Note: this post has been updated.
I’m putting on my Nutritional Therapy Practitioner hat today.
If you’re consistently exhausted at 3 o’clock in the afternoon (I call it Liz’s College Crash) or have intense sugar cravings that send you into an eye-clawing catfight over the last M&M in the office candy dish, that’s a bright, flashing sign that you’re dealing with major, chronic metabolic or blood sugar imbalances.
That is not fun. For anybody.
These imbalances can seriously screw with your work life, too. As I said in a prior Email Monday (sign up to get access to the archives), at one of my previous jobs – which shall remain unnamed – I would crawl under my desk nearly every day at 3pm for a nap.
As much as I dislike Snickers, those “you’re not yourself when you’re hungry” commercials (even though they present the exact opposite of a sensical solution to the Blood Sugar Crazies – ie, eat a Snickers) are fairly accurate. When you’re hungry in the throes of a crash, you’re not yourself.
Even folks who follow a whole-foods diet can deal with this. If you’re massively intolerant to sugar of any kind, even healthy carbohydrate-dense foods can send you crashing. Then again, it may not even be the carbs themselves that wonk you out – in fact, carbs may be the scapegoat for what’s really a sign of a depressed metabolism brought on by years of crash dieting – manifesting as extreme reactivity to sugar.
Whatever the cause, nobody likes the guy who drools all over the keyboard.
I am NOT carb-phobic (read why in the Carbs chapter of my book, Eat the Yolks). I absolutely love my fruit, my sweet potatoes, my butternut squash, and all that starchy-sweet deliciousness. But my blood sugar is well-controlled, my metabolism has begun to heal from a decade of crash dieting, and I know how many carbs are right FOR ME.
I don’t count carbs, though; I follow the EE plan: Eyeball it, then Eat it. Amiright?
(And those carbs are always just one part of my overall nutrient-dense diet. I no longer have to fear any aspect of my food, whether calories, fat, or carbs. Freedom!)
Most people CAN handle dense sources of whole-food carbohydrates, like fruit, roots or tubers, even on a blood sugar balancing plan. Usually, when blood sugar problems seem apparent, we’re told to cut out carbs and sugar, but, for some of us, that might NOT be the perfect place to start.
For some people, carbs ISN’T what’s wonking out blood sugar and causing crashes. It’s an imbalance of carbs to healthy fats and protein; poor meal timing or composition; or a depressed metabolism that can actually be depressed further by yanking out all healthy sources of carbohydrate.
In fact, many folks feel a heckuva lot better incorporating healthy carb sources consistently. (Contrary to the beliefs of some more militant low-carbers, fruits and starchy veggies actually DO have nutritional value.)
Yes, for some, a low-carb plan is the only one that works. This may be because their metabolism is so imbalanced that they simply can’t tolerate carbs OR sugar, whatever the source, no matter what. Some have an evolutionary heritage rooted in carb-scarce environments that shaped their metabolic composition (there are cultures across the world that fit this bill).
But what about everyone else? What if cutting out all carbs isn’t the only solution?
I don’t believe the solution to blood sugar imbalance is always wiping out all carbs from the diet (sure, get rid of the junk food, but the sweet potato? The fruit? Not always needed). I’ve seen going blanket low-carb without some truly conscientious planning cause a “rebound effect” that ends up feeling much like “more of the same” after the honeymoon period has passed.
(Thankfully, a few smart programs like the 21 Day Sugar Detox understand this, and make appropriate allowances for healthy sources of carbohydrates while stripping away sneaky sources of simple and unhealthy carbs.)
The good news about healthy sources of carbs (against the backdrop of a diet rich in healthy fats, veggies and properly raised animal foods) is that they round out a diet rich in the nutrients our bodies need to process sugar effectively, heal metabolically, and restore blood sugar balance:
- B vitamins
- Vitamin C
So I propose a different start to tackling blood sugar issues – looking at the WHOLE food plan for a strategic solution to restore functional metabolism (including blood sugar balance) by sending the proper signals to the body through good, consistent, nourishing meals.
Here’s where I’d start:
As a baseline, breakfast is the place to begin.
In my Nutritional Therapy practice, I quickly noticed problems of metabolism being mistaken for problems of blood sugar imbalance. The place to start to re-regulate and boost the metabolic rate? Breakfast.
This strategy re-teaches the body to keep stress hormones low, which helps regulate blood sugar long-term; it also primes the body to accept and utilize the nutrition from food, steadily, all day.
Some folks aren’t hungry at breakfast time, and if your blood sugar and metabolism are problem-free, that’s cool as can be. Do what you want. But if your blood sugar is whack and your metabolism is wonk, start with breakfast. As in, eat it. And make it good.
Prioritize dense protein (not shakes) and healthy fats first, and add a starchy vegetable rather than a more simple sugar (fruit, honey or syrups). This helps send the proper digestive and reward signals to the body, keeping the famed “sugar addiction” monster at bay. A few ideas:
- Grass-fed steak & eggs with buttered acorn squash.
- Eggs, sweet potato & Hollandaise sauce. (Over sauteed spinach if you like).
- Roasted carrot hash with sage, cinnamon & bacon
- Bison Butternut Bowl (with spaghetti squash). Fabulous for crappy cooks – like me.
These types of breakfasts have been powering sane, stable hard work since long before Kashi GoLean Krunch.
You don’t have to have a huge plate of this stuff, but don’t judge quantity with your eyes – judge with your stomach. Just eat – slowly, not scarfing – until you’re full. Seriously – to be sure you’re stimulating natural satiety signals, don’t do your best impression of a Dyson or a kid sucking down a Capri Sun during halftime of a youth soccer game. Take your time. Eat patiently. Enjoy your food.
From there, your breakfast-balanced-body will be equipped with the sound mind to choose something equally healthful and metabolically re-charging at lunch, like Orange Krab Salad (and you’ll likely make it to lunch without needing a
Snickers bar “snack.”)
Here’s the most important thing: continue to eat a full, nourishing plate o’ food at every. single. meal. Even if you’re not hungry. As your body re-regulates, trust me: you’ll be hungry.
This means: don’t skip meals. You’ve got to send your body the proper signals – in this case, sufficiency signals – to repair a damaged metabolism and keep blood sugar balanced long-term. There’s no free lunch here. You’ve got to monitor yourself.
- Don’t get swept away with work such that you look at the clock at 4:30 and you haven’t so much as thought about lunch.
- Don’t eat “light” all day so you can eat a heavy dinner – every meal should be substantial enough to give your body what it needs in real time.
- Don’t skip meals. When it comes to recovering metabolism and blood sugar balance, you’ve got to get 3 squares. If your hunger is still high, add a fourth.
- Don’t concern yourself with calories. At this point, you need nourishment. This may feel scary, but if you actually want to heal for health and not just “fix” something while keeping aesthetics at the front of your mind, you’ll move forward. (Read my book for more on calories.)
Adjusting to this may take a week or two, especially if you’re used to skipping meals, skimping on fat or stacking your food intake at dinner. Once you’ve got the hang of it, though, it should be smooth sailing (if not, it’s time to talk to a practitioner who can dig a little deeper).
Above all, keep a calm, balanced mental state. This is not a punishment. It’s not a pass-fail grade. You might falter. Be forgiving of yourself. Alleviating that self-imposed pass-fail pressure is the only way to nudge yourself toward sustaining a healthy plan WITHOUT “falling off the wagon.” No insane mental drama or punishing pass-fail food ideals. Just do the best you can, learn as you go, be patient (not permissive) and START.
How do you identify when you’re in the throes of sugar-crash induced drama? How do you keep your blood sugar in check? If you’ve got some good advice, leave it in the comments!
Thanks for reading!