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Blood sugar levels and how to regulate them

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If your weight has increased or decreased rapidly recently, without you changing your diet, please see your GP. Obesity makes a range of illnesses more likely.

Why BMI matters

Data from our Evergreen Life app users is helping to shed more light on how important having a healthy BMI (or Body Mass Index) is. For example, users with a higher BMI are more likely to report having COVID-19 symptoms. We can also see how the likelihood of having a type 2 diabetes diagnosis increases with every additional kilogram of weight. On the flip-side, those with a lower BMI are likely to report feeling happier.

There are many reasons why some people struggle to maintain a healthy weight and some have nothing to do with our own will-power. For example, some areas have fewer shops that sell fresh food. Junk food may be more readily available and seem more attractive so it can be a challenge to eat well. Whilst those who adopt unhealthy eating patterns as a child can also find it hard to make positive change.

But understanding more about the role of the sugar in these foods and the effect it has on us, might help encourage change.

The impact of blood sugar

When you eat, your blood sugar rises, which triggers a release of insulin from the pancreas, an organ close to your liver, to push the sugar into your cells and out of your blood. This is an important mechanism because blood sugar levels that are too high are toxic for the body. Elevated insulin levels put your body into fat storage mode NOT fat burning mode. So, it follows that a diet that spikes your blood sugar levels will make it hard to lose weight.

Different foods have different effects on your blood sugar. The obvious villains are free sugars – that’s sugars that are added to food. But a typical Western diet also has a lot of refined carbohydrates, for instance, white pasta, bread, potatoes, which the body digests into sugar. Such a diet is likely to cause peaks and dips in your blood sugar and insulin levels all day long. When your blood sugar dips you may feel tired and irritable with a craving for something sweet to give you a quick boost. And so the cycle continues – it can be a vicious circle.

In an ideal world you would be eating in a way that minimised these peaks and dips leading to more stable energy levels throughout the day and reduced sugar cravings. The way to do that is with better food choices. Here are a few things to try.

Get better control of your blood sugar

1. Include a small amount of protein and healthy fats with every meal. Protein helps you feel full for longer and slows down the release of blood sugar from the meal you’ve just eaten. Good sources of protein include meat, eggs, fish, legumes, pulses, nuts and seeds. Individual requirements vary but a palm sized amount is a good guide. Healthy fats include extra virgin olive oil, avocados and walnuts.

2. Reduce your free sugar intake. The NHS advises that we all keep our daily intake of free sugar to less than 30g. It’s worth remembering this is a maximum and not a recommended amount; ideally we wouldn’t be having any but if you’d like a sweet treat, try to let it be just that – a treat. Free sugars are the sugar added to sweets, cakes, biscuits, chocolates and some fizzy drinks and juice. It does not include the sugars found naturally in foods such as fruit. But there’s sugar present in many foods you might not expect it to be, so always read the label. Every 4g of sugar is equivalent to 1 teaspoon of sugar. If you find that a large amount of your free sugar intake is coming from one source then a gradual reduction is a good way to wean yourself off it. It could be as simple as changing your daily snack or not having sugar you have in your cuppa. This will allow time for your tastebuds to adjust and you can try reducing it further the following week. Cinnamon has been shown in studies to help with blood sugar regulation and can add a sweet taste to food and drink. It’s important to check every label for sugar content. Many low fat foods are high in sugar even if they’re advertised as healthy.

3. Increase your fibre. Fibre helps you to feel full for longer and high fibre diets have been associated with lower long term weight gain. The NHS advises that everyone aims to consume 30g fibre daily. Most people are not reaching this target. What this means in practice is moving away from refined carbohydrates (white rice, bread and pasta) to unrefined carbohydrates (brown pasta, bread and rice) and increasing your vegetable intake. Focus on vegetables that grow above the ground as these are likely to have less impact on your blood sugar.

4. Look for easy switches. A good place to start is by looking at where you can make easy switches. For example, if you have a daily chocolate bar have a look at the nutrition information on the packet. The sugar content will be listed. If we take the example of a 2 finger KitKat it contains 10.6g of sugar (approximately 2.5 teaspoons sugar), in addition to 1g protein and very little fibre. So not much fibre or protein to help reduce the impact of all that sugar. Think about switching to one of the other cereal bars on the market with less sugar and more protein and fibre. It is not always realistic to cut out less healthy treats immediately so using a slightly healthier option as a stepping stone can be useful. However, if you’re ready to leapfrog the cereal bars to a more nutritious and blood sugar friendly snack, then try a small handful of raw, unsalted nuts, vegetables and hummus or nut butter on an oatcake. If you enjoy fizzy drinks try switching to sparkling water with slices of citrus fruit.

5. Restrict fruit to 1-2 portions a day. Whilst fruit is nutrient dense it is also high in fructose which is not helpful for weight loss or blood sugar regulation. When weight loss is the goal it might be helpful to restrict fruit to maximum 1-2 portions daily. Combine them with a balanced meal or a handful or nuts if having as a snack to help blood sugar balance. Fruit juice should be avoided due to its high sugar content.

6. Clear out your kitchen cupboards. It can be hard to make healthier choices when you know that your kitchen cupboards are still full of tempting treats. It is much easier to resist when your only way of getting that less healthy treat is to leave the house and go to the shops. By switching your “treats” for the healthier options we discussed above you don’t have to deprive yourself but can start to make a real difference to your health.

7. Take time to plan your meals. A large study from France showed that planning your meals for the next few days was associated with a healthier diet and less obesity. Meal planning can help save time and money as well as being good for you.

8. The thought will pass: When you think about it, all our cravings for sugar are brought to our attention as a thought. A thought is just temporary and can only exist if we give it attention. What happens when you choose not to give your sugar craving thought attention? Remember, just because you have a thought, it doesn’t mean you have to act on it. You can always choose. Without attention the thought will pass and with it the craving.

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Want to check your health and overall wellbeing? Download the Evergreen Life app below and take your available questionnaires. Look out for more as they’re released including the BMI and Body Fat Check.

Reviewed by:

Dr James Harmsworth King MBBS MPhil PhD Biotechnology & Medical Expert

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Picture of Dr Brian Fisher MBBCh MBE MSc FRSA

Dr Brian Fisher MBBCh MBE MSc FRSA

Dr Brian Fisher MBBCh MBE MSc FRSA is Clinical Director at Evergreen Life, and a Medical Expert with more than 42 years’ experience as a GP. Brian supports people in staying as fit and well as possible by having more control over their health and healthcare.