While it may seem overwhelming at first, if you avoid some of the most common mistakes, you'll have a much easier time keeping your blood sugar in a healthy range.

Jessica Cording, M.S., R.D.
November 10, 2020
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Blood sugar management is important to overall wellness in a variety of ways. Our body gets glucose from the food we eat to make energy and support our organs, muscles, and nervous system. There is a sweet spot, so to speak, where our blood sugar is at a level to support normal body functioning—not too low or too high.

While we may hear about blood sugar management most as it relates to diabetes risk, balanced blood sugar also helps support stable energy, brain function, and mood (learn more about blood sugar basics for diabetes). It's also been shown to be a factor in weight management, hormone function, and long term risk of other health conditions such as metabolic syndrome and some cancers.

Here are some common mistakes people make when attempting to manage their blood sugar and some tips for getting on the right track.

1. Only focusing on calories

If you're looking just at the amount of calories you eat, you could be missing the bigger picture. We need a balance of protein, fat, and carbohydrate to support stable blood sugar. This is because when we eat carbohydrates (from any source: grains, beans, fruit, starchy veggies, lactose, etc), it breaks down into glucose. Fat and protein have a buffering effect and promote slower breakdown of those carbs—and more stable blood sugar. Try a recipe, like our breakfast salad (pictured above), to get a mix of vegetables, carbs, protein and fat on your plate. Eating complex carbohydrates, will also contain fiber and typically more nutrition, can also help keep your blood sugar levels more even. Prioritize balance, even if you are keeping an eye on calories.

2. Skimping on protein

If you find yourself hungry and cranky a short while after eating, you may need more protein. Protein will help minimize blood sugar spikes since it slows down the digestion of your meal or snack. Find it in foods like meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and dairy products as well as in plant sources like beans, nuts, seeds, and meat substitutes. Aim to have one serving at each meal (about 15-30 grams) and make sure your snacks have some as well (5-10 grams is a good starting place for snacks). Here are 10 high-protein snacks to keep you feeling full.

3. Not getting enough fiber

If you're not getting the recommended 25-35 grams of fiber per day, you may be missing out on its blood sugar benefits (here are 10 amazing benefits of eating more fiber). Fiber helps slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, improving blood sugar regulation. Reach for whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans, peas, lentils, fruits, and vegetables to help you cover your bases. Include at least one high-fiber food at each meal. These 10 foods have more fiber than an apple.

4. Fearing fat

Although fat is more caloric than carbs and protein (one gram of fat provides nine calories, and carbs and protein each provide four calories per gram), it's helpful in balancing blood sugar, as it slows the digestive process and helps lower blood sugar. Include healthy sources like olive oil, avocado, and nuts and reach for fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines.

5. Ignoring hidden sources of added sugar

Limiting obvious sources of added sugar like desserts is important for getting a handle on blood sugar, but you may still struggle with glucose control if you don't account for hidden sources like yogurt, canned soup, frozen meals, and many condiments (these sneaky sugar sources may be in your kitchen). Check nutrition and ingredients labels—and keep in mind that sugar has many names. Just be mindful not to load up on sugar substitutes. Yes, they're lower in calories and may have less of a glycemic response, but they can still have a behavioral impact, causing you to crave high levels of sweetness (learn more about what artificial sweeteners do in your body). Use sparingly.

6. Not exercising

Incorporating exercise into your blood sugar management has many benefits. New York endocrinologist Dr. Rocio Salas-Whalen explains, "Exercise increases insulin sensitivity by moving sugar into the muscle cells for storage. Secondly, when your muscles contract during activity, your cells are able to take up glucose and use it for energy whether or not insulin is currently available in the body." This helps lower blood sugar in the short term and, she adds, because the increased insulin sensitivity the body experiences depends a lot on the length and rigor of the activity, "when a person is active on a regular basis, it can also lower their A1C test levels." (An A1C test measures your blood sugar over the course of a couple of months.)

Is there a "best" form of exercise for blood sugar management? Dr. Marc Sandberg, MD,FACP,CDE, Staff Physician at Hunterdon Medical Center says, "Both weight-bearing and aerobic exercise, not only can help lower weight, they improve glucose control, especially when combined." If you're new to exercise, touch base with your doctor and consider working with a certified trainer who can provide guidance to get you started safely. (Here are some tips for exercising safely when you have diabetes.)

7. Skimping on sleep

Dr. Todd Nebesio, an endocrinologist with Riley Children's Health and Indiana University Health, says, "Studies have shown that less sleep results in higher blood sugars due to the body being less sensitive to insulin."

It can also amp up appetite. Dr. Salas-Whalen explains, "Sleep deprivation is also associated with changes in appetite and can affect the hunger-regulating hormones, leptin and ghrelin." This can lead us to feel hungrier and less aware of when we're full. Aim for seven to eight hours per night and create a sleep routine to help you get the rest you need.

8. Not dealing with stress

"Stress often results in higher blood sugars,"says Dr. Nebesio. While some of this could be related to coping mechanisms like reaching for sugary foods or alcohol, stress hormones also play a role.

Dr. Sandberg explains, "Rising levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline can raise blood sugars and contribute to loss of glucose control," as the body's ability to manage glucose is closely tied to hormone levels.

"The common misconception with stress," says Dr. Salas-Whalen, is that it is an emotional problem, often disguised as anxiety, worry, or depression. The reality is that stress can also be physical, nutritional, and chemical," which is why taking a holistic approach may be helpful. Create a stress management plan and seek support.