Get The Scoop: A Nutritionist Explains How “Metabolic Meals” Can Balance Your Blood Sugar
Can’t shake the afternoon slump? PMS symptoms impossible to avoid? Sugar cravings through the roof? If so, it’s time to learn about blood sugar. Trust—it’s game changing. Study after study proves: balancing blood sugar is critical. It impacts energy, hormone balance, fertility, sleep, longevity, and more. IYKYK: repeated blood sugar spikes and crashes aren’t fun. In the short-term, they make you feel tired, irritable, and hungry. In the long-run, they can lead to a slew of chronic diseases. But good news! You can support stable blood glucose by learning how to build metabolic meals. Grab a pen—you’ll want to take notes.
Featured image by Suruchi Avasthi.
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What is blood sugar?
Let’s start here. In fact, you may already be familiar with spikes and dips in blood sugar. (Hello, hanger!) However, few recognize its effects on a daily basis. Balancing blood sugar is key. It plays a role in energy, feelings, cognitive function, and so much more. So, what is blood sugar? Also known as blood glucose, it’s the amount of sugar in your blood at any given time. In a typical diet, sugar, or glucose, is the body’s main source of energy. It’s produced when we break down any form of carbohydrate—fruit, grains, cookies, etc.
Are blood sugar levels the same for everyone?
Nope! In debunking nutrition myths, we talked about the beauty of bio-individuality. Thanks to factors like genetics and exercise routines, we all have different nutritional needs. In turn, we all have unique blood sugar levels. Thus, my blood sugar isn’t going to be the same as yours. How we each metabolize foods like bananas, sweet potatoes, and a slice of cake is completely individual. That said, once you understand blood sugar—and what habits impact it—you can make more informed decisions about your diet and lifestyle.
Want to engage with your personal blood sugar levels? Consider wearing a continuous glucose monitor.
Why is blood sugar important?
Ideally, you want your blood sugar levels to stay in a healthy range. Too low, and you can lose the ability to think and function normally. Too high, and you may end up with unwanted health conditions. Once you master your blood sugar, you’ll likely experience a steadier and better mood, improved sleep, and decreased cravings. Not to mention, it may help in regulating menstruation and improving fertility outcomes. As part of a healthy lifestyle, blood sugar management may reduce your risk of chronic health issues.
See here for recommended blood sugar ranges.
How can you naturally manage blood sugar?
Through food and lifestyle. First and foremost, focus on building metabolic meals. Ultimately, this means including all three macronutrients—protein (animal or plant-based), carbohydrates, and healthy fats. And when possible, pack in fiber-rich ingredients. Counter to diet culture, you also need to eat enough. After all, eating less than your caloric needs increases the production of cortisol. Cortisol is our stress hormone. And chronically elevated cortisol causes blood sugar imbalance.
Blood Sugar and Lifestyle: They’re More Connected Than You Think
Secondly, take inventory of your lifestyle. Beyond food, managing your glucose means getting quality sleep, minimizing stress, and moving your body. Exercise is important for many reasons, but it’s crucial for helping control blood sugar spikes.
Movement encourages insulin sensitivity. When you exercise, your muscles absorb sugar from what you eat, naturally lowering blood sugar levels. Even moderate-intensity exercise—like walking—has been found to reduce blood sugar spikes. Strength training is particularly helpful!
For glucose balance, should you eat low-carb?
Before we dive into metabolic meals, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: eating low-carb. This is one of the hottest debates in the nutrition world. Some argue that a low-carbohydrate diet is key to balancing blood sugar, reversing insulin resistance, and weight loss. For most, low-carb isn’t the answer (at least not indefinitely). Rather, it’s about quality over quantity. When you choose carbohydrates—starchy veggies, grains, and fruit—opt for minimally-processed, real ingredients.
Without further ado, below are eight tips to create metabolically healthy meals. Use these recommendations to guide your meals (and snacks!). Your mind and body will thank you—now and in the future. Oh, and many of these guidelines apply to your children, too!
1. Begin Your Day With A Savory Breakfast
Let’s face it, American breakfasts are sweet. Very sweet. Flavored yogurt, sugar-sweetened cereal, coffee shop muffins, syrup-drenched waffles and pancakes, toast with a thick layer of jam, etc. Rather than start your day with a sugary breakfast, opt for its savory counterparts: pastured eggs, sautéed veggies, turkey sausage, avocado toast, or chia pudding. Breakfast boards are a nourishing option as well. In other words, a sugary (or refined carb) breakfast will spike then crash your blood sugar, leaving you tired and possibly cranky. It also sets you up for sugar cravings as your body tries to recover from the crash, only to spike and crash again. And again.
2. Prioritize Protein
Eating enough protein is the secret to a slew of health benefits—including blood sugar balance. Unlike carbs, protein has a relatively small effect on blood glucose levels. In fact, protein (like healthy fats) tends to help stabilize blood sugar!
Furthermore, protein breaks down into glucose more slowly than carbohydrates. Thus, the effect of protein on blood glucose levels tends to occur gradually over a few hours (and this is the goal). As a Nutrition Consultant, I find that a good rule of thumb is roughly 20-30 grams of protein per meal. This will vary across the board (particularly if you’re pregnant).
3. Focus On Fiber
When it comes to building metabolic meals, fiber is your friend. It’s estimated that a whopping 95% of Americans don’t meet the daily recommended amount of fiber. Thankfully, many whole food sources of carbohydrates—like 100% whole grains, fruits, and vegetables—contain fiber. Other easy sources of fiber: nuts and seeds (chia and flax, in particular) and legumes, like lentils. Fiber helps slow digestion and minimize blood sugar peaks. Though most carbohydrates are broken down into sugar molecules, fiber is an outlier. Instead, fiber passes through the body, undigested. In turn, it helps minimize constipation, regulates hunger cues, and reduces the glycemic index.
4. Hone In On Healthy Fats
Unlike highly processed oils, nutrient-dense fats (avocados, coconut, extra-virgin olive oil, walnuts, tallow, etc.) support stable blood sugar. Fat has little, if any, effect on blood glucose levels. But be mindful of which type of fat you’re choosing. In particular, hone in on omega-3 fatty acids.
Omega-3 fatty acids are key elements of both cell structure and metabolic pathways. Plus, getting enough omega-3s also limits the impact of other inflammatory oils. When in doubt, focus on healthy fats: wild-caught salmon, nuts, ghee, pastured beef, etc.
5. Swap Refined Sugar
When it comes to enjoying your favorite pie, bars, cookies, or cake—as a snack or breakfast side—opt for lower glycemic sugar alternatives. Options like monkfruit and allulose are easy to bake with. Plus, you won’t taste the difference! Swapping refined sugar (or even maple syrup) for these alternatives can drastically improve your blood sugar response. As we know, most baked goods are a sugar bonanza. And too much sugar is a precursor to everything from headaches and bloating to poor sleep, feeling jittery or anxious, and irritability.
6. Build A Balanced Plate
When possible, create a balanced plate. Meaning: aim for half a plate of non-starchy carbs (greens, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, bell peppers, etc.), a fist-sized amount of protein (4-6 ounces), 1-2 sources of healthy fats, and a serving (1/2-1 cup) of slow-digesting carbs (oats, quinoa, sweet potatoes, etc.). Bonus points for fermented foods, like sauerkraut!
These general guidelines will help steer you in a satiating direction. Depending on your needs and goals, you may need more or less than one cup of slow-digesting carbs—particularly if you’re more insulin resistant.
7. Eat At Regular Intervals
This goes without saying, but aim to eat meals at regular intervals during the day. For most, that’s every 3-4 hours. Skipping breakfast—or any meal—can increase blood sugar when you finally sit down to eat. However, eating every few hours helps keep blood sugar in check by not letting it dip too low. Plus, cortisol can get out of whack with weird eating patterns, which can lead to unstable glucose levels. While this isn’t about eating constantly, it is about eating consistently. Furthermore, try to eat within an hour of waking—this is especially important for women trying to balance their hormones. The body is primed and ready to receive nutrients.
8. Come Prepared
Worried about the selection of food at your next outing, activity, or work event? Plan ahead of time. Ultimately, this is about giving yourself the added boost of nutrients to support your blood sugar. It’s typically easy to find carb-rich snacks (granola bars, chips, bananas, etc.), so aim to keep fat-forward or protein-forward snacks in your bag—or the car! A few shelf-stable favorites: fava beans, beef sticks, nut butter packets, and low-sugar protein bars.