Blood sugar issues: where to start?

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I’m putting on my Nutritional Therapy Practitioner hat today.

If you’re consistently tired at 3 o’clock in the afternoon (I call it Liz’s College Crash), that’s a bright, flashing sign that you’re dealing with major, chronic blood sugar imbalance. That is not fun. For anybody.

Blood sugar imbalance can seriously screw with your work life, too. As I said in this week’s Email Monday, at one of my previous jobs (which shall remain nameless) I would crawl under my desk nearly every day at 3pm for a nap.

As much as I hate Snickers, those commercials (even though they present the exact opposite of a sensical solution to the Blood Sugar Crazies – ie, eat a Snickers) are fairly accurate. When you’re hungry in the throes of a blood sugar crash, you’re not yourself.

Even folks who follow a whole-foods diet can deal with this. If you’re massively intolerant to sugar of any kind, even healthy carbohydrate-dense foods can send you crashing.

 

REMEMBER: that’s not everyone. I am NOT carb-phobic. I absolutely love my fruit, my sweet potatoes, my butternut squash, and all that starchy-sweet deliciousness. But my blood sugar is well-controlled, and I know how many carbs are right FOR ME.

Most people CAN handle dense sources of whole-food carbohydrates, like fruit, roots or tubers. Most people NEED them, and for most people they’re perfectly healthy. Contrary to the beliefs of some more militant low-carbers, fruits and starchy veggies actually DO have nutritional value.

But they’re not right for everyone, all the time. And whether you’re just toying with the idea of a dietary overhaul OR you’re already eating whole foods yet you still don’t have a grip on your blood sugar, it may be time to look at your diet…in particular, at the proportion of CARBS to sources of dense protein and healthy fat.

So here’s where I’d start:

As a baseline, breakfast is the place to begin. Some folks aren’t hungry at breakfast time, and if your blood sugar is well-managed, that’s cool as can be. Do what you want. But if your blood sugar is whack, start with breakfast. As in, eat it. And make it good.

Prioritize dense protein and healthy fats first. Here are a few ideas:

Grass-fed steak & eggs.
Eggs & 2-minute Hollandaise sauce. (Over sauteed spinach if you like).
Buffalo chicken meatballs (anything is breakfast if you eat it for breakfast).
Bison Butternut Bowl (with low-starch spaghetti squash). Fabulous for crappy cooks – like me.

These types of breakfasts have been powering sane, stable hard work since long before Kashi GoLean Krunch.

You don’t have to have a huge plate of these goodies. A little goes a long way – chew, eat patiently, enjoy your food, and you may find yourself full fairly quickly – and for a long time after breakfast ends. (No “second breakfast” necessary, as Diane would say of her granola-bar days.)

If breakfast doesn’t seem the same without your fruit or starchy carbs, fine: add them to your plate, but don’t eat them until you’ve finished the rest. By that point, you may not be hungry for ‘em any more. (Little trick you can play on yourself.)

From there, your breakfast-balanced-body will be equipped with the sound mind to choose something equally healthful at lunch: chicken salad with homemade healthy mayo, chicken thighs, or a Cobb salad with hard-boiled egg, avocado, bacon and Extra-virgin olive oil. You’ll likely make it to lunch without needing a “snack.”

Adjusting to a blood sugar management protocol may take a week or two, but from there it should be smooth sailing (if not, it’s time to talk to a practitioner who can dig a little deeper). Then, you can try adding starchy or otherwise carb-rich whole foods (fruits, roots and tubers) into your plan and gauge your blood sugar tolerance from there.

For extra guidance, I highly recommend the meal plans in Practical Paleo or the 21 Day Sugar Detox program.

Easy peasy, right?

How do you identify when you’re in the throes of sugar-crash induced drama? How do you keep your blood sugar in check? If you’ve got some good advice, leave it in the comments!

 


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Comments

  1. Hi Liz! Do you think there’s any value in adding snacks in for someone who is dealing with blood sugar control? I’m thinking snacks that are fat and protein heavy. Would love to hear your thoughts. Thanks!

    • Hey Amy! It honestly all depends on the individual and how severe the problem. Many people are surprised at how quickly they’re able to get over the “hump” by just ripping of the band-aid…Some people’s reliance on snacks is more psychological than physical! However, some folks do legitimately need some way to keep their blood sugar within safe levels as they adjust. This shouldn’t go on for more than a few weeks, though. I think you’re right – and focusing on the fat/protein heavy snacks is the way to go first to see if it helps bridge the gap. If not, some soluble fiber-rich carb, like sweet potato, could be added to a protein/carb snack to keep blood sugar in a safe range…the challenge is not using that as a crutch :)

  2. My problem is that my glucose numbers are fine, and I generally feel pretty stable when I eat right (though I do think I need to eat more some days). It’s my fasting insulin numbers that run high, which I now know thanks to my fancy Functional Medicine doc. I’m getting it down, slowly, by being extra careful with my sugar intake, but is the constant insulin high a problem?

  3. I’m with Heather – insulin is at 16 – should be 4 – suggestions???

    • Hi Dana! I can’t advise you personally as I’m not a doctor (I know you know that, but it’s important I say it!) but I think you should develop a healthy strategy and have patience as you work to correct this. It does take time, but it can be corrected. There are genetic defects that cause chronic hyperinsulinemia, but they are rare.

  4. I think I actually know more about how I feel when I’m running really well on *fat* than I do about when my blood sugar is getting wacky.

    I’m a long-time low-carber and eat mostly good quality food, but still let more junk (including SAD sugary & grainy junk…I know!) than I care to admit creep into my diet. Still, I’m probably in the best shape of my life, both weight and fitness/strength-wise, so I seem to have found a sweet spot for myself in terms of my food.

    But even the best fat-adapted among us will still have blood sugar fluctuations now and then, and boy, can they be a doozy. If I get stuck in DC traffic, fuhgeddaboudit!! (Originally from NYC, hehheh.) I will honestly feel like murdering everyone around me — violently, passionately, murdering. I will think the most horrid, vile thoughts of people at the office. Every single thought in my inner monologue is negative, bitter, and angry. The simmering rage…the feeling like I could literally tear someone limb from limb with my bare hands if I hear one more person whistling/jingling the change in their pockets/having their music (with earphones, no less!) turned up loud enough for me to hear it/insert irritating behavior of choice. And the donuts…the office donuts and people’s candy jars will call my name like nobody’s business. (And sometimes I’m only too happy to answer.)

    BUT…

    When I’m coasting along happily in fat-burning mode, I am GOLDEN. I feel like a million bucks — physically, mentally, intellectually, and maybe above all, *emotionally.* Nothing can get to me. I stay on an even keel and observe with humor the absurdity of the office nonsense all around me instead of wanting to rip people’s heads off.

    When I’m what I’ve come to think as “a fat-burning demon,” I can go for hours and hours without eating and still feel fantastic. Super-clear thinking, tons of energy…it’s almost like the universe is “buzzing” around me. (In a good way.) And I don’t crave crap foods at all. They could be having a pot luck at work, or somebody brings in a cake, cookies, or whatever, and it doesn’t interest me in the slightest. And when I finally *do* get hungry, what I can really go for is usually a steak, or a pork chop, or something equally delicious, meaty, and fatty, with some roasted or steamed vegetables.

    Running on fat is *awesome.*

    And yet…I do still have those sugar issues now and then. I’m only human and I try to do the best I can. I figure that if I eat great most of the time, then the little things aren’t that big a deal. (No gluten or dairy issues here, no allergies, AI, etc. I stay lowish carb mainly for weight control.) As long as they *stay* “little things” and don’t displace any of the good fats and other nutrient-rich foods.

  5. Liz, do you know of anyone who has solid recommendations about how to meal plan based on these issues? I am eating the right types of foods, but it seems like the quantities/proportions are not helpful. For instance, I had probably 2/3rds of a cup of spaghetti squash and 2/3rds-1 cup of (Melissa Joulwan’s) chocolate chili on top. Somehow, that combination was enough to murder my energy the rest of the afternoon. Is it the starchy carbs? Too much protein? Not enough green veggies?

    I would be really interested to see Paleo educators talk about how to balance not just the right kinds of foods but the proportions and such throughout the day.

    Thanks!

    • Hi Brian! This is a tough one. I hesitated to write this post at all, because I think many responsible practitioners (and I hope I’m one of them!) tend to shy away from making blanket recommendations about this, because it is highly individual. Some people actually need to KEEP carbs in, at punctuated times and in varying amounts, to get blood sugar under control. Others need to pare down. Sometimes fatigue and lethargy can be a problem of too FEW carbs, though often it’s a sign of too many FOR YOU. There is absolutely, positively no way to state how or why certain proportions work well for some and not others; or why some “rules of thumb” are totally inappropriate for certain people. I guess what I’m saying is: it takes some concerted self-experimentation, while using posts like this as not so much a GUIDE, but as a reference point, to figure out your own individual needs. Sometimes 1:1 help from a practitioner is the ticket to figuring things out more quickly; other times it just takes patience and trusting your gut. I hope that helps!

      Many of us USED to make broad recommendations for these types of things, but quickly found that there are far too many “ifs, ands and buts.” People were starting to feel like there was something wrong with THEM because the standard recommendations didn’t work for them. But there’s nothing wrong with them, of course – it’s just their individual landscape, heritage and tolerance :)

  6. Hi Liz, I like your email today,
    I am noticing how I have left strict paleo since I started dancing again. I def incorporate dairy regualy and usually just have lean chicken b and also cottage cheese. I have airpopped pocorn and yams as I need carbs! ANyway – thanks for all your efforts

  7. About a year ago, I switched to Paleo & a lower carb diet (compared to SAD or what I had been eating). After about a week, I really didn’t need snacks anymore. Now, sometimes I have a mug of bone broth around 11am if I’m feeling peckish or low in energy before lunch. I tend to save my carbs for dinner, because if I eat them early in the day I crave them all day. But over the winter I realized I need to eat a little less meat & veg at dinner and actually “save room” for a small serving of carbs – like half a sweet potato or grapefruit, because otherwise my thyroid & sleep go all wacky. I’m still working on finding the right balance of carbs for me, because my fasting blood sugar isn’t ideal. It just takes patience, mindful eating, and listening to your body – kind of being brave enough to trust your own self-wisdom despite the 18,871 different opinions on who should eat how many carbs. Judgement never helps!

  8. Liz, can you make a recommendation for a home blood-sugar testing kit? I’m on a strict digestive healing protocol which seems to be going well, but occasional bloating after tiny sugar consumption has me interested in the whole blood-sugar/cortisol reaction and I’d like an inexpensive, reliable way to check myself daily. Thanks for all you do. I LOVE the Balanced Bites podcasts : )

    • Hi Hayley! Thanks for listening to the podcasts :) I can’t honestly say I’ve seen much of a difference between the standard BGMs that they sell at Walgreens or CVS. You should do fine with those!

  9. Hey Liz,
    Can you point me in the direction of studies and info about post menopausal night waking (it is not related to menopause symptoms, those are long gone). I have my blood sugar and insulin in check, I think cortisol is ok (will eventually figure out how to get the doc to order a set of tests). But no matter what I cannot stay asleep all night. I do go right back to sleep, but it is annoying to wake up 2-3 times during the course of a 7 hour night. I don’t feel tired the next day. There is definitely a couple of patterns I vary between, but typically wake about 1.5 hours after falling asleep, then around 3am or 5:30am depending on what? I am not sure. Have tried lots of things like magnesium, melitonin, Sephos at bedtime. Nothing works reliably. I need more data, or is it just post menopause hormonal profile and I am stuck with it?
    Thanks!

    • Hi Denise! This is a little beyond me, unfortunately! You seem to have tackled everything I would have looked at in a nutritional consult. The only other thing I’d possibly look at is vitamin D levels and potentially some DIM and/or Calcium D-Glucarate. Sorry I can’t be of more help right now!

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