Blood sugar balance is often overlooked when it comes to sugar / sweet cravings.
Imbalanced or dysregulated blood sugar levels can play a huge role in the development of cravings and ultimately, weight gain.
Have you ever had one of those days when you had a green smoothie for breakfast, a salad for lunch, and you’re feeling super motivated and healthy.. but by the time it hits 3pm or when you get home from work at 5pm, you’re raiding the pantry and eating anything you can find? This is one of the biggest signs of blood sugar disregulation and I’ll explain later why eating “healthy” can sometimes cause this problem.
Have you experienced any of the following? Tick the boxes below.
⎕ sugar or carbohydrate cravings
- ☐crave food, especially sweet food, around 3pm onwards
- ☐eat healthy all day but want to binge eat when I get home from work/school/etc
- ☐can get a bit “hangry” if I’m hungry (moody, grumpy, agitated and/or irritable)
- ☐headaches when hungry
- ☐feel faint, light-headed or shaky when hungry
- ☐have urgent hunger where I feel as though I need to eat immediately
- ☐weight gain, or difficulty losing weight
- ☐difficulty fasting or going long periods without food
- ☐restrictive diets often cause intense sugar cravings and/or binge eating
- ☐“brain fog” or difficulty concentrating when hungry
All of the symptoms above are signs of poorly regulated blood sugar levels – so if you’ve ticked yes to three or more of these then it is highly likely that you have experienced some level of blood sugar imbalance or hypoglycaemia. The good news is, it’s generally easy to correct!
Here’s a graph that makes it easy to understand what happens to your blood sugar levels when you eat certain foods.
What does it mean when we talk about blood sugar levels?
Blood sugar levels refers to the amount of free glucose (sugar) that is circulating throughout your body in your blood. Glucose is the form of sugar that your body uses for energy. When you eat a meal or a snack, or even when you drink something containing sugar, your body converts those sugars into glucose and sends it straight into your bloodstream, where it can then be delivered to the area of your body that needs it. There are lots of things circulating in your bloodstream, but blood sugar levels are just in reference to the glucose molecules.
Why are blood sugar levels so important?
There are a number of ways your body deals with sugar from the food you eat, but I’ll simplify it into these two scenarios:
- If you eat a meal that is stable in terms of glycemic load (more on this later, but it basically means it doesn’t have too much sugar in it) then your body breaks the food down to glucose molecules, releases glucose into your bloodstream and the glucose is sent to wherever it is needed for energy. Once that glucose has been used up for energy, you’ll have a healthy hunger response to signify that it is time to refuel your body with more food. This is the blue line on the graph.
- If you eat a meal that has an unstable glycemic load, the following cascade of events takes place: your body breaks down the food into glucose molecules, your body sends glucose out into the bloodstream and it is delivered to where it is needed most. Then, your body starts to realise that there is too much glucose circulating in the blood and starts to go into a stress response to fix it! Excess glucose is sent to your liver, where it is converted into fat and stored in your body as fat tissue. Meanwhile, your brain begins to become starved of glucose because it’s all been converted into fat and your brain has no fuel to function! So your brain sends out a signal to your hunger control centre, and all of a sudden you have a really strong craving for carbs or sugar or any kind of food. You might feel light-headed, a bit weak or even be a bit grumpy until you manage to satisfy your brain’s craving for more glucose. And once you eat that glucose-rich food, the cascade starts all over again. This is the purple line on the graph.
Scenario #2 is complex and stressful to your body systems. This is the basis of imbalanced blood sugar. Now let’s look at how you can avoid this cascade and keep your blood sugar levels stable.
What is Glycemic Load?
Glycemic load (GL) refers to the level of impact a meal has on your body and your blood glucose levels. If a food or meal is balanced in terms of carbohydrates, fats and protein content, and therefore causes minimal impact on your blood glucose levels (i.e. it causes scenario #1) then it is said to have a stable glycemic load. When a food or meal creates havoc in your body and causes large increases or decreases in blood sugar levels (scenario #2) it has an unstable glycemic load. By eating foods and meals with a stable GL, you can reduce your sugar cravings and mood swings, minimise stress in your body and even lose weight!
Top Tips for Stabilising Blood Sugar Levels and Glycemic Load
- ensure you are eating protein at every meal – protein helps to slow the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream, which means you have a slow, steady release of sugar (rather than a quick rush of glucose into the body, which causes chaos and stress)
- protein sources include: eggs, meat, fish, beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, eggs, cheese, tofu and tempeh, mushrooms
- combine sugar- and carbohydrate-rich foods with high quality protein sources, good quality fats or both
- examples: eat fruit and dried fruit with nuts/seeds/nut butters/etc
- don’t drink soft drink or other sugary drinks without a meal, or some kind of protein at least (or just avoid them altogether!)
- sweets/treats should be eaten before/with/after meals, ideally not on their own
- make sure you are eating lots of high quality fats in your diet, including but not limited to: nuts, seeds, fish, avocado, LSA, good quality cooking oils, and eggs – fats also help to slow the absorption of glucose, thus stabilising blood sugar levels
- avoid refined wheat products (i.e. ‘white’ wheat products such as white bread, store-bought bakery foods, biscuits, etc) as much as possible – the refining process that the wheat is subject to removes protein, fats, vitamins and minerals necessary for our body to digest the food in a healthy way. White, refined wheat products basically turn into sugar when digested, and are more likely to cause the red line on the graph (unstable GL). Wholegrain and wholewheat breads and wheat products have a stable GL because they still contain the necessary fats and proteins to help slow glucose absorption (green line).
- snacking between meals prevents dips in blood sugar that cause cravings, so snack twice per day on protein-rich foods such as nuts, seeds, eggs, animal products
- eat slowly and mindfully, so that your body has time to absorb and digest your food properly without excessive insulin production