Updated: Apr 10, 2020
Our blood sugar numbers have been going up exponentially over the last few decades. In the 1960s, the diabetes (type 2) prevalence was 1% in the United States. In 2015, it was 7.4% (1). Canada has experienced a 70% increase in diabetes in the last decade (2). Diabetes is a serious health condition which can affect the cardiovascular system, kidneys, nervous system, among many others. Why the rise in diabetes? There are many blame theories but the finger often gets pointed to an increase in processed foods- particularly refined sugars- and sedentary lifestyles. But I won’t get into that now. Having high blood sugars does not mean you have diabetes. Diabetes (type 2) can take years to develop. This is good news for those who have been warned of creeping blood sugar numbers or pre-diabetes. And even if you do have diabetes, it’s never too late to make some changes. The following are five simple (simple is relative…I know) ways of lowering your blood sugars.
1. Eat more protein
You heard me right. The first two words are EAT MORE. No need for food deprivation. Protein-rich foods include meat, fish, eggs, cheese, nuts, whey protein and beans. Protein is important for blood sugar regulation because it has very little impact on blood sugar and it is satiating (beans are an exception as they contain carbs).
Secondly, including protein reduces the total glycemic load of a meal, that is, how much a meal will raise a person’s blood sugar. For example, a whole grain toast with jam has a much higher glycemic load compared to a whole grain toast with cheese. That’s because the cheese is high in protein and low in sugar, and the jam is low in protein and high in sugar. That doesn’t mean you need to become a carnivore or increase your intake of meat. In fact, results from the Nurse’s Health study (1984-2009) suggest that consuming vegetarian protein is associated with a moderately reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes whereas a diet high in meat (described as red and processed meat) is associated with an increased risk (3). Did you read the words in the last parenthesis? Red and processed meat is a lot different than, say, fish or chicken. And red meat can be very nutritious depending on the source, the quantity consumed and the cooking method. A 3-4oz serving of grass-fed beef cooked on low to medium heat is better for health compared to an 8oz serving of conventionally raised beef grilled at high temperatures. Before I go on a rant about AGES (Glycation End Products from high temperature cooking), let me end this paragraph by giving you a few meal suggestions that include protein.
Breakfast: 2 eggs, ½ avocado, 1 slice multigrain sourdough bread
Lunch: Lentil and spinach soup
Dinner: 4oz salmon, mixed green salad topped with pumpkin seeds (olive oil and lemon), ½ cup quinoa
Evening snack: 1oz raw nuts
2. Eat Less Carbs…especially at night
You don’t have to go completely low-carb if your blood sugars aren’t optimal. As I mentioned in the first point, it’s important to focus on lower glycemic carbs.
Consider a food to be lower-glycemic if it has lots of fibre, fat and/or protein. Most fruit, just in case, though sweet, fall in the middle of the glycemic index. So, when consuming carbohydrates, eat whole grains such as steel cut oats, quinoa, hearty breads, and be sure to combine them with a good protein and fat source for an even lower GI effect. Beans are a source of carbs but also very high in fibre and protein. Eat carbs. Not a whole lot. And minimize them in the evening (Michael Pollan moment there, “Eat foods. Not too much. Mostly plants”).
Why in the evening? A recent study published in the Journal of Diabetes Care looked at participants with type 2 diabetes and compared two eating patterns: one was your typically recommended ‘six meals per day’ diet, and the other was a ‘three meals per day’ with reduced carbohydrates in the evening meal. The three meals per day group experienced improvements in blood sugar control, lower hemoglobin A1C (three-month blood sugar average), appetite regulation, a reduced need for insulin injections, and weight loss (4). The authors of this study suggest that improved blood sugar and appetite control in the three-meal group may be due to improvements in circadian rhythm, the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Very interesting findings if you ask me!
3. Say a polite No thanks to added sugars
Whole grain carbs, beans and fruit can all be part of a blood-sugar balancing diet. Carbs in the form of added sugars, unfortunately, cannot. This is not to say that you can never ever enjoy sweets again. But if your blood sugars have crept up on you and you are super pumped to bring them back down, avoid added sugars until you have managed to do so. Refined sugars and grains are very high glycemic. In other words, they spike your blood sugars. They also provide zero nutrients. Let me quickly review what happens. When your blood sugar levels are chronically high, your pancreas overcompensates by producing excess insulin. With high amounts of insulin in the blood, your cells are overwhelmed and stop responding to insulin. Since glucose needs insulin to be let into the cell, both glucose and insulin stay in the blood. This causes the pancreas to produce more and more insulin. This is referred to as insulin resistance. When the pancreas becomes pooped, insulin levels drop, sugar goes up even higher and diabetes develops. The threshold is an HbA1C reading of 6.5% or higher.
Let me make one thing clear, this does not happen every time you have a slice of cake. This only happens after years of high-glycemic eating and/or not enough exercise and/or several other factors like genetic predisposition. I’m also not opposed to people- high blood sugars or not- enjoying the occasional ice-cream or slice of cake. The bottom of line of point #3 is, in order to lower and balance your blood sugars, or to get your blood sugars back to baseline, steer clear of added sugars. Remember, no one NEEDS added sugars to survive. Fruit, on the other hand, is loaded with vitamins and phytonutrients. We need fruit. If you’re a keto fan, I know, you beg to differ.
4. Find an exercise routine you love
It’s no news flash that exercise is good for your health. Exercise gives you energy, increases feel-good hormones, can help you sleep better, reduces your risk of many chronic illnesses, and, yes, helps lower your blood sugars. In fact, exercise can be just as effective as medication in reducing blood sugar (6). Firstly, when you exercise your cells require glucose for fuel. The higher the impact and the longer the session, the higher the need for glucose. Secondly, exercise improves insulin sensitivity, the ability of cells to respond to insulin. When insulin sensitivity is improved, more sugar can get inside the cell and be used for energy. That means less sugar in the blood. Insulin sensitivity may even be improved for over 16 hours post-exercise (5). A little exercise goes a long way!
Wondering what type of exercise is best? My immediate response is anything you enjoy and can stick to. If the thought of signing up to a gym is depressing, then perhaps that’s not the right environment for you. Having said that, if your local gym offers free trials, I highly encourage trying it out. You never know if there’s a class you’ll enjoy. Form personal experience I find classes have a positive, friendly vibe (at least at the YMCA).
Let’s have a look at the effect of different types of exercise. Aerobic exercise such as running, cycling, swimming, improves the energy producing ability of the mitochondria (our cells’ powerhouse) (7). This is why you were huffing and puffing the first time on the treadmill and then carrying on a conversation as if nothing two months later (note: if you’re carrying a conversation while working out it’s probably time to bump up your level and take your mitochondria to the next level!). Aerobic exercise also improves the health of blood vessels (i.e. elasticity and blood flow), lung function, immune system, as well as reducing blood pressure, triglycerides, and HbA1C (three-month blood sugar average) (7). Resistance exercise, like weightlifting, has overlapping health benefits as aerobic exercise with the addition of improved muscle mass, bone mineral density, and strength, among many others (7).
How much exercise should you be getting? The Canadian Diabetes Association recommends 150 minutes of aerobic exercise each week (8). That’s half hour, five days a week. And two days a week of strength training. But it isn’t all or nothing. If you can only commit to half of this for x, y, or z reason, then do it! Perhaps overtime you can increase it. And don’t forget to include flexibility exercises. Although they have no effect on blood sugars, stretching is important for improving range of motion and avoiding injury (8).
Shake that booty!
5. Reduce exposure to Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs)
Say what? I know. This last one is not usually on your blood sugar-lowering lists. Newer evidence, however, suggests that POPs increase diabetes risk. POPs are found in pesticides, herbicides and many environmental pollutants (9). POPs are endocrine disruptors, which means they can interfere with the normal functioning of hormones. POPs have been suggested to have a direct effect on the beta-cells of the pancreas thereby reducing the production of insulin, increasing the risk of developing diabetes (9). The exact mechanisms of action of POPs and its interaction with our bodily systems is complex and beyond the scope of my humble blog.
In addition, reducing your exposure to POPs isn’t necessarily a way of reducing your blood sugars. However, I felt it was a fair mention as POPs are chemicals which we are commonly exposed to. Some of these chemicals may be hard to avoid at times as they may be present in the soil, water and environment. But if you want to minimize your exposure to POPs and other chemical contaminants you can certainly do so. Firstly, whenever possible, purchase organic produce, particularly those listed in the Dirty Dozen list (i.e. strawberries, spinach, apples). POPs may be concentrated in animal products so reducing your intake of meat and dairy is beneficial. When you do eat meat and dairy, try and buy organic or grass-fed. Fatty fish such as farmed salmon can have high concentrations of POPs. Wild-caught fish is far better, but you’ll need to find out which sources are best. Reduce your use of toxic household cleaning products and replace them with natural cleaners such as strong vinegar, baking soda, or hydrogen peroxide. These are just a few suggestions that can make a difference.
There are many dietary and lifestyle changes you can make to lower your blood sugars. The points mentioned above are effective ways to, not only help you reduce your blood sugars, but adopt some healthier habits. We all know too much added sugar isn’t the best for us. We all know exercise is amazing for health. It’s okay to start little by little if doing everything at once is overwhelming. Any change helps. Work at it. Stick to it. And it will become second nature.