Blood sugar, or glucose, has emerged as one of the most studied and discussed health topics around.
There are many reasons why. The most obvious is that diabetes, a disease reaching epidemic proportions today, is linked directly to blood sugar levels. In recent years, researchers have also linked blood sugar to heart disease, memory problems, even fertility problems. Plus, with the emergence of low-carb diets, Americans have learned that there is a connection between high blood sugar and gaining weight.
All this scary talk of blood sugar and body chemistry is intimidating to many people. But it needn’t be so; blood sugar isn’t really that complicated. In a nutshell: Much of the food you eat is converted to blood sugar, which is used by the cells of your body for energy. Too much (or little) glucose in your bloodstream leads to complications. Your blood sugar levels are linked primarily to two things: the types and amounts of food you eat, and your body’s ability to create and use insulin, a hormone that transports blood sugar into your body’s cells.
Whether you already have diabetes, or are overweight, or just want to prevent future health problems, here are 20 ways to make sure your blood sugar and insulin levels are as healthy as can be.
1. Drink a cup of skim milk and eat eight ounces of nonfat yogurt a day. A study of 3,000 people found that those who were overweight, but ate a lot of dairy foods, were 70 percent less likely to develop insulin resistance (a precursor to diabetes) than those who didn’t. Turns out lactose, protein, and the fat in dairy products improves blood sugar by filling you up and slowing the conversion of food sugars to blood sugar.
2. Buy bread products that have at least three grams of fiber and three grams of protein per serving. They’ll slow absorption of glucose and decrease possible insulin spikes, says J. J. Flizanes, a nutritionist and owner of Invisible Fitness in Los Angeles. Plus, the hearty dose of fiber and protein will keep your stomach feeling satisfied longer.
3. Serve up a spinach salad for dinner. Spinach is high in magnesium, which a large study suggests can help prevent the development of type 2 diabetes. One study in women found higher intakes of magnesium (also found in nuts, other leafy greens, and fish) reduced diabetes risk about 10 percent overall, and about 20 percent in women who were overweight. Another great source of magnesium? Avocados.
4. Sprinkle cinnamon over your coffee, yogurt, cereal, and tea. Researchers from Pakistan (where cinnamon reigns) had volunteers with type 2 diabetes take either one, three, or six grams of cinnamon or a placebo for 40 days. Those taking the fragrant spice saw their blood glucose levels drop 18-29 percent depending on how much cinnamon they took.
5. Eat soba noodles for dinner one night a week. The “Japanese pasta” is made from buckwheat, a grain that lowered blood glucose levels 12-19 percent in one well-controlled study on rats. Sure, you’re not a rat, but buckwheat is an excellent source of fiber, and the evidence on fiber and blood glucose improvement is unimpeachable. Add a helping of buckwheat pancakes every Sunday and get double the benefits.
6. Include a glass of wine with your dinner. One study found women who had a drink of wine a day cut their risk of diabetes in half compared to teetotalers. Not a wine lover? The study found the same effects for beer. But cork the wine bottle once dinner is over. An Australian study found that drinking a glass of wine immediately after eating can result in a sudden drop in the insulin in your blood, meaning the glucose from your meal hangs around longer, eventually damaging arteries.
7. Munch on baked chips. Made without the saturated fat found in fried foods, baked chips — tortilla, potato, vegetable, or soy — are an excellent substitute when you’re craving something crunchy and salty. The reason you want to avoid the saturated fat is simple: University of Minnesota scientists evaluated 3,000 people and found those with the highest blood levels of saturated fats were twice as likely to develop diabetes.
8. Walk eight blocks a day. That’s all it took in one large study from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention to slash the risk of dying from diabetes by more than one-third. Believe it or not, if you walk eight blocks a day, you’ll have covered six miles by the end of the week, making you nearly 40 percent less likely to die from all causes and 34 percent less likely to die from heart disease, the leading cause of death in people with diabetes. The reason? Walking makes your cells more receptive to insulin, which leads to better control of blood sugar. It also raises levels of “good” HDL cholesterol.
9. Rent a comedy and watch it after dinner. A Japanese study found that people with diabetes who laughed soon after eating (while watching a comedy) had significantly lower blood sugar levels than those who listened to a boring lecture. The connection held even for those without diabetes.
10. Have half a grapefruit with breakfast tomorrow morning. Researchers from the Scripps Clinic in San Diego had 50 obese patients eat half a grapefruit with each meal for 12 weeks and compared them to a group that didn’t eat any. Those patients who ate the grapefruit lost an average of 3.6 pounds. They also had lower levels of insulin and glucose after each meal, suggesting a more efficient sugar metabolism.
11. Add at least one day a week of resistance training. You’ll build more muscle than you will by walking, and the more muscle mass you have, the more efficiently your body burns glucose and the less hangs around in your blood.
12. Add a cup of decaffeinated coffee if you simply must have that doughnut. British researchers found that combining decaf with simple sugars (like those in doughnuts, cakes, and cookies) reduces the blood sugar spike such sweets create. Regular coffee didn’t have the same benefit. The reason? While plant chemicals in coffee slow the rate at which your intestines absorb sugar, caffeine delays sugar’s arrival in muscles, keeping it in the bloodstream longer.
13. Dish out your breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but then divide each meal in half. Eat half now, then the other half in a couple of hours. Eating several small meals rather than three large meals helps avoid the major influx of glucose that, in turn, results in a blood sugar surge and a big release of insulin.
14. Don’t skip a meal. First off, your blood sugar drops like a rock when you’re starving (hence the headache and shakiness). Second, when you do eat, you flood your system with glucose, forcing your pancreas to release more insulin and creating a dangerous cycle.
15. Go to bed at 10 p.m. and don’t wake up until 6 a.m. Adjust accordingly so you’re getting a consistent eight hours. Numerous studies find that sleep deprivation has a dramatic effect on your blood sugar and insulin levels.
16. Ask your partner if you snore. Harvard researchers found that women who snored were more than twice as likely as those who didn’t to develop diabetes — regardless of weight, smoking history, or family history of diabetes. If you do snore, see your doctor. You may have a physical problem, or you may simply need to lose some weight and change the way you sleep.
17. Spend 10 minutes a day tensing and then relaxing each muscle in your body, from your toes to your eyes. This technique is called progressive muscle relaxation, and a study of 100 people with high blood sugar levels found stress relief efforts like this significantly improved their blood sugar levels.
18. Eat half a cup of beans a day. These high-fiber foods take longer to digest, so they release their glucose more slowly. Studies find just half a cup a day can help stabilize blood sugar and insulin levels.
19. Toast a handful of walnuts, chop, and sprinkle over your salad. Walnuts are great sources of monounsaturated fat, which won’t raise your blood sugar as many other foods do. And some researchers suspect this fat even makes cells more sensitive to insulin, helping combat high blood sugar.
20. Sprinkle powdered psyllium seed over your salad, yogurt, and scrambled eggs. Mix it into meat loaf; stir it into sauces. Studies find the high-fiber seed may help lower elevated blood sugar.