Are you confused about whether your diet is healthy?
Are whole grains good for us?
Do we need to be gluten-free?
Should we be eating dairy regularly?
What about fruit?
With all the conflicting diet information out there, it’s enough to drive you crazy trying to figure out the right approach! Where do you even start?
Fortunately, it actually doesn’t have to be complicated.
The impact particular foods have on your health can be quickly identified by one very basic measurement: your blood sugar.
Having a normal functioning blood sugar is the key to optimal health and the prevention of chronic disease in your life. Virtually all chronic diseases are either caused by poor blood sugar control or are improved by better blood sugar management.
But first, let’s look at the very basics.
What Is Blood Sugar?
Blood sugar, or glucose, is the sugar found in your blood that comes mainly from the food you eat. Whenever you eat something, your digestive system breaks it down into smaller components, and one of the major components is glucose.
Glucose is our bodies’ preferred energy source. It’s a necessary ingredient for maintaining the optimal function of your organs, muscles, and nervous system.
If you just ate a meal high in carbohydrates, starch, and/or sugar, your blood sugar will rise high over a normal fasting level. If you just had a meal of healthy fats and proteins, your blood sugar will not rise as high.
Blood sugar after meals that is continuously outside of the normal range can lead to major blood vessel and body tissue damage.
This damage creates toxic compounds called advanced glycation end products (AGEs).
AGEs are proteins or lipids that are tagged with glucose molecules as a result of continuous exposure to high sugar levels. AGEs accelerate the aging process by depleting your body’s antioxidant stores.
They also wreak havoc in the body by damaging DNA and lead to the development, or worsening, of many diseases including diabetes, atherosclerosis, high blood pressure, kidney disease, and Alzheimer’s disease.
Fortunately, it’s very simple to measure the direct effect on your blood sugar of any kind of food, whether it’s a bowl of greens or a big juicy burger.
That means you can always make an informed decision about your dietary choices and ensure that you have the data you really need to optimize your health over the long term.
How To Test Your Blood Sugar
To test your blood sugar at home, all you need is a very inexpensive piece of equipment you can find at any drug store or pharmacy called a glucose meter or glucometer.
Glucose testing from home using a glucometer is typically done by a finger stick test. This involves pricking the tip of your finger and collecting a small drop of blood onto the testing strip.
Here is a glucometer that I recommend, which includes 100 testing strips and 100 lancets.
The test itself is very mildly painful but if you are feeling squeamish, I recommend having someone else help you with the finger stick because it may be harder to do on yourself.
Here are the data points that you will want to track when assessing your body’s response to meals: :
- fasting blood sugar levels
- blood sugar 1 hour after eating
- blood sugar 2 hours after eating
- blood sugar 3 hours after eating
- how long it takes for blood sugar to return to fasting levels after eating
- a diary of foods eaten before the tests
Let’s work through the best way to test your blood sugar and get all these data points.
First: Test your blood sugar first thing in the morning before you have eaten anything.
This is called your “fasting” blood sugar level. Optimally this level should be between 82-88 mg/dL (4.55-4.88 mmol/L). Conventional medicine considers anything <100 mg/dL (5.55 mmol/L) as normal.
Second: Test your 1-hour post-meal blood sugar.
Your blood sugar will reach its highest point around 1-hour after eating the meal. This reading tells you how high your meal has made your blood sugar. It is important that you are not eating food that consistently raises your blood sugar over 120 mg/dL (6.66 mmol/L).
Third: Test your 2-hour post-meal blood sugar.
This reading tells you how efficient your body is at balancing your blood sugar. Optimally this level should be less than 120 mg/dL (6.66 mmol/L). The closer to 100, the better.
Fourth: Test your 3-hour post-meal blood sugar.
Your glucose level should be back to your fasting level or under 100 mg/dL (5.55 mmol/L). This is a normal healthy response to eating a meal.
Fifth: If your blood sugar has not returned to your fasting level by hour three, continue to test it hourly until you see how long this process takes for your body. A normal response is 3 hours post-meal.
In the beginning, it is a good idea to pick some meals that you eat on a regular basis and take a day to test those.
Record your findings. And as time goes on, you will have a diary of what foods your body responds to best.
Ready to get to work on improving your own blood sugar levels? Interested in working with a doctor to finally nail down the best diet for your body and health? Click here to complete a short application to start working with Dr. Alexis Shields.
Normal vs optimal blood sugar ranges
I’ve written extensively about the difference between normal and optimal blood markers here, and the same applies to your blood sugar ranges.
From the perspective of conventional medicine, a fasting blood sugar level of 100-125 mg/dL (5.6-6.9 mmol/L) indicates prediabetes.
Two consecutive fasting glucose levels of ≥ 126 mg/dL (7.0 mmol/L) indicates diabetes, as well as a random glucose reading of ≥ 200 mg/dL (11.1 mmol/L), and a 2-hour post-meal reading of ≥ 200 mg/dL (11.1 mmol/L).
But much of the data in conventional medicine comes from populations who are not enjoying optimal health.
So what does a healthy daily glucose response look like from the perspective of preventative medicine?
On waking: Research indicates that your optimal glucose after waking in the morning should be between 82-88 mg/dL (4.55-4.88 mmol/L). This level is associated with optimal aging, the lowest risk of chronic disease, and the lowest mortality risk.
(Of course, there are always exceptions. Some people experience something called the “dawn phenomenon” in the morning and their fasting glucose level is slightly elevated above 88 mg/dL. This can be a normal response to cortisol raising in the morning. If this occurs, avoid eating for an hour and then observe your 1-hour post waking glucose level.)
After meals: Blood sugar peaks between 1 and 2 hours after the meal and should be back down to fasting levels by 3 hours post-meal. From the perspective of optimal health, you should avoid regularly eating foods that raise your blood sugar over 100 mg/dl (5.55 mg/dL).
One strategy to test the impact of your diet on your long-term health is to measure your blood sugar before and after meals.
How to Improve Blood Test Results
Identifying the foods or meals that regularly spike your blood sugar too high, too fast, or too long can help you to individualize your diet for longevity.
After a few weeks of testing your blood sugar levels after eating various types of food, you should have a clear record of how your body responds.
By familiarizing yourself with the effect that food has on your blood sugar, you will start to learn what foods your body loves and which ones to eat only on special occasions or not at all.
A balanced blood sugar results in a greater sense of wellbeing, having more energy, preventing the afternoon crash and feeling “hangry” (hungry + angry), and getting a better night’s rest.
Here’s what It feels like to have normal blood sugar:
- No extreme hunger between meals
- No sleepiness after meals or mid-day
- Balanced mood
- Stable energy
- Restful and refreshing sleep
- Mentally sharp
Symptoms of High Blood Sugar (in a non-diabetic person):
- Feeling fatigued and sleepy, especially after meals
- Poor brain function and focus
- Increased thirst
- Frequent urination
- Dry mouth
- Weight fluctuations
But what does it mean if you eat something clearly unhealthy, like a candy bar or burger, and your blood sugar does not elevate over the 120 mg/dL (6.66 mmol/L) mark?
This means your body is adapting to the rise in blood sugar very well!
This is a good thing. You have a very healthy body. However, if you continue to eat processed foods high in starch and sugars, over time your body will slowly lose this ability to adapt. This is not a good practice.
Want to know some foods that commonly convert quickly to sugar and cause a rapid high spike in blood sugar?
- White foods: white rice, white potato, all forms of sugar
- Refined grains: bread, pasta, crackers, baked goods, cereals, chips
- Candy and sweets
- Soda, juice, sweetened drinks
Consumption of processed sugar increases your risk for many chronic diseases including obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD).
If your blood sugar is too high, or if you’re simply experiencing some of the symptoms of high blood sugar after eating, the best thing you can do is to exercise. Exercise clears sugar from the blood so that it can be used as a fuel source for your muscles.
Different types of exercise work to a different extent for different people. To determine your individual effect from exercise, test your glucose levels before and immediately after different types of exercise. Going for a walk after meals or a quick high-intensity interval training (HIIT) session is a good place to start.
If your test results are consistently outside the healthy range, here’s what you do:
- Test and record your levels
- Get a blood test to further investigate other blood sugar related biomarkers: hemoglobin A1c, fasting insulin, triglycerides
- Experiment with reducing foods high in carbohydrates and starches, especially low-fiber processed foods (ie. white bread) and those with added sugar (ie. salad dressings with sugar as an added ingredient, check your labels!)
Need a blood test to check your blood sugar related biomarkers? Click here, if you are in the US, to order your own blood test.
And if you want help with these steps, click here to explore a Mini Health Review. After a simple blood test, I’ll review your data and come back to you with an action plan tailored to your specific needs.
Symptoms of Low Blood Sugar (in a non-diabetic person)
- Feeling shaky or trembling
- Mood changes — irritable or moody (“hangry”), anxious
- Heart rate fast or pounding
- Weight fluctuations
If your blood sugar is too low, the best thing to do is to eat a balanced meal based on the data you’ve collected since you started tracking your blood sugar after eating.
If you don’t have enough data (or any) just yet, start with something that’s moderate in carbohydrate and also contains some protein and healthy fats. An apple with some nut butter is a good option, as is meat or seafood with some vegetables cooked in olive oil.
Clearly, there’s a huge range in the effects different types of food have on your blood sugar.
That’s why tracking your blood sugar 1 hour after eating and your blood sugar 3 hours after eating over a few weeks can be such a valuable tool.
When you’re learning how to improve your blood test results and optimize your long term health and longevity, you must have data as the foundation.
Your blood sugar is one of the fundamental indicators of your current and future health, and if you focus on this one metric alone, all the other biomarkers in your annual labs are likely to improve as well.
Ready to get to work on improving your own blood sugar levels? Interested with working with an online functional medicine doctor? The Mini Health Review as an easy first step to getting started: click here to learn more.