The term "blood sugar" may bring to mind diabetes, a disease that affects 29 million Americans. The truth is: We should all care about it. 86 million Americans have prediabetes, a high blood sugar condition that can lead to diabetes, heart disease, and stroke, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Even if you don’t have existing issues, you can benefit from keeping blood sugar in control. Regular blood sugar may improve energy levels and prevent mood swings. You may well know the feeling of being "hangry," or "hungry and angry." The sensation is often a product of low blood sugar from skipping meals.
"In order to maintain level blood sugars throughout the day, balance is key," says Lori Zanini, RD, CDE, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. A poor diet, sedentary lifestyle, and missing medications prescribed for diabetes may cause or worsen imbalances.
Luckily, there are simple ways to steady blood sugar. Use these tips.
Start with Healthy Carbs
Carbs get wrongly blamed for blood sugar issues. "Carbohydrates are the main source of energy for our bodies. When we eat foods containing carbs, they are broken down into sugar that is meant to provide fuel for our red blood cells and central nervous system," Zanini says. So, what’s the problem with carbohydrates? The refined kind, she says. "Foods that will raise our blood sugar very quickly are foods that have added sugars and are liquid or highly processed. These foods digest within five minutes, and therefore are able to get in the blood stream quickly to raise your blood sugar." Zanini recommends eating more high-fiber carbs, such as whole grains and legumes. They digest slowly, help keep you full, and prevent blood sugar spikes.
Add Protein and Produce
At meals, have high-fiber carbs with lean protein, healthy fat, and non-starchy vegetables. Try these meal ideas—just add your favorite seasonings:
- ½ cup brown rice (high-fiber carb) + 3 ounces fish (lean protein) + ½ avocado (healthy fat) + 1 cup of salad greens (non-starchy vegetable)
- ½ cup wheat pasta + 3 ounces chicken + ¼ cup Parmesan cheese + ½ zucchini
- ½ cup buckwheat noodles + 3 ounces tofu + 2 tablespoons nut butter + 1 cup spinach
- 1 cup lentils + ½ cup white beans + 1 ounce feta cheese + ½ red bell pepper
Watch Out for Sugar
Perhaps the most obvious of ways to regulate blood sugar: Watch your sugar intake. A bit of coffee sweetener may not hurt, but look into healthy alternatives (like cinnamon or plant-based milks—they’re naturally sweet). Knowing how much sugar is in foods can also help you make informed choices. Aim to get most sugar from fruit, not drinks or sweets, and teach kids that seltzer with citrus juice can taste just as great as soda. Mojito mocktail, anyone?
If You’re Managing Diabetes…
Zanini encourages anyone with diabetes to work with a registered dietitian or diabetes educator to create a doable meal plan that helps control blood sugar. Managing blood glucose levels in Type 2 diabetes can have immediate and long-term benefits, she says. Improved energy and better ability to control food and drink cravings are among instant benefits. "Long term benefits are plentiful," she says. Healthy hemoglobin levels reduce risk of microvascular diseases that cause eye, kidney, and nerve damage. "Controlling blood sugar also helps improve cholesterol and blood pressure, which in the long term reduces risk of heart disease."