Kelly’s day started off with coffee and a bagel. Within a few hours she would feel fatigued. But her life was busy. To boost her energy, she would reach for something quick and easy – four cookies and a handful of pretzels. She’d feel good for an hour but the cycle would continue and she’d feel fatigued again soon after.
If this sounds familiar, you may be experiencing what has been described as a blood sugar roller coaster, induced by too many starchy carbohydrates. The problem is not carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates like whole grains and beans are an essential part of any diet. The problem is the overabundance of processed carbohydrates like refined white breads and pastas in our diets. These processed foods break down too easily in the body. They are then quickly converted into sugar and eventually stored as fat.
The blood sugar roller coaster
Think of carbohydrates from the perspective of your digestive tract, which transforms what we eat into energy our bodies can use. When you digest food, all carbohydrates (including starches, which are long chains of sugars) break down into sugar that can enter the bloodstream, but some break down more quickly than others do. That’s why most dietitians today talk about carbohydrates in terms of their “glycemic index,” the rate at which blood sugar rises after you eat. Carbohydrates with a high glycemic index, such as white bread and potatoes, create a spike in blood sugar that, in turn, triggers a surge of insulin. Insulin enables the body to take sugar out of the blood and give it to the cells to either burn it as energy or convert it into fat for storage. As your insulin levels spike to take the sugar out of the blood, your blood sugar levels plummet, making you feel hungry so that you will want to eat again.
Many dietitians now believe that one of the reasons Americans have grown so fat is that they are overeating the wrong type of carbohydrates (often with the best of intentions, to reduce fat consumption) and have unwittingly become riders on the blood sugar roller coaster. Ride the blood sugar roller coaster too often, and you may develop insulin resistance, so that tissues in your body become deaf to insulin’s call to absorb sugar, and blood sugar levels remain abnormally high.
This can lead to Syndrome X. This metabolic syndrome usually involves having abdominal obesity, diabetes, borderline or high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol, and elevated triglycerides. One study estimated that Syndrome X doubles the risk of high blood pressure and triples the risk of heart disease.
Get off the roller coaster
To get off the blood sugar roller coaster, eat healthy carbohydrates such as whole grain products, dried beans, and vegetables. These foods tend to be digested more slowly, so that blood sugar levels rise and ebb more slowly, exerting a similar calming effect on insulin levels. This will help you feel satisfied longer while obtaining more nutrients and vitamins.
To get smart when it comes to starch, reduce your consumption of refined foods, especially products made of white flour, and instead get rough: eat more whole grain products and vegetables. You will get even better satiation if you combine whole grains with an unsaturated fat (for example, olive oil) or some protein.
By keeping your blood sugar levels modulated, you will also find that you are in a better mood, think more clearly, perform better at work, and are able to maintain your energy levels throughout the day. That mid-afternoon fog that so many people experience after eating lunch will be a memory once you substitute healthy carbohydrates for those that are highly refined and balance them with a protein source or unsaturated fat.
For Kelly, correcting the “carbo” coaster meant planning ahead by bringing snacks with her that were balanced dietary and more satisfying, like nuts with fruit. Satisfying snacks can be hard to find in the middle of the day if you’re on the move because they’re not readily available at convenience stores or coffee shops. Best bet: carry a zip-lock bag with a protein and whole grain snack.