Blood Sugar Spikes
Reducing spikes in blood sugar (by improving the types of foods we eat) will go a long way toward helping to prevent most modern degenerative diseases. Please read the page Avoid Diabetes for a description of the blood sugar system, the advantages and problem with instability in the system and clues that yours may be headed for trouble. Today, the most respected health experts say Americans are fat and sick not so much because of calories but because we eat too many quickly-metabolizing carbohydrates (high glycemic foods). As described in more detail in Avoid Diabetes, these carbs cause a spike in blood sugar which leads to a rise in the hormone insulin. Insulin causes extra blood sugar to be stored in fat cells and keeps it there. That is compounded by the fact that an excess of insulin reduces the effectiveness of the hormone leptin that signals the brain to stop eating when full. A “spare tire” results but, worse yet, repeated spikes lead to cells stop responding normally to insulin and serious health trouble. Eating a low glycemic diet (outlined below) usually reverses these problems and reduces disease risk. Low glycemic meals are satisfying and improve energy, mood and mental alertness.
Richard Bernstein, MD. Great advice in this interview. He is the author of Dr. Bernstein’s Diabetes Solution: The Complete Guide to Achieving Normal Blood Sugars.
Sherry Rogers, MD and I discuss the topic in this program.
Eat Healthy with the Brain Doctor’s Wife Cookbook, by Tana Amen
The Omni Diet: The Revolutionary 70% Plant + 30% Protein Program to Lose Weight, Reverse Disease, Fight Inflammation, and Change Your Life Forever, by Tana Amen
Cooking Your Way to Good Health, Doug Kaufmann
LOW glycemic foods
This guide is highly simplified and based more on Harvard’s Glycemic Load than the traditional glycemic index. It is safer advice than that from the American Diabetes Association and many doctors who follow that group’s guidelines. (I’ve been told by practitioners and patients alike that the usual medical goal is to reduce glycemic impact of meals only enough to create predictability for the dosing of diabetes drugs.) Mainstream medicine may also be taking the path of least resistance. By prescribing a diet that isn’t markedly different from what their patients ate before diagnosis, the doc’s work is simplified. I also took into consideration the food’s overall health value because it is important to consume foods that are high in the nutrients that the body needs to maintain its blood sugar system and protect its cells from sugar-induced and toxin-related damage.
BEVERAGES: Unsweetened varieties of: almond milk, coffee, cream, flavored waters, iced tea, soy milk and tea. (Research on the glycemic impact of moderate alcohol consumption is still mixed. However, very sweet liquors and excess consumption of any type alcohol are clearly problematic.) Breakfast blender drinks are low glycemic if made with protein and fat but few sweet ingredients.
CONDIMENTS and FLAVORS: Dill pickles, mayonnaise (real), mustard, regular non-sweet salad dressing. Stevia is a low glycemic herbal sweetener.
FRUIT: Berries offer the most nutrition for the smallest amount of sugar. Fruits that are not extremely sweet and in small portion sizes (e.g. ½ an apple) may work for people who control the starches and sugars. Two or three frozen grapes make a refreshing dessert.
BEANS: Beans are relatively low glycemic, but not if prepared as sweetened baked beans.
DAIRY and EGGS: Eggs, full fat real cheese, full fat yogurt unsweetened. Milk contains sugar but is not high glycemic. There are other health reasons (e.g. lactose intolerance) for many so go easy.
FATS AND OILS: Butter, coconut oil, cooking oils, olive oil and the fat in nuts or avocados. Fat can actually improve metabolism. (Fat-free and low-fat foods are usually high glycemic because sugar is often added to improve the flavor and fat would have slowed down absorption.) The quantity of fat is less problematic than the quality. Ideally, learn to balance the omega-3 and omega-6 components.
MAIN DISH: Beef, chicken, fish, lamb, pork, and turkey. (Those fed their natural diet have healthier fats.)
SNACKS: Nuts, seeds, very dark chocolate
VEGETABLES: Arugula, bell pepper, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, cauliflower, celery, cucumber, kale, onions, parsnips, radishes, spaghetti squash (pasta substitute), spinach, tomato, zucchini, and dozens more. (Organic is the ideal choice.)
Is a low glycemic diet safe? For most of human history (before factories started churning out foods of commerce) we ate unrefined low glycemic foods. Plant-based foods (e.g. vegetables, seeds, beans, nuts and whole fruit) contain crucial nutrients and experts advise that they should be a major portion of a meal. However, there is no nutritional requirement for the foods listed below. Note: These lists provide beneficial general ideas but, are not intended to replace medical advice, especially for those diagnosed with diabetes.* Vegetarians should be careful to getting sufficient protein, B vitamins and trace minerals.
High glycemic foods.
The packaged foods in the center of the grocery store are where most trouble lies. These starches and sugars are making us fat and sick and we will feel better and fare better if we greatly reduce or even eliminate them. Cravings for them disappear after they are avoided for a time.
BEVERAGES: Chai tea, hot chocolate, lemonade, soft drinks (incl. diet), sweet cocktails, sweet sports drinks, sweet tea, milkshakes, sweetened soy milk. Coffee starts as low glycemic, but, when turned into a Caramel Mocha Frappuccino or other sweet drink, it becomes high glycemic.
BREADS: Bagels, biscuits, bread, buns (e.g. burger or hot dog), corn bread, muffins, rolls, sandwich bread, toast and tortillas. Most grain products elevate blood sugar. Many people experience health problems because of sensitivities to grains or because of lectins that grains contain. Integrative physicians often recommend avoiding grains (especially wheat, rye and barley) for 2 weeks to see if you feel better. Because the fiber in whole grains slows the absorption of food, they may have slightly less glycemic impact. An alternative to sandwich bread is a lettuce leaf roll.
BREAKFAST: Cereal, donuts, French toast, granola, granola bars, oatmeal, pancakes, ready-made instant breakfast drinks, sweetened yogurt, toaster pastry, waffles
CONDIMENTS: BBQ sauce, catsup, fat-free salad dressing, sweet dressing, sweet pickles, sweet relish
DESSERTS: Cake, cupcakes, candy, cookies, ice cream, pastry, pie, pudding, sherbet
FRUIT: Dried fruit, bananas, canned fruit with syrup, fruit juice, fruit smoothies, pineapple, raisins
MAIN DISH and SIDES: Frozen meals (ready-made), noodles, pasta (including couscous), pizza (thick crust), pot pie, macaroni and cheese, rice, spaghetti, sub sandwich.
SNACKS: Baked chips, corn chips, crackers, popcorn, pretzels, rice cakes
SWEETENERS: Agave, brown sugar, coffee creamer, honey, jam, jelly, maple syrup, rice syrup, sugar
VEGETABLES: Corn and potato (including baked, mashed or fried). Potatoes are a high glycemic food and corn is actually a high glycemic grain from which corn syrup is made.
Note: The more that a food has been refined (had parts taken away), processed (e.g. ground, puffed, popped or extracted) and had sweeteners added, the more likely it is to create blood sugar spikes. For example, flavored sweetened instant oat cereal is higher glycemic (and therefore more fattening) than instant oatmeal which is higher glycemic than rolled oats which is higher glycemic than steel cut oats.
How they determine which foods are low glycemic. The most common way folks in the diabetes world compare the effects of foods is with the Glycemic Index (GI) , an internationally recognized database. Human test subjects are fed a test food and their blood sugar reaction is measured over a two hour period. That result is then compared to the effect of a known control food, which is either standard white bread or plain glucose. If the food earns a high number compared to the control that’s not good because it means that food is high glycemic.
At first it sounds impressive that perhaps 4,000 foods have been analyzed. However, most of the work was done in Australia , so many of the foods listed are foreign or no longer marketed. With the 10’s of thousands of commercial food products and restaurant menu items for sale in the US , it is harder than you might imagine to find a rank for a particular food that you might be interested in. It isn’t easy to accurately guess a score either, especially with packaged and prepared foods because the exact type of ingredient, ingredient proportions and even the cooking method can all alter results.
Another drawback to the GI is that it compares foods based on equal weights of “available carbohydrate”. That method is scientifically valid but doesn’t necessarily reflect the size of portions people typically eat. Therefore, other experts put more weight on a ranking developed at Harvard called the “Glycemic Load” (GL), which does account for relative portion size. However, that doesn’t make it easier to find a particular food since the GL is based on the same relatively limited GI list of foods. Follow this link to a smart searchable website where you can see if your target food is listed.
There are handy smart phone apps but they too are based on the GI and GL. Realistically, even if a comprehensive listing of the glycemic effect of every single food existed, it seems unlikely that many people would check each serving of food against it. That’s why I’ve created a streamlined general guide to the glycemic effect of food by groups.
Related pages: Diabetes / Weight Loss, Avoid Diabetes with Low Glycemic Meals, 12 Weight Management Ideas
Copyright Martie Whittekin , CCN, March 2013 and January 2019
*Caution for diabetics. My simplified guide may be precise enough for most healthy people trying to stay that way and for those in the early stages of pre-diabetes. It may even describe a healthier plan than that currently being followed by the average Type 2 diabetic.
However, Type 1 or Type 2 diabetics who wish to completely avoid complications of the disease should follow the much stricter protocols of respected diabetes specialist, Richard Bernstein, MD. He is critical of the mainstream medical advice given to diabetics and provides exacting guidance in his books, “Diabetes Solution” and “The Diabetes Diet” . I highly recommend those books because the proof of value is in the low carb pudding. Dr. Bernstein has been remarkably successful in protecting his patients from complications and as an insulin-dependent diabetic himself, knows exactly what it takes to stay healthy in spite of the disease.