Foods To Regulate Low Blood Sugar

  • Chimdi OkoyeBachelor of Science - BS, Pharmaceutical Science with Regulatory Affairs, Kingston University
  • Ellen Rogers MSc in Advanced Biological Sciences, University of Exeter

We often hear the term ‘blood sugar level’ when talking about health, but what exactly does it mean and which foods can affect or regulate it? This article aims to explain what blood sugar means, why high and low blood sugar levels can be bad for you, and which foods can help regulate blood sugar levels. If this sounds of interest or is applicable to you, then please do read on and become informed on the positive steps you can take.

Explanation of blood sugar 

The term ‘blood sugar’ refers to the levels of sugar, called glucose, in our blood. Glucose is the most abundant sugar in our bodies and is a type of carbohydrate known as a monosaccharide (single molecule). Our body requires carbohydrates, proteins and fats to help maintain and carry out physiological processes and cellular health.

Specifically, glucose is used as fuel for the body - it is found in certain foods and broken down to produce energy. This energy sustains many vital functions within the body; without it, the body simply would not be able to function. When the levels of glucose in the blood drop, we call this low blood sugar levels, or hypoglycaemia.1

When glucose enters the bloodstream, it can be taken up and used by cells, whilst excess glucose can be stored in the muscle or liver of the body. Excess glucose is stored as glycogen – which is formed from many glucose molecules joined together. The usage and storage of glucose are controlled by two hormones: glucagon and insulin.

These two hormones cause opposite effects. Glucagon stimulates the breakdown of glycogen in the muscle and liver to release glucose into the bloodstream and increase blood sugar levels. In contrast, insulin stimulates the body to uptake glucose from the bloodstream and store it as glycogen, thus lowering blood sugar levels. This system ensures that blood sugar levels do not get too high or too low.2,3

The importance of regulating blood sugar levels

It is very important that your blood sugar levels stay regular and do not get too high or too low. If your blood sugar levels are too high, you may develop disorders such as diabetes, nerve damage, cardiovascular disease, or kidney disease. If levels are too low (lower than 4mmol/L), neurological symptoms such as fatigue, behavioural changes, anxiety, tremors, and hunger can develop. 

Overview of the role of food in managing low blood sugar

The food we eat largely determines our health. Foods high in sugar will have the greatest impact on blood sugar levels. If your blood sugar levels are low, this is an indication that you may not be introducing enough sugar into your diet. 

General dietary guidelines 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a healthy diet should include the following:

  • Fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains
  • At least 400g of fruit and vegetables per day
  • Less than 10% of your total energy intake should come from free sugars
  • Less than 30% of your total energy intake should come from fats
  • Less than 5g of salt per day

As well as following a healthy balanced diet, it has been found that the times at which you eat also play an important role in our health. Our circadian rhythm (body clock) regulates many of our behaviours, including when we sleep, wake, feed and fast. Our circadian rhythm and the environment work in tandem to establish a set schedule that our body can follow.

As such, sticking to a consistent eating schedule can help aid the functioning of our circadian rhythm and optimise the metabolism of foods. This is because our body metabolises food best when light is present, which acts as a signal to wake the body. Eating at night can throw the circadian rhythm out of sync, as it recognises this as a call for the body to sleep.4

Both having a healthy balanced diet and sticking to a consistent eating schedule can help prevent glucose spikes and inconsistent blood sugar levels throughout the day.

Which foods help regulate blood sugar?

Complex carbohydrates 

There are two types of carbohydrates – simple and complex. Simple carbohydrates (such as glucose) are easily broken down by the body and quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, which can cause glucose spikes. On the other hand, complex carbohydrates are broken down slowly by the body. The slow metabolism of complex carbohydrates means that glucose is slowly filtered into the bloodstream, rather than causing glucose spikes. Therefore, to maintain steady blood sugar levels, you want to be incorporating more complex carbohydrates into your diet.5

Examples of foods rich in complex carbohydrates:

  • Whole grains such as brown rice, quinoa and oats
  • Legumes such as beans and lentils
  • Vegetables such as sweet potato and broccoli 

Protein-rich foods

Role of protein in stabilising blood sugar

Proteins have a minimal effect on blood sugar levels. This is due to how they are metabolised. Proteins are broken down into molecules known as amino acids, which can be used for cellular repair and maintenance, or converted into glucose in the liver. Amino acids play an important role in a process known as gluconeogenesis, which is the production of glucose from non-carbohydrate sources. Eating more protein can help stabilise your blood sugar levels in three main ways: 

1.) The process of converting the broken-down amino acids into glucose is a long process which can take several hours. 

2.) Proteins take longer to digest than carbohydrates and can therefore slow down the absorption of glucose into the blood. 

3.) The percentage of protein that is converted into glucose is relatively small. Though proteins are able to stabilise blood sugar, this is dependent on adequate insulin levels. Therefore, its ability to do this without sufficient insulin levels may be hindered. 

Examples of protein sources include:

  • Lean meats such as chicken, turkey, and fish
  • Plant-based proteins such as tofu, tempeh, and beans
  • Nuts and seeds

Healthy fats

Role of healthy fats in blood sugar regulation

Similar to proteins, fats are not broken down into glucose, so they do not affect blood sugar levels. However, it is important that you prioritise including healthy fats (unsaturated) in your diet rather than saturated. Saturated fats can increase LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. 

Sources of healthy (unsaturated) fats include:

  • Avocado
  • Olive oil
  • Nuts and seeds

Fibre-rich foods 

Benefits of dietary fibre in managing blood sugar

In addition to aiding digestion in the gastrointestinal tract, dietary fibre has also been found to help regulate blood glucose levels. It can do this in several ways: 

1.) Fibre prevents any drastic changes in blood glucose levels. 

2.) It helps sustain energy release due to their slow metabolism. 

3.) It helps maintain satiety, helping you feel fuller for longer and reduce hunger and the need to consume sugary foods.

Examples of high-fibre foods:

  • Whole fruits such as apples, berries and pears
  • Vegetables such as spinach, kale, brussel sprouts 
  • Whole grains such as oats, brown rice, quinoa 

Foods to avoid

It is important to avoid any foods that may cause a spike in blood sugar levels and that contain ‘empty calories’ (in other words, foods that offer no nutritional value). As such, you should try to stay away from foods that are high in refined sugars and simple carbohydrates. Refined sugars are highly processed and found in foods such as sweets, cakes, cookies and doughnuts. Foods rich in simple carbohydrates include syrup, sugar and white pasta. 

Meal planning tips

Importance of regular snacks

Regular snacking is particularly important in preventing hypoglycaemia. Long periods of not eating can lead to blood sugar levels dropping, so snacking regularly can help keep your blood sugar levels stable. When picking a snack, its best to go for foods containing a balance of complex carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats. However, it is important that you plan your snacking and do not overeat. 

Summary

Our blood sugar levels are an important aspect of our health. Low blood sugar levels (hypoglycaemia) can cause symptoms such as anxiety, fatigue, tremors, and hunger, whilst high blood sugar can increase your risk of diseases such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and kidney disease.

You can help regulate your blood sugar levels by regulating what you eat, as a balanced diet containing complex carbohydrates, proteins, and healthy fats can help stabilise blood sugar levels. By reducing your intake of refined sugars, you can make a significant difference to your health and help regulate your blood sugar levels to stave off hypoglycaemia. 

References

  1. Amiel SA. The consequences of hypoglycaemia. Diabetologia. 2021;64:963-70.
  2. Taborsky Jr GJ. The physiology of glucagon. JDST. 2010;4:1338-44.
  3. Qaid MM, Abdelrahman MM. Role of insulin and other related hormones in energy metabolism—A review. Cogent Food Agric. 2016;2:1267691.
  4. Manoogian EN, Chaix A, Panda S. When to eat: the importance of eating patterns in health and disease. J. Biol. Rhythms. 2019;34:579-81.5. Holesh JE, Aslam S, Martin A. Physiology, carbohydrates. InStatPearls [Internet]. 2023 May 12. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing.
This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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