The Blood Sugar Balance – How Much Sugar is Too Much?
by Claudia Jones, Wellness Director, Samahita Retreat
Our bodies need sugar to perform a number of elementary functions. Glucose, a form of sugar is essential for facilitating a whole host of processes from mental functioning to the generation of protein. Without a regular supply of glucose we lack energy, both mental and physical and experience weakness as a result. Although the body needs a regular supply of glucose, too much or too little sugar in the blood presents a serious health hazard.
The unhealthy sugar cycle.
When you intake a sugary substance, a sweet drink for example, your blood sugar levels rise immediately causing your body’s regulating mechanism to kick into action to release the hormone insulin from the pancreas. Insulin works to remove the glucose from the blood and store it as glycogen, an energy reserve for later use. When blood sugar levels rise very quickly, the pancreas releases an excess of insulin to deal with the ‘emergency’ and fairly soon, blood sugar levels have dropped to a point below where they were prior to consuming the drink. This can leave us feeling tired, irritable, spaced out, even anxious and frequently craving something sweet to pick us up again. This quickly becomes a vicious cycle and we can have our blood sugar levels rising high and crashing low throughout the day. Not only is this unpleasant in terms of how it affects our mood and energy levels, it is also extremely detrimental to our health; repeated overloading on sugary foods and drinks can diminish the body’s ability to respond to insulin. This stage is known as insulin resistance or pre-diabetes, when glucose levels in the blood are higher than normal (hyperglycemia); if action is not taken at or before this stage then diabetes mellitus, also known as Type 2 or adult onset diabetes may develop. Too little glucose in the blood also presents a serious problem, (hypoglycemia) resulting in confusion, coma, brain damage and even death. The delicate blood sugar balance is therefore vital to our physical and mental wellbeing and our role in keeping the balance is understanding how to eat to provide the body with a steady supply of fuel, neither overloading our system on a regular basis nor depriving it for long periods of time.
So how can we eat to keep our blood sugar levels optimal?
Every carbohydrate food contains a certain amount of glucose; the effect a particular food has on our system is determined by how rapidly the glucose enters the bloodstream and the ‘spike’ or ‘curve’ it creates in our blood sugar levels. Carbohydrate foods can be classified as either simple or complex. Pure glucose is a simple carbohydrate which means that it is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream, creating a sharp increase in blood sugar levels. At the other end of the spectrum might be ‘All Bran’ breakfast cereal, a complex carbohydrate, that is particularly slow to raise the blood sugar. As a general rule, whole foods, that is, foods in their natural, unprocessed form, such as brown rice or whole rolled oats, will release glucose far more slowly into the blood than refined processed foods such as white bread or white rice, so our diet should consist mainly of whole foods.
The Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load
A helpful tool that tells us how quickly or slowly a particular food releases glucose into the bloodstream is the Glycemic Index (GI) where foods are rated as Low, Medium or High. By selecting low GI foods or combining high GI foods with low GI foods, it may be possible to regulate levels of sugar in the blood. Some examples of low GI foods are haricot beans, green lentils or wholemeal spaghetti. High GI food examples are white rice, potato without the skin and watermelon. However, the Glycemic Index alone may not be sufficient to make appropriate meal choices as the amount of a particular food we consume is also important. Glycemic Load (GL) is a ranking system for foods based on their GI as well as portion size, helping to regulate the height of the blood sugar ‘spike’. For example, by eating a portion of a high GI food such as white bread, our blood sugar level will increase but if we only eat half of the portion of bread, the blood sugar increase will also be less. This is particularly important for the prevention and control of diabetes. Watermelon is an interesting example, although it has a very high GI rating, the Glycemic Load is actually low if one consumes say, a 100gm portion. This is due to the high water content of the food so in 100gm there is comparatively little carbohydrate, thus, eating a regulated amount of a high GI food can actually have a minimal impact on our blood sugar levels.
In addition to controlling carbohydrate intake by choosing foods with a lower glycemic index rating, and by managing the amount we eat by calculating the glycemic load of each portion, we can also link carbohydrate foods with protein foods to slow the absorption of glucose into the blood. For example, for every 15gm of carbohydrate consumed, one can eat 7gm of protein in the same meal. So if one slice of bread containing 15gm of carbohydrate is consumed along with a handful of nuts or an egg amounting to 7gm of protein, the risk of sugar spiking is reduced. For those in the Insulin Resistance phase or those suffering from diabetes; a maximum of 30g of carbohydrate may be consumed in any two hour period as long as it is linked with at least 14gm of protein; extra vegetables and protein are allowed. These are the recommendations of Hart (MD) & Grossman (RD) in their book, ‘The Insulin Resistance Diet'; a medical doctor and dietician team, together they have worked with thousands of clients using this method, successfully helping them to manage their weight and blood sugar levels, thereby avoiding many of the health complications associated with obesity and diabetes.
Simple Tips for Balancing Blood Sugar
- Eat whole foods in their natural unprocessed form
- Avoid foods with added sugar.
- Do not skip meals. Skipping meals can lead to hypoglycemia.
- Choose low GI foods
- Combine high GI foods with low GI foods to slow the rate of glucose absorption
- Link carbohydrate foods with protein to slow the rate of glucose absorption
- Check the Glycemic Load of a food and regulate the amount you consume accordingly
Claudia is the Wellness Director at Samahita Retreat. Claudia offers support and advice to guests on our detox programs and teaches detox & wellness retreats at Samahita Retreat throughout the year.
References & Resources:
Hart, Cheryle & Grossman, Mary ‘The Insulin Resistance Diet’, Contemporary Books, Illinois, USA ,2001
Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load Database http://www.glycemicindex.com/