Young people are more health-conscious than ever these days, and while some health issues get tons of press, other conditions that affect people in their 20s and 30s end up sliding under the radar. One example is high blood sugar—likely because it can be pretty difficult to tell if you have it, and people don’t always realize that it’s linked to diabetes. Often physical symptoms don’t occur until you’re already in prediabetes or diabetes territory.
So what’s the deal with high blood sugar anyway? “While a normal, healthy person’s blood sugar level will rise after a meal or snack, it will go back to normal within one to two hours after eating,” explains Miho Hatanaka, RDN, founder of Zen Integrative Nutrition and Health. The problem happens, however, when the sugar does not go back to normal and instead starts accumulating in the bloodstream.
To find out why high blood sugar matters and how to find out if you have it, we tapped expert nutritionists. Ahead, find their tips for treating and preventing it naturally.
Why It Matters
The answer here is pretty simple. “High blood sugar may be a sign of diabetes, and definitely of prediabetes,” says Anne Danahy, a registered dietitian and nutrition communications consultant who specializes in women’s health. So if you have high blood sugar, that doesn’t mean you’re definitely going to get diabetes, but it’s an indicator that you might be on your way there.
“It's often associated with other signs and symptoms known as metabolic syndrome (elevated blood sugar and blood pressure, high bad cholesterol and low good cholesterol, high triglycerides, and excess weight around the midsection), which puts both men and women at greater risk of developing diabetes, as well as having a heart attack or stroke.” In other words, if you have high blood sugar, your doctor will definitely recommend you come up with a plan to manage it.
How to Know If You Have it
While symptoms of diabetes are usually pronounced (feeling tired, being more thirsty than usual, frequent urination, blurry vision, and numbness in your hands and feet), people with high blood sugar don’t usually have symptoms, Danahy says. That’s why it’s important to get your blood glucose checked via a blood test. “Talk to your doctor to see what they recommend in terms of when to start and how often to check, especially if you’re at risk because of a family history,” she suggests.
The Food Factor
As you can probably guess, food and blood sugar are directly linked. “Anytime you eat foods that include carbohydrates, they're broken down into glucose,” explains Danahy. “Insulin takes that glucose from your blood and pumps it into your cells, where it’s used to feed your cells. Most people’s pancreas produces enough insulin to keep the blood sugar at a healthy level. If you’re overweight or very sedentary, or if your insulin is just overworked (from eating too much sugar), it doesn’t do its job very well.” This is why people who have diabetes often need additional insulin.
“Foods with carbohydrates make blood sugar go up the most and the fastest,” says Alexia Lewis, RD, a dietitian and health coach based in Florida. “These foods are grains (bread, pasta, rice), fruits, dairy (milk, cheese, yogurt), legumes (beans and peas), starchy vegetables (corn, peas, potatoes), as well as sweets and sugary or sweetened drinks.” Load up on these foods habitually and you could have a high blood sugar situation on your hands.
How to Fix It
“For some people, changing lifestyle habits can help their blood sugar return to normal levels,” Lewis notes. While this depends on many factors, including genetics, how well your pancreas is working, and how closely you follow the lifestyle modifications, lifestyle changes can make an impact on blood sugar for many people, she says. Whether you already have high blood sugar or you’re trying to avoid it, here are some lifestyle changes you can try to keep it within the healthy range.
1. Eat Smaller Portions: “The idea is not to cut all these carbohydrate foods out—that would leave very little food to eat,” Lewis says. Instead, she recommends eating smaller amounts of high-carbohydrate foods like bread, rice, and beans. This can be harder for some people than just avoiding them altogether, but it’s a more sustainable option. “Start by cutting whatever portion you currently eat in half,” she suggests.
2. Sleep More: “Turn off the TV, computer, or tablet, and aim to be asleep by 10 or 11 p.m.,” Danahy suggests. “People who don’t get at least seven to eight hours, and those who work the night shift, are at higher risk of developing diabetes.”
3. Spread Out Carbs: “Our brains can’t function without glucose, so it’s important to eat some, but smaller amounts are best, and I always recommend spreading them out evenly throughout the day,” Danahy says.
4. Build Your Meals Strategically: “Some foods can slow down how fast blood sugar goes up, which gives the body more time to move sugar into the cells so blood sugar does not go up as high,” Lewis explains. “These foods are proteins, fats, and fiber—preferably from non-starchy vegetables.” Ideally you should structure your meals around these foods and then add a small serving of carbohydrates to your plate, Lewis says. Another way to do this is to pair protein, fats, or fiber with every carbohydrate food you eat.
So for example, “eat a piece of fruit (carb) with a handful of almonds (protein, healthy fats), eat crackers (carb) with sliced deli meat (protein), or add cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, and bell peppers (non-starchy vegetables) to a sandwich with whole-grain (more fiber!) bread,” she explains.
5. Up Your Exercise: “Exercise most days of the week,” Danahy suggests. “Aim for at least 150 minutes per week of good cardio that gets your heart rate up, plus two to three days of strength training.” Cardio helps use up extra glucose, while strength training builds muscle, which stores extra glucose. Plus, “when you exercise regularly, it makes your cells less insulin-resistant and more receptive to the glucose, so it basically helps your insulin to do its job better.”
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