It is so important to balance our blood sugar levels. Blood sugar imbalances can cause a range of health symptoms and, as a clinician, I am seeing more and more of these problems arise. The other health concern with having unbalanced blood sugar levels long-term is something called insulin resistance, which can make it very difficult to lose weight, and eventually lead to Type 2 Diabetes. If you already have Type 2 Diabetes you can reduce the health damage caused by this disease by learning how to maintain stable blood sugar levels.
So What Are the Symptoms of Blood Sugar Problems?
Blood sugar imbalances can cause some significant signs and symptoms in our bodies. These may just be mild or in some cases can be debilitating. Warning signs that you may be experiencing blood sugar imbalances include:
- Feeling hungry only a few hours after you have eaten
- Feeling fatigued especially 1–2 hours after you have eaten
- Craving sugary foods
- Mood swings
- Waking in the middle of the night
- Not feeling satisfied with a meal
- Feeling faint, shaky, or dizzy
- Feeling hot and/or sweaty
- Gaining weight easily especially tummy fat
- Having no energy to exercise
- Recurrent yeast infections
- Frequent urination or thirst (may be a sign of diabetes)
You may experience some or all of these symptoms and they can be present daily or just on occasion. The cure to reducing or eliminating these symptoms is to stabilise our blood sugar levels.
One particular patient comes to mind, a busy mother of three who was experiencing highs and lows of energy levels, mood swings, and an inability to lose weight especially from around her middle. When I examined her diet it was no wonder she was having these symptoms. She lived on the leftovers of her children’s sugary breakfasts, snacks and dinners. She often skipped lunch and tied herself over with two to three cups of coffee. Her fluctuation in energy and moods were directly correlated to sugar spikes and dips. Once we made some adjustments to her diet by following some of the tips below she experienced a reduction in her symptoms and no longer felt like she ‘was going crazy’.
Foods that Can Cause Blood Sugar Problems
Foods that cause blood sugar problems are those that have a high glycaemic index. Glycaemic index is a number given to foods that spike our blood sugar levels and, in turn, our insulin levels. When our insulin levels spike our body goes into overdrive to try and reduce our blood sugar levels again back to normal. The problem is that this process can overshoot and what we are left with is a blood sugar level that has plummeted, with an energy level to match. Over time, constantly spiking our insulin levels can lead to storing body fat, insulin resistance, and eventually diabetes. Glycaemic index is designated to foods based on a number from 1 to 100. Those foods that are less than 50 are considered those that will spike our blood sugar levels the least. Foods that are the highest in glycaemic index include:
- Most processed foods especially biscuits, cakes, pastries, most crackers
- White rice
- Most gluten-free products made from potato or rice
- Most muesli bars
- Lollies and watery icy-poles
- White, wholemeal, Turkish and spelt breads
- Very sweet, low fibre fruits such as watermelon, rockmelon, grapes
- White potato
- Fruit juice
- Soft drinks, cordials and iced tea
- Sugar, agave syrup, rice bran syrup and honey
Foods that Stabilise Blood Sugar Levels
Foods that have a glycaemic index of less than 50 help to stabilise blood sugar levels. They are absorbed slowly into our bloodstream and therefore do not spike our insulin levels. As a result we feel more satisfied with our meals, feel less hungry between meals, have less mood swings, and have more sustained energy levels. Foods that help to stabilise blood sugar levels include:
- Bran, wholegrain cereals and bread
- Wholegrain gluten-free products (if gluten intolerant)
- Wholemeal pasta
- Basmati or Dongara rice (brown rice is still high glycaemic index but is less processed than white rice. If having brown rice mix with low glycaemic index vegetables)
- Wholegrain crackers
- Hummus or guacamole dip
- Fruits such as apples, pears, berries, and oranges
- Vegetables other than white potato
- Yoghurt, smoothies and other dairy products (do choose unsweetened)
- Dark Chocolate (do choose dark chocolate containing 70% cocoa or more)
The key feature with all of these foods are that they are either high in fibre (‘roughage’) or contain protein such as dairy products. Look for foods that are higher in fibre and where possible eat the peel of fruits and vegetables. The peel adds roughage and therefore fibre, thus lowering the glycaemic index further.
Other Tips to Stabilise Your Blood Sugar Levels
Some practical strategies to stabilising your blood sugar levels include:
- Eating regular meals (every 3–4 hours)
- Eating protein with every meal such as unsweetened yoghurt, nuts, hummus, legumes, tofu, chicken, meat or fish.
- Having a light snack before bed if it has been several hours between dinner and going to bed. This might include half a cup of unsweetened yoghurt and piece of fruit or half a sandwich.
- Limits drinks to just water, tea (normal black tea and herbal), and coffee. Just a word on caffeine – this can cause spikes in your blood sugar due to release of sugar releasing hormones. If you are having difficulties with blood sugar control consider limiting or eliminating caffeine for 3–5 days to see if you feel better.
- Limit daily sugar intake (discussed further below).
What is So Bad About Sugar?
Most things in small amounts are not harmful. This is the same for sugar intake. The problem with excess sugar is that it is thought to:
Be Addictive – it is thought that sugar activates the pleasure centre in our brain much like other addictive substances.
Affect our Appetite Centre – can cause people to feel hungry all the time.
Cause Weight Gain – through conversion to body fat due to the effects of insulin.
Predispose Us to Disease – such as heart disease, diabetes, gout, and worsen polycystic ovaries.
Lead to Bloating – due to the bacteria in our intestines fermenting the undigested sugars.
So Where Does Sugar in Our Diet Come From?
Sugar is found in refined white sugar as well as naturally in fruits and many vegetables, honey, rice malt or bran syrup, coconut sugar, rapadura, molasses, and agave syrup. It is often hidden in sauces, breakfast cereals, and snack foods. The average Australian consumes around 60 grams or 12 teaspoons of sugar from all sources per day. Ideally our sugar consumption should be no more than half this amount.
How Do You Know if You Are Addicted to Sugar?
If you answer yes to any of the following questions then you are likely have a level of addiction to sugar.
- Do you have routines around sugar consumption such as buying a chocolate bar most nights on the way home from work?
- Do you need sugar hits daily?
- If forced to go without sugar for 24 hours, do you develop headaches and mood swings?
- Do you struggle to walk past a sugary treat without having ‘just one’?
How to Reduce Your Sugar Consumption?
Try the following tips to reducing sugar consumption if you suspect that you may be addicted to sugar:
- Avoid eating more than 2 pieces of fruit per day. Fill the rest of your quota of fresh produce with vegetables.
- Stick to low GI fruits as the daily norm such as apples, pears, stone fruit, mandarins, berries, kiwifruit, and grapefruit. Save high GI fruits such as watermelon, other melons, mango, and bananas for occasional consumption.
- Have protein with your fruit serves such as a small handful of nuts or plain yoghurt, which will slow down the absorption of the fruit sugar into the bloodstream
- Read labels and aim for foods that have less than 10 grams of sugar per 100 grams of product.
- Do not add sugar to tea or coffee.
- Avoid adding sugar to your baking. If you need to sweeten your baking consider using stevia or xylitol which are extracted from plants and do not spike insulin levels as much as sugar. Avoid artificial sweeteners such as aspartate due to unknown longterm effects on human health.
- Limit processed foods such as biscuits, muesli bars, desserts, cakes, muffins and pastries.
- Do not drink fruit juices regularly. This includes sweet vegetable juices, which often contain large amounts of apple, orange or carrots to sweeten them. Save drinking juice to the occasional outing rather than daily.
- Remember that alcohol is converted to pure sugar in the body and so rapidly spikes blood sugar levels. Keep alcohol consumption to moderate levels and when you do drink have a small meal at the same time to reduce blood sugar spiking.
- Do not have commercial cereal for breakfast. It is full of hidden sugars. Choose plain oats, bran, poached eggs, plain yoghurt with berries, or a protein shake instead.