How To Balance Blood Sugar When Eating These 8 Healthy Foods

Photo: Tatjana Zlatkovic

I often hear people complain that they eat really healthy foods but still struggle with meeting their goals. It usually comes down to their being confused about how to fit those foods into their day-to-day life. They read that this or that thing will change their life or their doctor recommends a change but is vague on the details, and they wind up feeling bad about themselves because something's just not clicking. That "how" piece of the picture is a big part of what I work on with my nutrition clients—how can we fit those foods into the context of a balanced diet that suits their lifestyle and preferences?

Blood sugar is a term we might think about just in terms of diabetes risk and management, but it's actually crucial for our energy levels, mood, and focus.

Blood sugar is simply the concentration of glucose in the blood. When our blood sugar is low, we feel hungry, sweaty, shaky, or irritable. We may also have trouble concentrating. When our blood sugar is high, we may feel tired, thirsty, or spacy. Headaches are also common. In diabetics, these symptoms may feel more pronounced and become more serious, so if something doesn't feel right, please consult your health care provider to get assessed.

When we eat carbs, our blood sugar rises. Protein and fat slow the digestive process, so eating a balance of these three macronutrients in appropriate portions promotes a slower breakdown of those carbs and a more steady blood sugar level so you can stay on an even keel rather than experiencing a sharp spike and then crash. Fiber also helps slow that digestive process.

All of these foods are healthy, but we're best able to enjoy their benefits when we consume them in the context of a balanced meal or snack so we get the good stuff without taking a ride on the blood sugar roller coaster:

1. Green juice

When we drink fresh fruit or vegetable juice, we do consume a range of important vitamins and minerals, but we also get hit with the sugar in that produce but without any fiber to slow that response. Because juice also typically lacks protein and fat, you're going to burn through it pretty quickly. Even green juice can wreak havoc on your blood sugar, especially if there's a lot of fruit in the mix. You can make this work by enjoying your juice with some nuts or eggs on the side. In a rush? Experiment with mixing in your favorite protein powder. I love the way collagen powder just melts in, but pea and hemp protein are great plant-based options.

2. Almond milk

Sometimes I feel like I'm the only nutritionist out there who doesn't unconditionally love almond milk. Here's why, though. The low-calorie count and nondairy factor give it a health halo for sure. Almond milk is very low in protein, with about 1 gram per cup. Even when you avoid sweetened varieties, this can still be problematic. Ever notice how you feel hungry an hour after having a bowl of cereal with almond milk? That's largely due to lack of protein. You don't have to stop drinking it—just make sure you're covering your bases and consuming it with foods with protein and/or fat. You could also try coconut milk, which has stabilizing fat (5 grams per cup) or pea protein milk, which has about 8 grams of protein per cup.

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3. Kombucha

I absolutely love kombucha, so this one makes me sad too, but because recipes traditionally involve sugar or juice, they can be high in sugar. Even when it's naturally occurring sugar, that 12 to 20 grams per bottle can hit your bloodstream pretty quickly. While most of us would think nothing of downing a 16-ounce bottle without thinking, consider saving half for tomorrow. At the very least, if you know you want the whole thing, enjoy it with a meal or a high-protein snack.

4. Dried fruit

Dried fruit is high in fiber and can be a rich source of vitamins and minerals, but it can spike your sugar quickly if you're not careful to keep portions in check. Rather than eating that ¼ cup most labels suggest, try adding a tablespoon as a garnish to a salad or a trail mix with nuts and seeds for stabilizing fat and protein.

5. Whole grain crackers

Yes, whole grains are more nutritious than refined, but you need to keep portions in check and pair them with some protein or fat to balance them. Aim for about an ounce (exactly what that looks like will depend on the type of cracker), and add some avocado, nut butter, or cheese.

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6. Açaí bowls

Fresh and frozen fruit are both healthy, but in smoothie form, it's easy to overdo it without realizing. We may not eat multiple pieces of whole fruit, but put it in a blender and it's a different story. Sure they're pretty and packed with antioxidants, but they also tend to be incredibly carb-heavy, especially when you add more fruit and granola on top. To bring some balance to your bowl, make sure you've got some protein in the mix, and practice portion control by keeping it real with toppings.

7. Granola

Granola is a classic health-halo food that sounds super-wholesome but can actually be a sugar bomb. A few things going on here: A 1-ounce portion of granola is a LOT smaller than other cereals. You're looking at, like, ¼ cup. To most people, that's a fraction of what they're pouring in their bowl. It also tends to be high in sugar (honey, maple syrup, and brown rice syrup still count), and adding classic mix-ins like dried fruit adds to that effect. Try it as a garnish (think a couple of tablespoons) to a high-protein Greek yogurt bowl or a smoothie rather than piling it on. You can also experiment with making your own with less sweetener.

8. Oatmeal with fruit

Fruit is healthy, and oatmeal is healthy, so together they must be super-healthy, right? It depends—fruit with oatmeal is basically carbs on carbs, which can make it hard to stay energized and satisfied for long. Adding some nut butter on top for protein and paying attention to portion sizes can help you get all that nutritious goodness without experiencing midmorning hanger or an energy crash.

Ready to learn more about what anxiety, brain health, and your diet all have in common? Register now for our FREE Functional Nutrition Webinar with Dr. Mark Hyman.

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