Why Blood Sugar Is The Dietary Health Metric You Need To Know About

Albert Watson

With calorie counting now considered a futile enterprise, Hannah Coates uncovers the new health metric that feeds body, mind and soul.

I spent many years slavishly checking calorie counts on packaged food labels, and tracking them in some god forsaken app. Calories were – and, for most people, still are – a measure of how healthy a food or drink was. But in the last year, I’ve learned that most of what we’ve been taught about consuming food is wrong, and the concept of calories (and keeping beneath that government-recommended 2000 calorie mark each day) is a big part of it. Now, scientists say that the best health metric to gauge is our blood sugar.

“The calorie is not a good description of a food’s nutrient density, or how your body will react to it. Two people can eat the same muffin and it will change the body’s system in different ways,” says Professor Tim Spector, an epidemiologist and founder of Zoe, an app and programme that helps you understand how food affects your body. “Generally, the more a food manufacturer talks about their ‘low calorie’ food, the worse the quality of that food is, and the more of it we overeat – by up to 15%, research shows.” Studies have also shown that calorie counting doesn’t actually work.

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A post shared by Jessie Inchauspé (@glucosegoddess)

If we all understood how our blood sugar works for and against us, we’d all be happier and healthier. Why? “Imbalanced blood sugar is not just responsible for out-of-control cravings, appetite, dysregulation and visceral fat gain, but also impaired immunity, low energy, erratic moods, anxiety, gut issues, lack of concentration, inflammation, skin issues like acne, psoriasis and eczema, and more,” explains Rhian Stephenson, nutritionist and founder of Artah.

Additionally, health concerns such as polycystic ovarian syndrome and infertility are also tightly linked with glucose, says Jesse Inschauspe, a biochemist, also known as Glucose Goddess on Instagram, whose account and recipe book, The Glucose Goddess Method, offers a wealth of easy blood sugar management solutions. “Longer term, the more spikes you have, the more likely it is that you’ll develop type 2 diabetes,” she adds. The aim is to have blood sugar rising and falling gently, rather than spiking and dropping dramatically, to keep insulin levels in check.

It might help to give a bit of an explainer about insulin, the regulatory hormone that is secreted by the body in response to the things we ingest. Its role is to dictate whether glucose is used, stored in muscles and the liver, or put into fat cells to save for later. When we take in more glucose than our body can process, it responds by increasing insulin secretion to clear it from the blood more quickly. “The more sugar we have, the higher insulin goes, and instead of a nice rolling curve of blood sugar, you see a drastic spike and subsequent drop,” explains Stephenson. “This can even cause your blood sugar to drop lower than it was before you started eating.”

Excessive blood sugar makes us tired and the subsequent crash makes us hungry and crave more sugary foods, regardless of how recently we ate. I only realised that I didnt’t actually have to experience the hellish 4pm “slump” at work if I ate a balanced meal at lunchtime. When I tried Zoe’s nutrition programme – which incorporates a two week testing period, featuring a glucose monitor (worn by everyday by many who suffer from diabetes) to track my personal blood sugar responses to different foods – I saw this evidenced in my results. On the days I bought my lunch from a nearby food chain, the spikes (and later dips) were marked, whereas home-cooked, nutrient-dense meals saw nothing but a slight undulation.

Glucose monitors aren’t strictly necessary to get to grips with your blood sugar response, particularly because they’re expensive, but via the all-in fee of £299.99 via Zoe (which also tests for gut diversity and blood fat response, and gives personalised, science-backed nutrition advice) you can experiment with how different foods impact you. With so much current chatter about semaglutide injections (such as Ozempic and Wegovy), which work by lowering blood glucose levels after you’ve eaten and regulating appetite, I can’t help but think that the majority of us (excluding those suffering diabetes, for whom experts agree semaglutide is helpful) would benefit far more in the long term from learning to eat properly.

I’m still learning, but what I do now know is that there is hidden sugar in many shop-bought foods, so it’s wise to cook your own. Incorporating 30 plants a week – that includes nuts, seeds, herbs, spices and vegetables – has been shown by scientists to be optimal, plus more sustainable and affordable too. Other easy hacks I love to manage blood sugar are those I gleaned from Inschaupe: “Try and start all of your meals with a plate of vegetables,” she recommends, “even if you don’t change anything about the rest of your meal, the fibre in the veggies coats the upper part of the intestines in a protective mesh, which prevents glucose molecules from the ensuing meal creating a spike.” Genius. Studies have also shown that going for a walk after a meal can lower your glucose levels by an average of 9.51, as opposed to sitting.

While counting calories felt like a never-ending task to inevitably fail at, eating for healthy blood sugar is the opposite of a “diet”. It’s a way to add goodness in, whether that’s rainbow-coloured vegetables or a home-cooked chicken dish. It’s flavoursome, abundant, and the best part is that reaching a healthy weight is a byproduct, because when the body is getting what it needs, all the rest of its systems fall into place.

This article was originally published on British Vogue.

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