Blood sugar spikes aren't good for your heart, mood or energy. With a spike, you'll likely get a crash shortly after, which will leave you feeling lethargic and still hungry, where you might reach for more sugary foods that will, yes, spike those levels right back up again. And the vicious cycle continues.
Pictured recipe: Skillet Eggs with Sausage & Tomato Aioli
What's more, if you have a medical condition, like diabetes or heart disease, you'll need to be even more careful to keep your blood sugar balanced after eating a meal, so picking the right foods to fill your plate with is super important.
"While nonfood-related factors can also lead to decreased insulin sensitivity or blood sugar spikes, spikes are often related to food," says Sam Presicci, MCN, RD, LD, CPT, lead registered dietitian at Snap Kitchen.
"High blood sugar is a result of your body not being able to effectively transport consumed sugar or carbohydrates into cells and, over time, your pancreas has to secrete more and more insulin to help manage blood sugar levels, meaning your body has less insulin sensitivity," she adds.
Eventually the pancreas becomes less efficient at producing insulin and overcompensates, keeping insulin levels high and potentially permanently damaging the pancreas. If left unchecked, chronic high blood sugar can lead to diabetes and other conditions, like kidney problems, hardening of arteries, a weakened immune system, vision loss, nerve damage and even erectile dysfunction, she says.
Read more: 12 Healthy Ways to Lower Your Blood Sugar
"The most common food category to spike blood sugar is carbohydrates, particularly those lower in fiber and more processed, like breads, pastas, rice, crackers and more," she says. Yet even protein also has an impact on blood sugar, although it's much less pronounced than that of carbohydrates. "It's best to consume carbohydrates that also contain fiber and micronutrients, like vegetables," she advises, to keep levels more stable. Pairing carbohydrates with protein or fat, which take longer to digest, will also help blunt your blood sugar response. Think an apple with peanut butter, or cheese and crackers.
Here are the best things to chow down on if you want to help manage your blood sugar levels. And if you are eating carbohydrates and protein, pairing these foods with them can help combat any serious spikes.
"Since fats have a much smaller impact on blood sugar compared to carbohydrates and protein, they're a great option to incorporate daily," she says. In addition to their minimal impact on blood sugar, healthy fats are also essential for overall health, including hormone and brain health too, she adds. Plus, avocados have the added benefits of packing fiber, which has a beneficial effect on blood sugar, and tons of micronutrients to fill you up, slow digestion and beat bloating.
Get the Recipe: Chipotle-Cheddar Broiled Avocado Halves
This breakfast superfood contains healthy fats and protein, both of which contribute to satiety and decreased cravings to fight those daytime munchies. "Eggs are naturally free from carbs, meaning they're a great option to eat if you have diabetes," she says. And lowering carb intake at breakfast might be beneficial for heart health.
Plus, by eating foods that keep you full and satisfied, you're less likely to snack between meals, therefore requiring less insulin overall. "While protein does increase blood sugar more than fats, combining protein and fat together helps slow the digestion and absorption, therefore resulting in a more gradual rise in insulin," she explains. Eggs are a great breakfast option—especially when compared to a sugary doughnut or conventional breakfast sandwich.
Garlic is a super-nutritious veggie that's rarely talked about. "There's some research that shows that garlic may help decrease fasting blood sugar," says Presicci. "It's also rich in antioxidants, vitamin C, manganese and can help your body naturally detox," she adds. Include it as a seasoning for meals and snacks, like with chicken breast, in a stir-fry or in a tasty dip for crudités.
Get the recipe: Cherry Tomato & Garlic Pasta
Chia seeds are certainly a health food—rich in fiber, good fats (including omega-3s) and antioxidants, chia makes a great topping for yogurts and oatmeal or a breading for meats and poultry. "The combination of fat and fiber helps to slow digestion and keep blood sugar levels stable. You can top your meals with chia seeds or incorporate into a low-sugar smoothie," says Presicci.
Get the recipe: Blueberry Almond Chia Pudding
Yes—you can have some chocolate! "Most of the population is deficient in magnesium, and those with diabetes are even more likely to be deficient, since elevated blood sugar increases the loss of magnesium in the urine," says Presicci. Cacao is rich in magnesium, as well as antioxidants and flavonols. Plus, cacao contains the flavanol epicatechin, which can help regulate blood sugar, she adds. Try cacao powder sprinkled on yogurt bowls, in smoothies or stirred into coffee. (Epicatechin's also found in green tea, so feel free to sip on a cup while you're getting your chocolate fix).
These green veggies are a nutrient powerhouse, and Presicci recommends multiple servings per day to everyone. "Greens like spinach, kale, Swiss chard and others are rich in fiber, magnesium and vitamin A, all of which may help lower blood sugar. Additionally, eating leafy greens has been shown to decrease our risk of developing diabetes," she says.
Get the recipe: Massaged Kale Salad
Beyond eating these beneficial foods, work on eating less frequently (for example, three square meals instead of many small meals per day) to avoid the continual insulin and blood sugar peaks and valleys that can happen from eating continually throughout the day.
Aside from food, there are other habits that can help lower and stabilize blood sugar. "Regular exercise in a form you enjoy helps improve insulin sensitivity, meaning your body is better able to shuttle sugar and carbs into your cells," says Presicci. Exercise can include lifting weights, running, biking, hiking or walking.
And drink plenty of water. "Drinking water can also help manage blood sugars, since water helps your kidneys excrete excess blood sugar and other toxins through urination," she says.
Lastly, get those zzz's. "Sleep is also vitally important when it comes to managing blood sugar, since even one night of poor sleep can temporarily decrease your body's insulin sensitivity," she says. Lack of sleep also increases appetite by messing with your hormones, meaning you're more likely to feel hungry after a night after poor sleep. "Poor sleep also increases cortisol levels (a stress hormone), which can negatively impact blood sugar regulation," she adds. Aim for 7 to 8 hours nightly to stay rested and to keep levels in check.