It’s been a long day. You open the fridge and reach for a treat. Perhaps it’s a cold, sugary drink on a hot day. Or a “serving” of ice cream. Maybe it’s a cup of yogurt. Or some cookies or chocolate stashed in the cupboard you can quickly turn to. You take a bite and you breathe a sigh of relief. Later you feel bad about what you’ve done. And so the story goes. But do you have to go sugar free or low carb to reach your health goals? We’ll get into all of this and more today!
Let’s start with the million dollar question. Do you need to cut sugar out of your life to be healthy? Some healthcare professionals will insist that sugar free is the way to go. They are well-intentioned and may put you on a very restrictive diet. I bet you’ve already tried an approach like this. You probably started out gung ho and determined, only to end up back where you started, or worse. This can leave you feeling hopeless and powerless.
It’s true that sugar has little to no nutritional value. But, cutting it out completely doesn’t sound like a very enjoyable life to me. What if I told you that going sugar free isn’t completely necessary? I was close to becoming diabetic and made a few small tweaks to my diet. After many years of being prediabetic, I was finally able to lower my blood sugar levels to below prediabetic levels. Now I just maintain the habits that I’ve set into motion.
You can get many benefits by lowering your sugar intake and by eating it more consciously when you do have it. The key to this is what I like to call the A-word: awareness. It will mean you have to make some changes. There’s no way around this unfortunately. The good news is that a few small, but consistent tweaks might be all you need. I believe that you can have your cake and eat it too, so to speak. Let’s take a more detailed look at sugar to help you build awareness about some of these better choices.
Simple and complex carbs
What is the difference between simple and complex carbohydrates? In short, simple carbs are more easily digested and provide a quick source of energy. However, they also spike blood sugar and produce a sugar rush followed by that infamous sugar crash. Think sugar, syrups, or sweets, although simple carbs are also present in healthier foods like milk and fruits.
Complex carbs take longer to digest compared to simple carbs. They are a more stable energy source too. Since carbohydrates tend to provide most of the body’s energy (unless you’re going low carb or keto), having complex carbs is better for energetic purposes. It’s important to note that complex carbs are also plentiful in processed foods with little nutritional value, such as refined white flour. My point is that complex carbs aren’t always superior to simple carbs. The entire food you’re eating needs to be taken into consideration rather than the type of carbohydrate it contains.
Glycemic index (GI)
If you’re not familiar with the glycemic index, then allow me to explain. In simple terms, the glycemic index is a measure of the increase in blood sugar after eating a specific carbohydrate. It is compared to eating a standard amount of glucose (sugar). Foods high on the GI list release glucose quickly. This means that your blood sugar will rapidly rise after eating them. Low glycemic index foods do the opposite. They release glucose into the blood more slowly. Regular, sharp increases in blood sugar put us at risk for many health conditions, including diabetes and heart disease.
Foods that lower blood sugar
So which foods can actually lower blood sugar? A better question might be what type of foods help you to keep it down? Are lower glycemic index foods the answer then? Well, not exactly. Glycemic load (GL) is a newer way to measure the impact of carbohydrates, while also giving you a fuller picture than glycemic index does. The major limitation with glycemic index is that it only indicates how quickly a given carbohydrate turns into sugar. It doesn’t tell you how much of a carbohydrate is in a serving of a food. You have to know both of these factors to really understand how a food affects your blood sugar levels.
Glycemic load ranges
To know what the glycemic load of a particular food is, you will need to look it up. Over time, you’ll learn which foods are on the lower side of the scale (think foods lower in sugar and high in fiber). Here is one handy guide that includes both GI and GL ranges so you can see the differences. If you’re trying to understand the ranges, then here is a quick breakdown of them:
- GL of 20 or more = high
- GL of 11 to 19 = medium
- GL of 10 or less = low
In general, foods with a low GL almost always have a low GI. There are exceptions and the opposite isn’t always true. For example, popcorn has a glycemic index of 72 which is high for that index. Although its level of carbohydrates is high, its glycemic load is only 8, falling within the low range on the list above. There isn’t a great quantity of carbohydrates in popcorn. This doesn’t mean you should binge watch movies and eat a ton of popcorn because its GL is low. It does mean that eating a reasonable amount of popcorn is probably okay if you suffer from blood sugar issues.
Since GI is a more popular measure, you may not be able to find the GL of a food as easily. Worry not, there’s a simple equation you can use to convert glycemic index into glycemic load. You will need to look at a nutritional label or to find the nutritional value of a food if it doesn’t have one. Here’s the formula:
GL = (GI x the amount of carbohydrate) divided by 100. For instance, let’s say an apple has a GI of 40 and contains 15 grams of carbohydrates. This would be 40 x 15 (divided by 100). 40 x 15 = 600. 600 / 100 then gives us a GL of 6. According to the GL ranges above, a 6 is low. So an apple makes a great snack to help keep your blood sugar down.
High fiber foods
Another way to think about making food choices is by going for fiber rich foods. You’ve probably heard a ton about fiber, but what exactly is it? Dietary fiber (as it’s technically called), or roughage, is a plant-derived carbohydrate that our bodies can’t fully digest. It passes through the body undigested as it can’t be broken down into sugar. Fiber cleans your colon. It acts like a scrub brush, helping to clean out bacteria and other build up in your intestines. While it can help to reduce your risk for colon cancer, it also helps reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Fiber is mostly found in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and legumes.
A few considerations
You can go a long way towards lowering your sugar intake by following the suggestions above. Try to: eat fiber rich foods, go for foods with a low glycemic load, and choose complex carbs over simple carbs (while considering the entire food and its nutrients).
What’s one small change you can make today?