You don’t have to have diabetes to suffer from blood sugar spikes and dips that can leave you feeling jittery, exhausted, and just plain terrible. Adopting healthy eating and lifestyle habits will help stabilize your blood sugar—which, in turn, can keep your energy up, your mood sunnier, and your hormones in check. On top of that, healthy blood sugar is also connected to successful weight management, and can keep related diseases like type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and heart disease at bay.
Here’s what you need to know to get off that blood sugar roller coaster once and for all:
1. Understand the glycemic index
“The glycemic index is a measure of how quickly foods are digested, and the resulting effect on blood glucose,” explains David Nico, PhD, a certified wellness coach and author of the book Diet Diagnosis. In short: “High-glycemic foods cause an increase in blood sugar.”
When you eat high glycemic foods (or foods with a lot of sugar) your body releases insulin, a hormone that helps the body absorb and process sugar. But excess glucose can get converted into and stored as, triglycerides ends up getting stored as fat no it doesn’t—so when the body encounters this process too frequently, you run the risk of insulin resistance, which doctors see as an early warning sign for type 2 diabetes.
When investigating where certain foods might fall on the glycemic index, you’ll see numbers that are based on how much any given food item raises blood glucose levels compared with how much pure glucose raises blood glucose, according to the Mayo Clinic. GI values are generally divided into three categories:
- Low GI: 1 to 55
- Medium GI: 56 to 69
- High GI: 70 and higher
The goal: Aim for low to medium GI foods the majority of the time.
2. Identify low-glycemic foods you enjoy for snacks and meals
“Low-glycemic foods help stabilize blood sugar, as glucose is released more slowly into the bloodstream,” Nico explains. He advises consistently eating “nutritionally-dense whole foods with fiber to support blood sugar stabilization.”
A few low GI options: Green vegetables, most fruits, non-starchy veggies, carrots, chickpeas, lentils, oatmeal (rolled or steel-cut), oat bran, 100% stone-ground whole wheat or pumpernickel bread, and sweet potatoes.
3. Steer clear of high-glycemic foods
Processed foods, especially those high in refined sugar and anything “white” (think white rice, white bread, and potatoes), are typically high on the glycemic index.
“Unhealthy grains found in some baked goods, sweets, and packaged products are highly processed with white flours stripped of beneficial nutrients and fibers and contribute to blood sugar imbalances, because of their high glycemic index and load,” Nico explains. “The over-consumption of highly processed grains may eventually lead to insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes making weight management a challenge.”
4. Prioritize protein
We generally think of lean protein (chicken, fish, plant-based protein like black, kidney, and pinto beans) as the component of our diet we need to eat to build muscle, but it also helps stabilize blood sugar and improves insulin imbalances, Nico explains.
Science proves it: Research published in the Journal of Nutrition found that nondiabetic subjects who ate protein experienced a reduced glycemic response. And research published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that in patients with type 2 diabetes, eating a higher-protein diet helped improve glucose control.
5. Don’t be afraid of good fats
Foods that are high in monounsaturated fat (or MUFAs) like olive oil, nuts (almonds, cashews, pecans), canola oil, avocados, nut butters, olives, and peanut oil have been shown in research to benefit insulin levels and blood sugar control. (Incorporating them into your diet could also reduce your risk of heart disease by lowering your total and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol levels but maintain your high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol level, notes the Mayo Clinic.)
And if you need a quick update: HDL is the “good” cholesterol, while LDL is the “bad” cholesterol.
Of course, you want to eat all of these foods in moderation—making a point to avoid saturated fats (usually found in processed foods) when you’re adding MUFAs to your diet.
6. Avoid artificial sweeteners
Reaching for a diet cola with zero grams of sugar isn’t necessarily a wise choice over its sugar-laden alternative. Research shows that fake sugar can also be detrimental to blood sugar stability.
A study published in the journal Nature found that artificial sweeteners (saccharin, sucralose, and aspartame, for example) raised blood sugar levels by altering microorganisms (mainly bacteria) in the gut.