If blood-sugar levels are one way to evaluate metabolic health (and they are), the news at a societal level isn’t good. It’s estimated that roughly half of adults in the United States are either diabetics or pre-diabetic, meaning their blood sugar is too high
Luckily, there are many actions you can take to control your blood sugar — and no, they’re not strictly “cut back on carbs.”
Why Your Blood Sugar Matters
Glucose homeostasis, i.e., keeping your blood-sugar levels within a relatively tight range, is necessary for your cells to stay healthy and function properly. You have great blood sugar control if your levels rarely deviate from a normal, healthy range of 70–140 mg/dl. When you keep your glucose in this stable range, you protect your cells from needing to deal with energy shortages or surpluses. In the short term, keeping yourself off the “blood-sugar roller coaster” can help you manage cravings and maintain steady energy throughout the day. (Who hasn’t gotten tired and headache-y from a sugar crash?) In the long term, stable blood-sugar levels help protect your body from dysfunction and disease.
How Glucose Impacts Blood Sugar
Did you know that you only have about 4 grams (1 teaspoon) of glucose in your blood at any given time? That’s a tiny amount compared to the quantity of sugar contained within many processed foods or beverages. Soft drinks, for instance, are notoriously high in sugar, with 20–40 grams per serving — up to 10 times more sugar than you have in your entire bloodstream! It’s no wonder these sweet treats can challenge your body’s ability to keep blood-sugar levels stable.
But it’s not just what you eat; almost everything you do impacts your blood sugar. In this way, blood sugar levels are similar to heart rate, breathing, and even blood pressure, which react to normal activities of daily living, especially physical activity.
Glucose regulation is a complex process that involves several organs working in harmony. This enables precision, but it also includes some built-in redundancy — which is on purpose. The fact that your body has “backup plans” for regulating glucose demonstrates how important it is. It also means that you have several levers you can pull to control and maintain healthy blood-sugar levels.
5 Tips for Lowering (and Stabilizing) Your Blood-Sugar Levels
#1. Reduce Your Eating Window (Practice Intermittent Fasting)
The simple reality is that food, specifically food containing carbohydrates, raises your blood-sugar levels. The extent of the increase is determined in large part by the type and quantity of carbohydrates you consume at any given meal (more on that below).
If you are happy with your diet but would still like to improve your blood glucose, consider condensing your eating window. Research has shown that even when you eat the same meals, your average 24-hour blood glucose will be lower and your glucose homeostasis will improve when you eat all of those meals in a condensed eating window, as opposed to eating them spread out throughout the day. Furthermore, when you shorten the amount of time during the day when you eat (i.e., practice intermittent fasting), you’ll often spontaneously reduce your calorie intake, which in turn contributes to improved metabolic health and glucose control. Intermittent fasting has also been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, gut-microbiome diversity, and the health of pancreas beta cells (which produce insulin), all of which contribute to keeping your blood-sugar levels consistently in a healthy range.
#2. Move and Exercise Daily and Often
When you move, you’re activating your muscles. Active muscles, while in motion and afterwards, engage in insulin-independent glucose uptake, which involves pulling glucose out of the blood without insulin. Instead, the body uses GLUT4 transporters, which act as channels for glucose to move from the blood into muscle cells without being chaperoned by insulin. (It does this because those moving muscle cells need energy, and glucose is the most quickly available source!)
Research shows that even a single workout session can yield blood sugar control benefits, and those benefits can last for up to 3 days. Any workout will do, as all forms of exercise can improve your body’s ability to handle glucose; however, total-body movements that activate as many muscles as possible are associated with the greatest benefit. Additionally, data indicate that combining aerobic, high-intensity, and resistance training may be more effective than focusing on a single type of exercise. That said, something is always better than nothing. Developing consistent, daily habits in which you accumulate over 20 minutes of movement will significantly improve your glucose control and may even help you set a new healthy baseline over time.
#3. Diversify and Distribute Macronutrients
Eating carbohydrates in isolation is a surefire way to amplify your body’s blood-glucose spike. The (easy!) solution is to consume carbohydrates alongside fiber and protein rather than eating them on their own. Adding fiber and protein reduces the overall glycemic load of your meal, which dampens the blood sugar spike. According to research data, adding protein to two slices of white bread (which amount to 50 grams of carbohydrates) may reduce your glucose peak from over 150 mg/dl (an unhealthy level) to under 120 mg/dl (which is back in the healthy range). So, if you were thinking of having toast, make yourself an egg sandwich!
Another example is a snack of grapes or mandarin oranges. Rather than eating these high-sugar carbohydrates by themselves, try also having nuts, seeds, yogurt, cheese, or even some meat. Make a charcuterie board! By diversifying your meals and snacks to include carbohydrates with fiber, protein, and fat, you can reduce the severity of the glucose peak and have an easier time keeping your glucose levels in a healthy range.
#4. Prioritize Low-Glycemic-Index, Natural, Fibrous Carbohydrates
Your blood-glucose response to food is highest when you consume simple sugars. These high-glycemic-index foods — like most cookies, sodas, breakfast cereals, and essentially anything made with a lot of high-fructose corn syrup — require very little breakdown in the body, so they are rapidly transferred into your blood and produce large blood-sugar increases. By comparison, minimally processed, low-glycemic-index carbohydrates — like most vegetables, nuts, and unsweetened dairy products — produce much less erratic blood sugar fluctuations because they take longer to digest and enter the bloodstream. Also, lower-glycemic-index carbohydrates are often less refined, which results in their retaining more fiber and micronutrient value. Therefore, if you want greater blood-sugar control without eating less carbohydrates, shift the carbohydrates you eat towards whole-food, lower-glycemic-index options.
#5. Apply Research-Backed Glucose “Hacks”
There are several other glucose “hacks” or small actions you can take to help manage your blood sugar levels that are supported by research:
- Eat carbohydrates last. There’s a reason dessert comes last! The way that you structure your meals can have a potent effect on your glucose levels. Research suggests that eating carbohydrates last, as opposed to eating them first, reduces blood glucose spikes by 40–50%. It’s believed that the reduction is due to a slower absorption of glucose, since your body is already busy processing less glucose-laden foods. At your meals, try eating the vegetables and protein first, and then the carbohydrates, for improved blood-sugar control.
- Take apple cider vinegar with meals. Apple cider vinegar (ACV) is a well-known glucose hack. According to the research, consuming ACV (or any vinegar) with your meal or up to 30 minutes prior to your meal reduces blood glucose spikes by up to 35%. This works in part because the acid reduces the activity of enzymes in your saliva that break down carbohydrates, making the carbs take longer to be digested and absorbed into your bloodstream.
- Drink acidic fruit juices. If you’re not a big fan of vinegar, lemon juice and even lime juice can have similar effects. One study reported a delayed glucose increase and a 30% reduction in glucose peak after consuming a 50/50 mix of lemon juice and water. (Dilute your acidic fruit juice and/or vinegar with water to protect your teeth!)
Conclusion: Take Action to Stabilize Your Blood Sugar
It’s normal and healthy for your blood-sugar levels to fluctuate throughout your day. The goal is for your blood sugar to increase at optimal times, like during high-intensity exercise when your muscles need glucose to fuel your activity, and otherwise stay within a healthy, normal range. Keeping your glucose levels within this range is a hallmark of metabolic health and a harbinger of longevity. If you want to have control without needing to restrict your carbohydrates, try out these strategies.
- 5 Ways to Control Blood Sugar (without Eating Fewer Carbs) - September 18, 2023
- Expert Insights from Zac Robinson, PhD(C): Strength Training, Nutrition, and Muscle Health - September 4, 2023
- The History of Fasting - August 14, 2023