July 17, 2020

Why balanced blood sugar is so important

“You can only have one teaspoon of sugar in your blood at one time”

When I was studying for my degree in Nutrition, I remember my lecturer telling me this and the image has stuck in my mind ever since. We are frequently told how many teaspoons of sugar are in drinks and food for example: 9.7 teaspoons in a can of coke (not that surprising), Yeo Valley 0% fat vanilla yoghurt, 5 teaspoons (bit more surprising) so what happens when you eat more than one teaspoon of sugar at a time?

Sugar in any form, for example from refined foods like cereals, bread, cakes, biscuits or from pure table sugar, honey or maple syrup (I mention these two specifically because I’m always asked, “is honey better than sugar”, or “is maple syrup ok?”) gets digested and absorbed really quickly because there’s nothing to hold it back.

Fruit, even though it contains sugar, has fibre which helps slow its digestion down (although I still recommend you eat some protein with it if you have blood sugar balance issues).

Here’s a good example - say you have a bowl of ‘commercial' cereal for breakfast (and let’s face it, who sticks to the 30g size guide, so you are probably eating around 50g) you are consuming at least 10g of sugar for breakfast, over 2 teaspoons.

So, what happens to the extra teaspoon of sugar? When your body detects there is too much glucose (sugar) in your blood, it sends out the hormone insulin to shuttle the excess glucose away quickly. Some goes to the brain and muscles where it is used as energy fuel, but any excess goes to the liver where it is turned into fat and stored. Eat too much sugar in one sitting and sometimes insulin shuttles it away too quickly, so much so that you end up having too little sugar in your blood and you may start to get cravings for sweet foods or you get angry for no reason (otherwise known as hangry), shaky, light headed, sweaty or lose concentration. Usually this means you need to reach for something sweet and then the whole process starts again.

As an aside – this is why I get REALLY frustrated at the Snicker adverts “you’re not you when you’re hungry” because it is basically saying you’re having a blood sugar low so eat a chocolate bar to feel better!

Anyway, rant over, where was I?

Oh yes, the viscous cycle. This roller coaster of blood sugar levels over time is basically what turns into insulin resistance (where the cells stop listening to the message of insulin to take up the sugar) and then to Diabetes Type 2. Also, remember this, insulin is known as the fat storing hormone....

With regard to gut health (staying on message), sugar and refined carbohydrates, along with a standard Western diet, causes unhealthful changes to the composition of the gut microbiota and also to the gut lining, thus setting up inflammation. In addition, if you are following this type of diet, you are probably not consuming enough fibre which is food for the ‘good’ bacteria in your gut.

With regard to sex hormone balance, when insulin levels spike following a meal high in sugar, it leads to lower levels of a protein called sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG).

Why is this important? Well SHBG binds excess oestrogen and testosterone in the blood so when it is low, levels of oestrogen and testosterone increase. Insulin also increases the production of testosterone which is then converted into even more oestrogen by belly fat.

I know this is confusing jargon but basically this means that the ratio of oestrogen to progesterone goes out of whack. This can present as irritability, anxiety, insomnia and much more. As women reach the menopause, this balance can affect the symptoms usually associated with the menopause such as hot flashes and night sweats.

So, what to do?

Start cutting back on obvious sugar i.e. sugar that you add to your food and also, start checking labels! Have a look at the Low-GL diet. GL stands for Glycaemic Load and is basically a unit of measurement that tells you what a particular food will do to your blood sugar. Foods with a high GL have a greater effect on blood sugar.

To give you an example, I’ll go back to breakfast:

  • Commercial breakfast (I’m using Cheerios as an example) GL 12
  • Rolled porridge oats GL 9

So, porridge for breakfast it is! Serve it with some seasonal fruit, nuts and seeds and you’ll have the perfect blood sugar balancing breakfast, full of nutrition and which should fill you up until lunch.

No Snickers needed thank you Mr Mars.....

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