KNOW YOUR MACROS (2/3): CARBS - How To Use Them To Balance Your Blood Sugar
Updated: Oct 7
In last week’s post we dove into the concept of macronutrients - the big three groups we sort food into - and had a closer look at protein. Today we’re moving on to carbohydrates (before covering fats next week).
So what’s the deal with carbs? For some people they seem to be the source of all evil (ahem, hi there keto-folks) while others don’t even consider something a “meal” without a proper “carb frame” (pretty much everyone following a typical western diet).
You know I am all about balance, so let’s try and land somewhere in the middle. But of course I want you to understand the “why” behind my beliefs, so let’s start with what carbs are and what they do once they enter your mouth.
What Are Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are divided into:
Sugars: the sweet stuff including glucose, fructose, galactose and sucrose. These are short-chain carbs that enter your blood stream very quickly, so we want to be mindful of these.
Starches: for example bread or pasta - the stuff that gets sweeter the longer you chew it because it consists of long chains of above mentioned sugars, which get broken down through chewing and digestion and then enter you blood stream. Wholegrain is better than white ("processed") because: more nutrients & slower release.
Fibre: the bit of plant-based foods that you can’t properly digest, BUT: your gut bacteria can and reward you with fatty acids they produce as fuel for your cells.
So, the main purpose of carbs is to, directly or indirectly, provide you with energy. Meaning you absolutely need them in your diet. How exactly does that energy thing carbs do work though?
Enter: Blood Sugar Balance Ruled by Carbs
Balancing your blood sugar is one of the basic concepts of my nutrition practice. Let’s quickly jump on the blood sugar rollercoaster of the typical western diet:
Up, up, up….
Imagine your usual weekday. Say you had a really big bowl of breakfast cereal. The sugar in that cereal is very easily broken down and enters your blood stream. We say it has a high glycaemic load, meaning it spikes your blood sugar quickly. You might feel a bit hyper, maybe even agitated - but most certainly not alert and focused.
That peak is the signal for your pancreas to release a hormone called Insulin. Imagine insulin like little taxis. They collect all the sugar molecules and transport them out of your blood straight into your body’s cells. The more sugar there is in your blood stream - and there will be a lot after that big bowl of cereal - the more insulin taxis will be whizzing around to get the sugar out of your blood into your cells asap.
If you eat foods that have fast releasing sugar such as pure sugar, fruit juice, white toast, anything with white flour such as doughnuts, scones, chocolate sweets (you get my point), you need a lot of insulin!
A Quick Side Note On Insulin
Your liver acts as your body’s sugar (or fuel) reservoir. During a meal, when insulin levels go up (to deal with your high blood sugar) your liver will store sugar, as glycogen or fat, for a later time when your body needs it. Just to make sure I am being clear: this is the key, the secret, the crux of weight gain! Fast releasing sugar → more insulin → more fat storage.
And by the way, this also means that when you eat starchy/fast/beige carbs you can't empty the toxins locked away in your fat stores. Not cool! And if your body constantly needs insulin, at some stage your cells don't react to the signals anymore and you require more and more until you become insulin resistant and pre-diabetic. So let’s go back to the blood sugar rollercoaster to avoid this scenario.
… and down, down, down…
When all these insulin taxis have done their job, the sugar levels in your blood will be very low. In this trough you will feel very tired, irritable and your brain will start craving the next sugar hit to get out of this slump. So, you might grab a sugary morning snack. And the cycle repeats.
… and up and down and up and down. Ugh!
By early afternoon you can hardly keep your eyes open. And all you can think about is taking a nap or getting the next sugar hit. Never mind being focused and productive. This vicious cycle doesn’t just affect your ability to focus. It affects your heart, your skin, your liver’s ability to detoxify and your physical performance. That’s why I’m going on about this. Sorry.
How To Get Off The Blood Sugar Rollercoaster
Ok, yes, it was fun for a while. But now we’re dizzy and it’s time to get off the wild ride. How do we do that?
The solution is quite simple: you need to decrease the amount of sugar in your meals and increase the amount of other “stuff”. Fibre (the indigestible carb, which is abundant in fruit and veg) but also protein and healthy fats have the superpower to slow down the speed at which sugar enters your blood stream.
As a result, sugar is slowly drip feeding into your blood stream, so fewer insulin taxis are needed and you are getting a steady supply of energy throughout the day. Whoop whoop!
Some Specific Guidelines, Please!
Here is what I usually discuss with my clients at the beginning of their programme with me - the golden rules of blood sugar balance:
Eat regularly: Aim for 3 main meals and allow yourself 1-2 snacks per day.
Have protein with each meal (fish, chicken, eggs, dairy alternatives, nuts, seeds, beans and legumes).
Eat good fats for example oily fish, avocados, nuts and seeds, cold pressed oils.
Keep moving as this helps with glucose uptake in the cells.
Be picky with your carbs:
Fill half of your plate with plenty of veggies - they are all carbs and their advantage is that they don't spike your blood sugar and they are full of fibre, vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients! Aim for two handfuls as a minimum. There is really no upper limit.
Fill a quarter of your plate with slow releasing carbs such as root vegetables and wholegrain rice or pasta.
Limit high GL foods, e.g. chocolate, sugar, wheat and starchy carbs like potatoes, pasta, rice and bread.