I’m sure you’ve had this experience. You eat healthy most of the day, but at about three o’clock in the afternoon you crave something sweet. Or salty/crunchy. You indulge and feel great for a short time, and then you’re more tired and hungry than ever. What’s happening is that the simple carbs in these snacks spike the level of the sugar in your blood and trigger a surge of insulin, which the body manufactures to metabolize sugars. These extreme swings in blood sugar levels will not only play havoc with your energy and moods, but can present serious challenges to your health. Keeping your blood sugar levels stable is important to your longevity. Blood sugar levels that spike and drop can contribute to the development of diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and other disorders. Staying away from excess sweets will help, but there are other blood-sugar-spiking foods that you should be aware of like highly processed wheat and other grains. Some foods can actually help stabilize blood sugar and help you avoid chronic diseases while enhancing your overall health and well-being. Plus, I think you’ll agree that these FoodTrients lend themselves to countless tasty applications and recipes.
Glycemic load (GL) measures how much carbohydrates in a food affect your blood sugar level. Factors such as fiber content, serving size, and even shape affect how the body breaks down food into sugar molecules. The more challenging a food is to break down, the slower it digests and the more stable your blood sugar will be. Foods made with refined carbs, such as white rice or pasta, are digested quickly and have a higher GL that causes blood sugar to rise rapidly. But foods made with complex carbs, such as whole-wheat pasta or legumes, have a lower GL that has a much smaller effect on blood sugar. This is one reason highly processed foods such as white bread and candy bars raise blood sugar levels so dramatically.
“Large portions can also elevate blood sugar levels,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A large meal means more sugar from carbohydrates enters the bloodstream all at once. Eating smaller portions beefed up by low GL snacks, such as nuts, keeps your blood sugar even throughout the day.
The shape of foods can affect GL. Foods in their original form such as whole grains, take longer to digest than foods that have been partially or fully processed. For example, whole barley has a GL that’s less than half that of cracked barley.
Eating foods in certain combinations can also help regulate blood sugar. By eating protein and fat with carbohydrates, “You slow the absorption of glucose into the bloodstream, which helps prevent [insulin] spikes and drops,” says Jamieson-Petonic. “Pairing an apple with peanut butter or serving rice with beans and avocado can lessen the blood-sugar impact of the meal or snack.” There are many foods that can help regulate you blood sugar effectively. Here are some that are tasty, versatile and simple to incorporate into your diet:
- Spinach and leafy greens — Spinach, kale, chard, and other leafy greens are loaded with vitamins, such as folate; minerals, such as magnesium; a range of phytonutrients; and insoluble fiber — all of which have virtually no impact on your blood sugar level. When you eat them with carbohydrates like potatoes and bread, the fiber in leafy greens will slow absorption of any carbohydrates resulting in a lower, therefore healthier glycemic load. Here’s a recipe for Potato Kale Soup that provides the satisfaction of carbs with the benefits of kale.
- Nuts of all sorts –Almonds, walnuts, pecans, etc. are great for controlling blood sugar. Nuts may be small in size and have relatively high levels of calories and fat, but they are nutrient dense. They are full of protein, unsaturated (healthy) fat, vitamins and fiber. These factors help keep blood sugar levels low. Healthful as they are, nuts are high in calories, so it’s a good idea to substitute nuts for high-carbohydrate foods, such as croutons or pretzels. Sprinkle them on yogurt and salads, or nibble them for a snack. My Cranberry Bread Pudding recipe is indulgent, but it also has many healthful ingredients like walnuts, whole grain bread and eggs.
- Fish – Fatty fish like sardines and salmon are high in omega-3 fatty acids that our bodies can only get from the food we eat. Omega-3-rich fish are a great source of fat and protein to slow absorption of blood sugars, and they help protect your cardiovascular system, which irregular blood sugar fluctuations can damage. The healthy fat in fish is good for your brain, too, and may help fend off Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. I like to serve Papaya Salsa with swordfish, but it’s great with grilled salmon, too.
- Hummus– A Middle Eastern specialty that’s become very popular here in the U.S., the fiber and protein in chickpeas — 12 grams of dietary fiber and 15 grams of protein per cup — help regulate the absorption of the sugars from the starch so your blood sugar stays on an even keel. The healthy fats from the tahini (made from ground sesame seeds) and olive oil slows the absorption of sugars even more. Hummus is delicious as a sandwich spread or dip with vegetables and whole grain crackers. Try my no-cook Herbed Summer Hummus for a cool treat.
- Chia seeds – Are loaded with protein, fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. These nutty-tasting seeds can be mixed into oatmeal, sprinkled on salads or made into refreshing beverages like Chia Fresca. The seeds can also be ground into flour (available online or at health food stores) and used to replace a quarter of wheat flour in baking. There’s some evidence that chia seeds help reduce the fat that collects around your mid-section — the kind that contributes to insulin resistance.
- Cinnamon –Studies have indicated that as little as a teaspoon of cinnamon a day may significantly decrease fasting blood glucose levels and increase insulin sensitivity. It’s easy to add cinnamon to your diet. Stir some into your coffee, sprinkle it into oatmeal, use it to enhance baked apples, or add it to rubs for chicken or fish.
- Lentils– Long a staple of vegetarian and vegan diets, lentils contain a fair amount of starch, something you want to avoid in order to keep blood sugar steady. However, the starch in lentils provides a satisfying creaminess while a cup of cooked lentils provides 35% of the DV (daily value) for protein. Lentils are high in both soluble and insoluble dietary fiber. Soluble fiber slows absorption of the sugar molecules in the starch. Insoluble fiber passes through the digestive tract without “registering” as a carbohydrate, which slows down the digestive process, keeps you satisfied and your blood sugar steady. My Lentil Salad is delicious as a first course or entrée.
- Quinoa –This super grain is one of the few non-animal proteins that is considered a “complete protein.” That means it has all of the essential amino acids the body needs to build protein molecules. Quinoa is a whole grain with germ, endosperm, and bran intact, which provide important nutrients and healthy fat. The benefits of quinoa come with very little impact on blood sugar levels. A half-cup of cooked quinoa ranks just under 10 on the glycemic load scale, which is very low. Quinoa is delicious and versatile. Use it instead of rice or couscous. It’s also fantastic mixed with beans, diced vegetables and avocado for a satisfying grain salad.
- Whole grain pasta –Yes, pasta is a food that can spike blood sugar dramatically. However, switching to whole grain pasta provides “A great source of B vitamins and fiber, and reduces inflammation in the blood vessels,” according to Amy Jamieson-Petonic. Take note of a couple of warnings: Overcooking pasta raises its glycemic load (follow the package directions and pull the pasta off the heat when it’s al dente). Second, be careful of portion size. Combine 1/2 to 1 cup of cooked pasta with a variety of vegetables like spinach, onions, mushrooms and peppers with a bit of lean protein and olive oil for a delicious, satisfying pasta dish that will keep blood sugar level. For a super healthful pasta dish, try my recipe for Green Tea Noodles with edamame. It calls for soba or udon noodles, but you can successfully substitute whole wheat spaghetti.
- Extra virgin olive oil –The peppery zing of extra-virgin olive oil is the result of the presence powerful antioxidants. The phytonutrients that bring the bite also have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body, which helps protect and repair the cardiovascular system that fluctuations in blood sugar can damage. It slows absorption of the carbohydrates it’s paired with for a lower, healthier glycemic load. Olive oil is also incredibly versatile in anything from salad dressings and marinades to sautéed fish, chicken or vegetables. Dip whole wheat sourdough bread into extra virgin olive oil instead of using butter. Delicious!