Medically reviewed by Dr. Stacy Hengisman MD and Felice Ramallo MSRD.
You may hear now and again about the rising rates of insulin resistance around the world, or how balancing our blood sugar is important for avoiding certain health problems and promoting long-term wellness - but what does it really mean to balance your blood sugar? For most of us, we know that certain foods hold a higher nutritional content than others (for instance, chocolate chip cookies versus blueberries), but we also know that both foods, depending on your background, can hold cultural significance in certain recipes, be a source of nostalgia, act as something to commune over, or more simply - taste really good! So in one sense, learning how to balance our blood sugar better is a useful exercise in learning how to enjoy our favorite foods in a way that is healthy, sustainable, and informed. So let’s talk about what blood sugar is, why we should care about balancing it, and tips for how we can better balance our blood sugar levels throughout the day, while still getting to enjoy our favorite foods. Let’s dive in.
What is blood sugar
Blood sugar is simply glucose found in your blood: it is derived from the foods that we eat everyday (whether it be sugar, rice, potatoes, pasta, vegetables, or bread, all carbohydrates are eventually broken down into glucose). Your blood then carries glucose to your body’s cells to be used for energy.
Here’s the thing though: the rate at which your blood sugar rises and falls matters, and the foods you eat can impact how quickly that happens.
For instance, blood sugar spikes “occur when your blood sugar rises and then falls sharply after you eat” - this can happen when consuming things like soda, processed foods, and refined carbohydrates without strong sources of fiber (which helps lower blood sugar) or protein (which helps slow digestion). In an ideal world, you don’t want to have your blood sugar sharply rising and falling. You want your blood sugar to rise slowly and fall slowly, to prevent things like lethargy and hunger in the short term, as well as the increased risk for type 2 diabetes in the long term.
So elevated blood sugar isn’t something you want. In fact, this is how insulin resistance can take hold: cells in your muscles, fat, and liver “don’t respond well to insulin and can’t easily take up glucose from your blood” - as a result, the pancreas is forced to make more insulin to get glucose into your cells.
Unfortunately, if this continues, blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels rise over time as the pancreas can’t make enough insulin to compensate for your cells’ weak response to insulin. According to the CDC, this is how the stage is set for prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.
Can we balance blood sugar levels?
Fortunately, for most people, we can help balance our blood sugar levels through the foods that we choose to consume, when we consume them, and how we combine the foods we eat.
So that’s the good news: there are tangible, relatively easy things we can do most days to reduce our blood sugar spikes, help temper our insulin levels, and along the way prevent those undesirable sugar spikes and crashes that leave us craving a nap in the middle of the afternoon.
Daily habits that may help better balance blood sugar
- Swap refined carbohydrates for whole-grain foods
Refined carbs are quickly and easily absorbed by the body, which means they have a higher glycemic index - as a result, they spike blood sugar more easily. Examples of refined carbs would be white bread, white rice, yellow potatoes, sugar, and soda. On the other hand, Harvard Health notes that whole-grains generally have a “lower glycemic index” meaning these foods “tend to release glucose slowly and steadily:” examples of low GI foods may include green vegetables, oats, lentils, and beans. As such, to prevent sugar spikes and crashes, consider lowering your intake of high glycemic foods, or swapping high glycemic index options for lower glycemic options. Examples may include occasionally switching out white rice for brown rice, yellow potatoes for sweet potatoes, and soda for unsweetened or lightly sweetened tea.
Not sure what foods have a high glycemic index? Harvard Health has an easy to read table that shows popular food options and their glycemic index rating; alternatively, the Mediterranean diet is one known for being filled with mostly whole, unprocessed foods.
- Eat more fiber
Fiber is great for helping stabilize blood sugar because it can “help slow the absorption of carbs and the release of sugar into the blood.” Accessible and affordable sources of fiber include oats, beans, fruits, and vegetables. In cases where you might be choosing a higher glycemic index food, you can lower the glycemic load of the meal or snack by adding extra fiber. You can do this by adding fiber on the side, in the form of fruits, veggies, or seeds (like chia, flax, or hemp).
- Drink more water
If you need another reason to stay hydrated, you might be interested to know that “not drinking enough water can lead to blood sugar spikes.” This is because when your body is dehydrated, it produces vasopressin - this hormone does a couple of things: it signals to your kidneys to retain fluid, which helps stop the body from flushing out excess sugar in urine, while it also tells your liver to release more sugar into the blood.
Since everyone is different, there isn’t an ‘ideal’ number of ounces to drink per day, but try to be mindful of the following:
- When you’ve done exercise or it’s hotter out, you will need more water to replenish the water you’ve lost from sweating
- Dehydration seems to “negatively affect blood sugar control”
- It may be easier to remember to replenish fluids when you have a reusable water bottle handy, or you make notes/goals in your planner to increase your water intake
- Make increasing your water intake - a new habit - easy on yourself: if you don’t like room-temperature water, then make sure to refill the water jug in the fridge; if you don’t like still water, consider buying unflavored and unsweetened sparkling water! Alternatively, adding cut up fruit to iced water can be refreshing and offer some variation from regular tap water.
Interested in learning more about how to build healthy habits you’ll keep? Check out our blog post on the topic!