Updated: Jan 15
There’s a big push for supporting metabolic health lately, and for good reason. “Health” is much more than looking fit and lean, but rather about how well you’re functioning from the inside out. This means understanding how well you’re digesting, producing hormones, responding to stress, absorbing and utilizing nutrients aka your metabolic health.
Currently there is a good amount of research being allocated to blood sugar stability and its impact on other parts of our total health. You may have heard the term, “eat for your blood sugar”. Let’s dive into that a little more, shall we?
What is glucose?
Glucose is the simplest form of carbohydrates. Glucose is the body’s preferred source of fuel, using it for nearly every metabolic function we have. We get our glucose from the food we eat, mainly carbohydrates, but did you know that we can make it in our body as well? This is done through a series of steps in which proteins and fats are converted into glucose to ensure the body has an adequate supply. Glucose is the brain’s source of fuel, is stored in the muscle and liver, and is necessary for muscle recruitment and utilization (particularly during training or movement).
What is blood glucose?
Blood glucose is a measure of how much glucose is in your bloodstream at any given moment. Though we need glucose, we function better when it’s tightly controlled and isn’t freely prominent in the bloodstream. We have systems in place that utilize, store, and move glucose to designated areas (mainly your liver and muscle tissue) so blood glucose levels don’t stray from the optimal boundaries it so desires.
Have you ever been told to do your blood work after an overnight fast?
When your physician is testing your fasting blood sugar levels, the intention is to gain an idea of what your circulating glucose levels look like in your blood without the interference of food/digestion/energy utilization. For your reference, normal fasting blood glucose range is between 85-99 mg/dL. Testing your blood glucose is to see where you fit in that range. Either extreme (outside the range) can be indicative of health discrepancies.
When we consume food, our blood sugar increases as our body works to process glucose, allocating it to specific destinations like your liver, muscle tissue, or even to cells for storage. A pancreatic hormone called insulin is released and is vital to this process. Think of insulin as a chaperone of glucose. It works to drive glucose into the cells, stimulate the conversion of glucose into its storage form (glycogen), increases the use of carbs as fuel, and signals satiety. It’s a busy hormone, and it’s on your side. Insulin is trying to get your cells fueled, primed, and ready for responsibilities.
Have you heard of insulin sensitivity or resistance?
Insulin sensitivity is the ability of insulin to signal its effect in the tissues. If sensitivity is high, you need very little to drive glucose into the tissues after you eat. If it’s low, meaning you’re resistant to it, you’ll have higher levels of insulin, and as a result, greater body fat stores, and slowed metabolic function.
These mechanisms are working to bring your blood glucose levels back down to optimal ranges. About an hour after eating, we should see a decline in blood glucose. Even more so two hours after eating (<140m/dL). This is called your postprandial or post-meal range.
Your blood glucose levels will give you some information but it does not tell you the whole story. This is why we recommend getting your insulin, hemoglobin A1c, liver enzymes, and lipid panel tested, as well.
Why do we care about eating for blood sugar balance?
In order to be metabolically thriving, it behooves us to eat in a way that supports us staying within the ranges we’ve discussed (fasting: 85-99mg/dL; postprandial: <140mg/dL). But why do we care so much about these ranges? When your blood sugar is chronically out of range- whether low or high, there is a downstream affect on systems including:
Gut function (digestion, nutrient absorption, motility)
Hormonal production and utilization
Weakened thyroid function
Cortisol production and dependence
The ability to gain or lose weight
The ability to perform or train properly
Dysregulated blood sugar can be expressed in two forms. Hyperglycemia, which is higher than normal blood sugar or hypoglycemia, which is below the average range of blood sugar. Both of which cause the body to respond with compensatory mechanisms that affect the above areas. Unregulated glucose can be a main culprit, or driving agonist of numerous health concerns.
Since food intake, quality, quantity, timing and consistency have the biggest impact on blood sugar levels, you can see the reasoning for communicating ways to eat in a way that serves the body best.
Eating for blood sugar balance can look different for everyone, as some people may have undulating tolerance levels for things like carbohydrates. However, there are still a few basic principles that can be applied to generally everyone: we must eat.
There’s no hard and fast rule for how much or when, but a general rule of thumb is to eat every 3-5 hours throughout the day. Avoiding eating too frequently as well as having large gaps between meals allows for a steady blood sugar and helps us to avoid the high peaks and low valleys of blood sugar imbalance. These extremes are often the reason for energy swings, fatigue after eating, afternoon slumps, poor sleep and unsteady energy levels. When your body is forced to compensate, it will do so at the expense of the list of tasks you thought you were going to get done today.
This is the mantra we have our patients adopt at GHT: protein, fat, fiber. You want to do your best to include these at meal time in order to support blood sugar stability.
Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred form of energy. We don’t want to completely eliminate these – it's about finding the right amount for your body based on how you feel, your blood sugar levels and how your body handles carbohydrates. For example, if you have insulin resistance you will need to be more mindful of carbohydrates at meals.
Slow carbs are those that contain fiber to help slow how quickly your blood sugar is affected – think, whole grains, starchy vegetables, beans, lentils, fruit, breads & pasta. Non-starchy veggies (leafy greens, onion, cruciferous veggies etc) are also technically carbohydrates but we recommend including one of the other mentioned foods for energy alongside the non-starchy veggies.
Building your meal.
(This is a good way to visually connect portion sizes to a balanced plate)
Protein: about the size of the palm of your hand
Fat: oils – about the size of the tip of your thumb, others – about the length of your thumb amount
Slow carb: handful to a fistful size (adjusting based on your carb tolerance)
Veggies: ½ your plate, 1-2 handfuls greens, including a variety of colors throughout the day
Remember: this is a framework, not a rule. This helps to guide us with building our meals, but doesn’t mean every single thing you put in your mouth must look like this, we also need to leave room for flexibility and joy foods.
This is where the outer wisdom of gentle nutrition meets the inner wisdom of connecting to what our bodies want and need. This is the foundation of intuitive eating – how we combine our outer wisdom with our inner wisdom.
Outer wisdom: what foods to include, how to build meals, what movement to do for your body.
Inner wisdom: making peace with food, releasing rules and restrictions that we have put on ourselves for a sense of comfort or control, honoring hunger and satiety cues.
Can you check your own blood glucose levels?
Absolutely! To get a good idea of how the food you regularly consume is affecting your blood sugar levels, it’s a worthwhile idea to test yourself using a blood glucose monitor. This is a relatively inexpensive way to keep track of your own data and start shifting your diet in a way that reflects blood sugar balance within a health range.
Test before you eat, an hour after, and two hour after. Remember, we want to be within the discussed ranges above.
Once you’ve tracked for a few days, you’ll start to see patterns of types of food that are serving you well or disrupting the balance we’re looking for. Instead of adhering to arbitrary rules, testing yourself allows you to make adjustments that better fit your dietary preferences, physiologic response to food, and health goals. We suggest bringing that data with you to your next appointment with a qualified medical professional to assess the data and come up with ways to help impact your metabolic health.
Eating for blood sugar is an important aspect of both your metabolic and total health. It’s not just about the type of food you are eating but how your body is responding to that food. So remember, constant fluctuations in blood sugar can be a driving force behind your energy imbalances, digestive woes, poor sleep, inability to lose weight and other bodily dysfunctions. If you feel want or need more support, please consider scheduling with our functional medicine nutritionist, Kira!
Katie Morra MS, RD, LDN, IFMCP is an Institute for Functional Medicine Certified Practitioner and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist specializing in gut and hormone optimization. Katie runs a fully virtual functional medicine practice, Gut Honest Truth, based out of Maryland. Katie focuses on the root causes of inflammation, autoimmune disease, irritable bowel syndrome, food sensitivities, hypothyroidism, hormone imbalance, adrenal dysfunction as well as other chronic disease states.