in blood glucose, but regardless of the diagnosis, complications seem to increase the worse your blood-sugar control is.”  

Improving your diet could also ward off other conditions. “My data, and studies others have done, show that elevations of blood glucose are associated with risk for a number of problems, including vascular disease, heart failure and dementia,” Nielson says. Diabetes is associated with colon and pancreatic cancers, and high blood-sugar levels may put non-diabetics at risk too.

By now you’re wondering, “How can I get off the glucose roller coaster?” Take heart: it’s not that difficult. Modest lifestyle changes have been associated with reduced risks of disease, including diabetes and dementia.”

 

How to get off the glucose roller coaster...

Good carbs and bad carbs

There are two kinds of carbohydrates: slow-acting and fast-acting. Getting off the glucose roller coaster means eating more of the slow-acting carbs, which are gentle on your blood glucose, and less of the fast-acting carbs, which drive the wild swings in blood-glucose levels. 

“The theory is the less fluctuation in blood glucose you have, the more satisfied you feel,” Brand-Miller says. “The steep decline produces hunger. There’s some evidence in animals and humans that they start meals when blood-glucose levels are at their lowest.”

Whether carbs are fast- or slow-acting depends on a food’s starches and sugars, how the food is cooked and whether it’s processed. The less processed, the better.  And watch out for fast-acting natural carbs: limit starchy vegetables, some rices and fruit juices.

“Consider eating an orange versus drinking orange juice,” says Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson Constance Brown-Riggs, a dietitian in New York. “The body digests juice very rapidly, so glucose is released quickly...chewing fruit takes longer and there’s fibre, which takes longer to digest.”

Surprisingly, pasta, even if it’s made from white flour (which is milled and processed), releases its carbs more slowly than potatoes or breads. That’s because pasta starch is trapped in a network of protein molecules, so it takes work to digest. But overcooking breaks down some starches, easing digestion and leading to blood-sugar spikes. 

 

Know your sugars

You might assume that controlling your glucose means avoiding all sweets, but not all sugars are the same. Sucrose (table sugar) causes spikes and drops in blood-glucose levels. But fructose, occurring naturally in fruit and non-starchy vegetables, and lactose in dairy products, enter the blood-stream more slowly

“Most people don’t appreciate how much sugar they’re eating,” says Dr Andrew Bremer, programme director at the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Maryland. “The amount of added sugar in the typical Western diet has increased over the years, and it’s paralleled the rise in obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Tired of the glucose roller coaster, Tausha Moore took action. “I read about how sugar crashes make you crave more sugar,” Moore says. “That’s what was happening to me.” So for a year, she’s avoided foods with added sugar, opting for fresh fruit or wholegrains. With fewer glucose-induced spikes and drops, she feels more even-keeled at work.

“I snack less often and have a fairly high energy level,” she says. “My diet gives me the energy and mood boost I need without the negative effects I was experiencing with sugar.”

If you have Diabetes and are looking for a way to manage your diet, try Diabetes: Practical Guide To Managing Your Health, 10.99

 

Illustration: Ed Fortheringham

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