Last week, I challenged you to change up your breakfast.
In order to stay full, satisfied, craving-free, clear-headed, and healthy, you need to keep your blood sugars under control. You need to get off what I like to call the blood sugar rollercoaster. Even if you don’t have diabetes, this is still important!
For those who don’t know, diabetes is not a pleasant disease, as portrayed by these not so happy Coke-a-cola polar bears. It is estimated that 1 in 3 Americans over the age of 20 have pre-diabetes, and 1 in 2 Americans over the age of 65! Even more concerning is your physician may not tell you that you have pre-diabetes, and then bam! – you’re diagnosed with diabetes. Luckily, with early diagnosis and lifestyle changes, you can prevent or delay the progression from pre-diabetes to diabetes.
Carbohydrates are found in starchy foods (bread, potato, pasta, peas, corn, beans, etc.), fruit and juice, milk products, and especially processed foods and sweets (crackers, baked goods, soda, honey, sugar, etc.).
They can be labeled as refined, complex, whole grain, or my favorite marketing tool – “no added sugar,” but they ALL turn into sugar, or glucose, in the blood. The glucose is transported to liver for processing and enters the blood. It is either sent to cells (especially muscle & brain cells) for fuel or stored as glycogen or fat. Your brain wants to maintain your blood glucose level in a tight range (ideally 70-100 mg/dL) because glucose can be toxic to cells and lead to tissue damage, like pancreatic beta-cells. These are essential cells that produce insulin to allow glucose into your cells for energy! When your pancreas and cells are working in tip-top shape, insulin can be produced, and glucose can enter cells to be used as fuel.
I hope I didn’t lose you with the science above but, the point is high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) is dangerous! When you eat large portions of carbohydrates, refined carbohydrates, or carbohydrates alone, you may cause blood sugar spikes. A few hours later, you can end up with low blood sugars, leaving you hungry, cranky, with poor concentration, and craving more carbohydrates or sugar. You’ll eat more sugar, leaving you to ride the blood sugar rollercoaster up and down all day.
An example of this is a packet of apple cinnamon oatmeal made with skim milk, topped with a sliced banana, and served with a glass of orange juice for breakfast. Sounds pretty healthy, right? Eh, I’d disagree. The entire meal is carbs with only a small amount of fiber from the banana. This girl will be starving at her desk by mid-morning and start craving that “coffee” cake or donut that she swore she wouldn’t touch. It’s very hard to control your cravings if your on the blood sugar rollercoaster.
The good news is balancing carbs with protein, some fat, and/or fiber helps your body slowly release the sugar into your blood. You will feel satisfied, satiated, and your brain will be working optimally. You’re also giving your body the right amount of carbs to use for energy without extra to be stored as fat.
When patients hear this, it’s like a light goes off in their head. “That’s why I can’t focus and am starving two hours after my cereal with a banana!,” and my favorite, “So drinking soda when I’m tired and thirsty is probably not the best idea…” You got it! FYI, juice is the same thing as soda with a little vitamin C.
Here’s how to plan your meals:
1.) Eat the right portion of carbohydrates.
You don’t have to give up carbs and go on the Atkins diet, although, contrary to what many people think, low-carb is not dangerous. My nutritional biochemistry professor pointed out several times that “dietary carbs are not essential.” Carbs are quick fuel, but your handy dandy liver can make glucose if you don’t eat it.
Choose 1 carbohydrate-rich food per meal, and eat about a fist-size portion of it. To get the most bang for your buck, choose a carb with some fiber and tons of nutrients. A medium sweet potato is the perfect example; it gives you some fiber, beta-carotene, and tons more nutrients than a scoop of pasta would. For breakfast, skip the juice and grab a whole piece of fruit . For lunch or dinner, you could try sweet potato or winter squash with your meal. Try something new besides a giant plate or pasta or rice.
2.) Always include protein.
Protein is the most important part on your plate. Protein helps preserve or develop new muscle tissue, and most importantly, it’s the part of the meal that keeps you full! Depending on your size, choose about 3-6 oz of protein for your meals and 1-3 oz for any snacks. Choose meat, poultry, fish, eggs, greek yogurt, kefir, nuts, or other sources. Greek yogurt or nuts are good snack ideas for protein. Vegetarian protein foods can count as well, but you may need to decrease your carbohydrate portion because beans and lentils have carbs as well.
3.) Throw in some veggies for fiber.
Now for the fun part, throw some non-starchy veggies on half your plate for color, nutrients, and fun, Yes, veggies are fun in my book! Really, you can eat as much as your stomach can handle of the non-starchy veggies, like your leafy greens, cruciferous veggies (broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts), carrots, peppers, etc. The fiber will fill you up, add bulk to your meal, and slow the release of glucose into your blood.
Just use this easy formula for a balanced meal: 1/2 plate veggies + 1/4 plate protein + 1/4 nutrient-dense carbs.
Some examples are:
Spinach salad topped with 3-4 oz salmon, a variety of colorful veggies (peppers, carrots, onions), olive oil dressing, and an orange on the side.
3 oz grilled chicken, brussel sprouts, a side salad, and roasted butternut squash.
A banana and a handful of nuts (snack idea).
Try these tips out to plan out your meals, and notice how your energy levels or food cravings are throughout the day. You may find your meals are satisfying, nutrient-dense, energizing, colorful, and fun!