Maintaining Blood Sugar Balance During the Holidays
The holiday season is upon us. As calendars fill up with social events through the next two months, our bodies can also start to fill up; with stress, and sugar, and all of those things that we rarely eat, or that we only eat in moderation. How can this year be different? If the holidays have become times of stress for you, then what will you do this year to take control?
Cookies and little, crumbly nibbly things abound at this time of year. Simply applying the puritanical “self-restraint” model won’t cut it. There are larger forces than good and evil at work here. How can you beat the system and stare down those cookies? You can eat something else. It is simple, and easy, when you’re prepared. And this is not advice to just carry around carrot and celery sticks with you all day. This is about eating delicious things that give you lasting energy.
A quick background in blood sugar:
After a meal, the major nutrients leave the stomach and are absorbed through the small intestine and circulated in the blood as glucose (carbohydrates/sugar), fats, or amino acids (proteins). The hormone insulin leaps into action after a meal, putting the sugar from the food we’ve eaten into cells as either immediate fuel (glucose) or stored fuel (glycogen and fat). In people with insulin-sensitive cells, a predictable rise and fall in the glucose circulating in the blood occurs as the sugar from the meal is ushered into cells in a timely fashion. In people with impaired insulin sensitivity and type 2 diabetes the cells don’t respond well to the insulin and the sugar is left to roam the blood stream. Sugar left in the blood stream will tend to wreak havoc on all delicate things (tiny blood vessels, kidneys, eyes, nerves). All of this can be moderated with what you consume in addition to sugar or instead of sugar. For example, protein eaten before carbohydrates can cause insulin to rise slightly, as if priming the body for a sugar intake. Protein has the added benefit of making you feel sated, which will lead to less sugar consumption. Fats consumed with sugar will cause the stomach to slow down the amount of food that is released and delivered to the intestines and bloodstream. This will spread out the effect of the sugar, leading to a more even distribution. Fats also cause a feeling of satiety. Replacing just 5% of calories from carbohydrates with fat increases the body’s sensitivity to insulin. Adding fiber does double duty eliciting satiety and slowing down the release of food into the intestines.
Putting it into action:
- Snacks: Nuts and seeds contain fats, protein, and fiber. Nuts are a great snack to have on hand. Eating a small handful before entering a situation where there will be sweets can stave off the cookie-monster effect. Not all nuts are created equal and to stay in the holiday spirit: walnuts, pecans, hazelnuts all work well, or almonds, cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds. Just not peanuts.
- Eat Throughout the Day: Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Even if you hate eating in the morning, do try to consume some protein and fat before lunch over the next two months. It will help stave off those cookie attacks in the break room, where invariably someone leaves a figgy pudding for the taking. A hardboiled egg, slices of ham or turkey, a handful of nuts, a cup of full-fat yogurt, a cup of bone broth (hot!). You see what I’m doing? Nothing here is particularly carbohydrate rich. This sets you up for success throughout the day.
Lunch is also important. Meaty soups, fish, ham and turkey sandwiches, quiches, loaded salads, broccoli with olive oil, hummus, cottage cheese, leftovers. For that mid-afternoon crash, a handful of nuts, some salami, olives, ½ of an avocado, a slice of cheese.
These foods will greatly reduce the amount of sweets you absent-mindedly eat, or eat as if your life depended on it, because they provide sustained energy that curbs appetite. If you have an insatiable sweet-tooth, they will buffer the sugar bomb that is a cookie on an empty stomach.
- Exercise: Because our bodies are dynamic, and everything is intertwined, we must consider other ways to balance blood sugar. Skeletal muscle lets in around 40% of mealtime sugar (glucose) with the help of insulin. That’s a lot! And the more skeletal muscle is used, the more glucose it will take. Exercise is a great way to ensure that glucose is being used instead of stored (as fat) in the body. Exercise also releases all kinds of hormones that relieve stress. And who hasn’t stress-eaten a cookie recently? If you have an hour for lunch, use 10 of those minutes to walk briskly. If you usually take a break at 3pm for a coffee and a cookie, try 5-10 minutes of brisk walking and a handful of nuts. Do you still need the cookie? Walking is available to many people as free exercise. If you cannot walk, can you swim? And if that is too much, there are exercises you can do seated to get your blood pumping. If you are walking, put your sneakers in your work bag next to your new snacks and put them on at lunch! You can put your sneakers next to your bed, put them on when you wake up and walk outside for the first 10 minutes of your day. It might change your life! And if you drive to work, put your sneakers in the car. If you have a few extra minutes pull over and put those sneakers on your feet!
Finally, enjoy yourself. This was a holy time of year to so many of our ancestors. And although the meaning has been diluted through the ages, we are celebrating the harvest, honoring those who have passed, being thankful for what we have and looking forward to the return of the sun. Step away from the sugar roller coaster and into some new habits that will serve you beyond these brief few months.
Sarah Buck is a naturopathic doctor practicing in Yarmouth, Maine. Her practice is located at 224 E. Main St and she sees patients Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can find out more and book appointments at: sarahbucknd.com or call (207)200-6597.