Maintain Healthy Blood Sugar Balance… with FOOD!

The season of justified overindulgence is fast approaching—really, when else do you have the excuse to gorge on massive second (or third) helpings, drink your weight in eggnog, and oversatisfy your sweet tooth? Most people worry about putting on a few extra pounds through the holiday season, but even more worrisome is the negative effect that all of this excess eating and drinking has on blood sugar. Chronically elevated blood sugar increases inflammation and the risk of neuropathy, impaired cognitive function, stroke, cardiovascular disease, and cancer. 1,2,3,4,5,6,7 And new research has shown that the damaging effects of high blood sugar are evident in those with blood glucose levels in the high end of the normal range. 8,9 Simply put, excess blood sugar is seriously damaging to health. The good news is that maintaining healthy blood sugar balance is within your control because it is almost entirely dependant on what you eat (and don’t eat).

When sugary foods and simple carbohydrates are ingested, they are rapidly digested and converted into glucose, leading to sharp spikes in blood sugar (glucose) levels. The pancreas responds by releasing a surge of insulin, which directs the glucose into cells and lowers blood sugar levels back to a normal range. When sugar and/or carbs are occasionally consumed in very small amounts, this is an effective system. However, when these types of foods are regularly consumed, the body is constantly fighting to keep blood sugar levels in a normal range by continually pumping more insulin into the bloodstream. Overtime, the cells may stop responding to insulin (insulin resistance), the first step toward developing type-2 diabetes. This also leads to chronically elevated blood sugar and insulin levels, which damage proteins in the body, such as collagen, and lead to major inflammation, an underlying factor in almost all chronic diseases.

On the other hand, when your diet is built around healthy proteins, fats, and fiber, you can avoid elevated blood sugar and insulin levels and maintain a healthy blood sugar balance. Foods to focus on are meat, eggs, and dairy from pasture-raised animals; avocados, olives, nuts, seeds, butter, and olive and coconut oils; and lots of brightly colored vegetables and small amounts of fruit. Start each day with a protein and veggie-rich breakfast then keep it up with lunch and dinner, and snacks in between, if necessary, all built around these foundational foods. Everyone is a little different and has different requirements, but you’ll know you’ve got the right formula when your energy is steady, your mood is balanced, and your cravings have decreased.

From this foundation there are a number of specific vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients that support healthy blood sugar balance. Some exceptional choices include:

  • Wild salmon, sardines, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and even pastured eggs and beef are good sources of the omega-3 fats EPA and DHA, which improve glucose tolerance and protect against the development of pre-diabetes.10,11,12
  • The mineral chromium is essential for insulin to work properly. In fact the primary signs of chromium deficiency are increased glucose and insulin levels. Small amounts of chromium are found in a wide variety of foods, but some reliably good sources include brewer’s yeast, calf’s liver, grassfed beef, oysters, mussels, romaine lettuce, broccoli, and mushrooms.
  • Magnesium plays a central role in the body’s secretion and use of insulin and helps maintain proper blood sugar levels, while low intakes of magnesium are associated with an increased risk of type-2 diabetes. 13 Foods high in magnesium are leafy green vegetables, nuts and seeds, avocados, kelp, plain yogurt, oysters, and shrimp.
  • Foods naturally high in fiber help to balance blood sugar by slowing the time it takes carbohydrates to be digested, thus slowing the release of glucose into the blood stream. Soluble fiber, the type of fiber that attracts water and forms a gel-like substance during digestion, is particularly beneficial because it can improve glucose and insulin response.14 Many soluble fibers can also be fermented by intestinal bacteria. As the bacteria use these fibers for fuel they produce short chain fatty acids that feed the colon cells and also help to improve insulin sensitivity and protect against metabolic damage that can lead to pre-diabetes and diabetes.15,16,17,18 Nearly all fresh vegetables and fruits are good sources of fiber, but flaxseeds, Brussels sprouts, asparagus, collard greens, broccoli, eggplant, summer and winter squash, turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, and beets are all good sources of soluble fiber. Don’t be tempted to rely solely on a supplement to get your fiber, though since this approach has generally not been shown to be as beneficial as eating the real deal.
  • Foods rich in flavonoids, in particular anthocyanins found in deeply colored vegetables and fruits like red cabbage, purple eggplant, purple potatoes, red radish, blueberries, and blackberries are potent antioxidants that help to preserve insulin function by protecting the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas from damage. They also help support healthy post-meal blood sugar levels.19 Regular consumption of anthocyanin-rich foods is associated with a lowered risk of developing type-2 diabetes.20,21,22
  • Green tea (and to some extent black and oolong teas) contains epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which slows the breakdown of starches and sugars in the digestive tract and improves glucose tolerance and insulin sensitivity.23,24 Regular consumption of green tea is associated with a lower risk of type-2 diabetes.25
  • Vinegar helps to moderate post meal blood sugar and insulin fluctuations, possibly by blocking the absorption of sugar and starch from the intestines.26,27 An act as simple as starting your meal with a small salad dressed with olive oil and vinegar can have an immediate and positive impact on your glycemic response.28 There is even some evidence to suggest that other acidic foods like lemon juice, lacto-fermented veggies (e.g. kimchi, sauerkraut), and kombucha may have similar effects on blood sugar levels.29,30,31
  • The allium family, which includes onions, garlic, shallots, scallions, and leeks, contains compounds that support healthy blood sugar levels, as well as antioxidants that help protect the body from the damaging effects of high blood sugar.32,33,34
  • There are a number of culinary spices that support healthy blood sugar levels, and many are potent antioxidants that protect the body from the damaging effects of high blood sugar. Cinnamon in particular has been well researched for its blood sugar balancing effects. Compounds in cinnamon improve the activity of insulin and the cells’ ability to use glucose, which helps to lower fasting blood glucose levels. Other spices that can positively influence blood sugar levels include chili powder, coriander, cumin, fenugreek, ginger, mustard, parsley, rosemary, and sage.35,36,37

Through the holidays and beyond, make it a priority to incorporate all of these foods in regular rotation, aiming to include several of them daily. The beauty is that their effects are cumulative—even small amounts of a variety of these foods consumed regularly can go far in maintaining a healthy blood sugar balance, and supporting your long-term health.

RECIPES

Vinegar Braised Red Cabbage

Serves 4

This dish is an excellent accompaniment to sliced apples sautéed in butter and cinnamon.

3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
3 tablespoons chicken broth or water
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter
1 small red onion, halved and thinly sliced
1 small head red cabbage (1-1½ pounds), cored and sliced into ¼‖ strips
Sea salt and pepper to taste

 

In a small bowl, whisk the vinegar, broth, mustard, and cinnamon together, set aside. Heat the butter in a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium heat. When butter begins to foam, add the onion and sauté for several minutes, until the onion begins to soften. Add the cabbage and season with salt and pepper. Give a quick stir to the vinegar mixture, then pour over the cabbage. Stir to combine then cover and reduce heat to simmer. Cook until the cabbage is soft, 10-15 minutes. Remove the lid from the pan and let mixture cook another minute or two, or until most of the liquid has evaporated. Serve warm.

 

Oyster Stuffing

Serves 8-10

6 cups cornbread, crumbled into bite-size pieces
1 ½ sticks unsalted butter
2 cups chopped celery (5-6 stalks)
1 cup chopped carrot (3-4 carrots)
3/4 cup diced yellow onion
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 tablespoon celery seeds, crushed
Sea salt and fresh pepper
5 cups chicken broth or stock
3 8-oz. cans whole oysters, drained
3 large eggs, lightly beaten

 

Heat the oven to 275°F and arrange a rack in the middle.

Spread crumbled cornbread into an even layer on a large baking sheet (you may need to use two sheets) and bake for 15 minutes. Remove pans and let cornbread cool and continue to dry out. When completely cooled, transfer to a large mixing bowl.

Increase oven to 350°F. Butter a 13-by-9-inch baking dish and set aside.

Melt one stick of butter in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the celery, carrot, and onion, season with salt, and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. Add the thyme and celery seeds and cook, stirring occasionally, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to the bowl with the cornbread. Pour the broth into the bowl and stir until completely incorporated—you may want to add more broth to increase the level of moisture to your liking. Fold in the oysters and eggs. Transfer the stuffing to the prepared baking dish. Cut the remaining 1/2 stick of butter into small pieces and scatter them over the top of the stuffing. Bake until golden brown on top, about 40 minutes.

References available upon request