One year ago, I made some modifications to my lifestyle to improve how my body was dealing with a slightly elevated blood sugar level. But before I get into the specifics, here is a short, simple primer on blood glucose:
Blood Glucose Primer
When you eat, your digestive system converts most of the carbohydrates (sugars, breads, pastas, cereals, fruits, etc.) into glucose, a fuel that can easily be used to power your daily energy needs. Your body attempts to maintain two or three days of energy reserves in the form of modified glucose or glycogen in the muscles and liver. Think of the muscles and liver storing glycogen as your primary fuel tank, albeit a small tank. When your primary tank is full, the excess glucose gets converted into fat and stored in your body tissues (a secondary fuel tank).
Prior to eating, normal blood glucose levels are somewhere between 70-90 mg/dl. If your body responds appropriately after eating, glucose levels tick up to about 120-130 mg/dl, and with the help of insulin released by your pancreas, glucose levels drop back nearly to the pre-meal level within two hours. Insulin acts as an orchestra conductor, telling your cells that they need to store the energy and nutrients currently available in the bloodstream (i.e., move them into the fuel tank).
Blood Glucose Testing
Last fall, during a routine checkup with blood work, I had an HbA1c test done. An HbA1c test measures average blood glucose levels for the prior three months rather than at a single, specific moment. Surprisingly, my test results came back a good bit higher than I expected (a level of 5.5%), but not pre-diabetic. Chris Kresser has a multi-part write up on HbA1c testing and “normal” blood glucose levels that you can read for more detailed information.
Based on a combination of curiosity and concern, I purchased an inexpensive blood glucose meter called the ACCU-CHEK Aviva. For approximately $15 I was able to measure the effects various foods were having on my blood glucose levels – test strips were purchased separately and cost about 50 cents per strip.
For the next two weeks, I tested my levels about 20 times, typically about 1.5 hours after completing a meal. After eating a typical meal, my blood glucose level would measure above 140 mg/dl and would remain elevated for over two hours.
Here are a few examples of blood glucose readings from the month of November 2010:
- Cheese quesadillas and a glass of milk: 131 mg/dl
- Turkey, sweet potatoes, and broccoli: 129 mg/dl
- Blackened tuna and French fries: 174 mg/dl
Keep in mind that the peak levels may have been even higher. By 1.5 hours after completing my meal, my numbers should have been closer to 90-100 mg/dl. Based on what I had read, it was clear that I would benefit from having these levels come down. But how could I do that?
My plan was to make two changes. First, I began eating a Paleo diet and reduced my intake of all carbohydrates, especially the simple, refined ones. I eliminated all sweets, breads, pastas, and crackers, and cut down on other carbohydrates like potatoes. About one month later, I began a basic strength training program – I had been sedentary prior to that.
By adopting these two changes, I had hoped that my primary fuel tank (muscles and liver) would be somewhat depleted of glycogen. With this fuel tank now having some extra capacity, any glucose I produced would have a quick path out of my bloodstream. And keep in mind that excess glucose in the bloodstream left for too long can cause serious health problems.
Results of Blood Glucose Measurements Following Lifestyle Changes
The exciting and encouraging news for me is that my blood glucose measurements improved greatly, specifically after meals that had previously caused large spikes. Examples of measurements made in January 2011 include:
- Chicken, mashed potatoes, and asparagus: 117 mg/dl
- Tamales, guacamole, and chips: 113 mg/dl
- Blackened tuna and French fries: 116 mg/dl
Recall that in November 2010, the measurement for the blackened tuna and French fries meal caused a spike up to 174 mg/dl.
The biggest surprise to me was that the changes in measurements did not occur at all in the month following the dietary changes in spite of my glycogen levels being depleted. I had assumed that most of the benefit I would realize would come as a result of dietary changes. The most significant benefit came after I began exercising. Having muscles that were both depleted of glycogen and in need of fuel due to exercise seems to be the key for me.
Following the initial two months, I added some carbohydrates like sweet potatoes and regular potatoes back into my diet. Clearly my body seems able to tolerate them. On the other hand, I have NO plans to reintroduce bread and pasta back into my diet.
For me these changes haven’t been so much about preventing diabetes. Rather, I tried to get ahead of some potentially nasty health problems that could have occurred had I continued to have prolonged, elevated blood glucose levels.
I am not suggesting that everyone needs to run out to the drug store and purchase a blood glucose meter; however at your next routine checkup, it might be a good idea to ask for a simple HbA1c test. This test will tell you a lot more about how your body is handling glucose versus the standard fasting blood glucose test that your doctor would likely order.
Photo credit: 9-lives
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