The regulation of blood sugar and insulin are critical in weight management and prevention of diabetes and metabolic dysfunction. Today we will discuss the normal blood glucose and insulin response. In subsequent posts we will explore how this system breaks down and how diabetes, insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome can develop.
The Key Players:
- Blood sugar: a measurement of the amount of sugar (specifically glucose) in your blood. Blood sugar varies though out the day depending on what you eat and how active you are. Normal fasting blood sugar is less than 100 mg/dL. It is important for this value to not get too high or too low, either extreme can cause symptoms. Anything higher than 100 mg/dL is considered “pre-diabetes.” Anything lower than ~60mg is likely to produce hypoglycemic symptoms. The body has many protective systems in place to protect you if your blood sugar gets too low (cortisol, glycogen stores, gluconeogenesis etc…) But the body only has two ways to decrease blood sugar if it gets too high. One is exercise. The other is insulin.
- Insulin: Insulin is a hormone made by your pancreas in response to increases in blood sugar. Insulin signals the body’s cells to take sugar out of the blood stream. Insulin is a signal to the body that energy is plentiful. Insulin tells the body to store this extra energy as fat and inhibits the break down fat stores. Without insulin, we don’t gain weight.
So the key to controlling weight, preventing metabolic disease and improving energy now becomes regulating blood sugar and insulin. Blood sugar response varies based on what sort of food is eaten.
If we consume sugars or carbohydrates, especially in a highly refined form like white sugar or high fructose corn syrup, our blood sugar spikes quickly and drops quickly. So not long after that sugary snack, we are left hungry, unsatisfied and craving more sugar. Sugar is a fast energy source intended to hit the blood stream quick and be used up quickly.
Conversely, if we consume fats, the blood sugar response is quite slow to rise, has a much broader peak and ultimately takes longer time to return to baseline. This means that it is taking the body more time to process the food and thus we stay satiated longer. Fat is a long term energy source meant to be burned for sustained periods of time. The response to proteins is somewhere between the two.
When blood sugars spike quickly, as they do with carbohydrates, the body then reacts by pumping out lots of insulin. This is what leads to a dramatic and quick drop in blood sugar. Often the quantity of insulin released overshoots the need, so blood sugar then falls to below than optimal levels. This low blood sugar period can cause decreased energy, headaches and a myriad of other hypoglycemic symptoms.
The combination of rapid blood sugar drop and excess insulin leads to strong craving for even more sugar. If we indulge these cravings, the cycle repeats. Every time the blood sugar spikes and insulin spikes in response it is a period of storing fat. The key to managing weight is to avoid spikes in blood sugar and insulin. So contrary to commonly held belief, consumption of dietary fats does not make you fat, excessive insulin makes you fat.
The following strategies will help to keep your blood sugar more stable leading to strong energy throughout the day and will also prevent sugar cravings before they start:
- Focus on eating healthy fats (avocado, coconut, organic butter, grass fed beef, salmon, olive oil etc…) to provide sustainable energy with out spiking blood sugar.
- Incorporate protein and fiber with each meal or snack.
- Don’t skip breakfast. Make sure breakfast includes fat, protein and fiber.
- High sugar beverages including soda, juices and sports drinks are the worst at spiking blood sugar. Avoid these at all costs.
- Minimize starches, sugars and carbohydrates; especially highly refined forms like white flour, white sugar, white rice, and white potato.
- Set yourself up for success by stocking your kitchen with vegetables, high quality fats and proteins and low sugar fruits (like dark skinned berries and green apples.)
- Eat smaller more frequent meals throughout the day; making sure that each of them incorporates protein, fat and fiber.
Next post we will explore how, if this system is chronically out of balance, how metabolic syndrome, diabetes, high blood pressure and much other chronic disease can develop.