8 Foods to Keep Blood Sugar in Check
These 8 foods can help prevent prediabetes.
If you want to hack the way you feel during the day—from your energy levels, to your mood, to how sharp you feel—you want to pay attention to your blood sugar.
"Blood sugar refers to the level of glucose molecules in your bloodstream," says Mary Ellen Phipps, M.P.H., RDN, LD, founder of Milk & Honey Nutrition. (Phipps also has type 1 diabetes.) "There needs to be a certain amount in your blood at all times for your body to function.
Here's how that works: After you eat, your pancreas releases insulin, a hormone that transports the glucose molecules from your blood into your cells (like those in nerves or muscles) to fuel them. Ideally, you want to keep blood sugar from spiking or plunging to maintain steady energy throughout the day. While blood sugar that's too low can be life-threatening for people with diabetes, blood sugar that's too high is more insidious and easier to ignore. Chronically high blood sugar can be sustained for a long time, which is why some people with type 2 diabetes can go years before knowing they have the disease, says Phipps. But as time goes on, blood sugar that's long-term elevated begins to damage small blood vessels in your eyes, kidneys, heart and nerves, contributing to diabetes-related symptoms and complications like vision problems, frequent urination and nerve pain.
Pictured Recipe: One-Pot Garlicky Shrimp & Spinach
If you have a well-functioning pancreas (meaning: you don't have diabetes or prediabetes), it's still important to pay attention to your blood sugar. You'll also want to connect the dots about how the ups and downs of blood sugar during the day make you feel right now.
Your blood sugar naturally rises in response to the food you eat. But it may spike if you eat something highly refined or really sugary. Let's say you sit at your desk and munch on some candy. Typically, your pancreas will release the necessary amount of insulin, which will push that sugar into cells and bring your blood sugar back down, explains Phipps. However, a glucose spike and resulting crash can make you feel sluggish and irritable, giving you brain fog and driving cravings.
On its own, no one food can act as a silver bullet to lower your blood sugar, says Phipps. (Although according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, exercise can help lower your blood sugar effectively.) Rather, the key is to follow a healthy diet that's full of foods that help promote a more stable blood sugar, she says. Luckily, those eight foods are delicious—and also happen to be the pillars of a healthy diet.
Pictured Recipe: Broccoli with Balsamic Mushrooms
One of the tenets of a blood-sugar-lowering diet is getting the recommended amount of fiber every day, which slows digestion to keep blood sugar even. (Men should aim for 30 to 38 grams of fiber per day; women should aim for 21 to 25 per day.) Fiber is plentiful in nonstarchy vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower and asparagus, says Phipps.
Related: Our Best-Ever Broccoli Recipes
Many fruits are rich in natural sugars, which means they tend to cause blood sugar to rise. But berries—and especially raspberries—are packed with fiber, a nutrient that helps slow the absorption of sugar, keeping blood sugar levels steady. One cup of these delicious berries contains 8 grams of fiber.
This trendy, healthy-fats-filled fruit has a couple things going for it. For one, just one-quarter of an avocado has more than 3 grams of fiber and 7 grams of fat, a pairing that readily helps prevent blood glucose spikes. The plant-based source of fat is also rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fatty acids. (Here's a tip on how to store avocados so they last longer.)
Take your pick: almonds, pistachios, walnuts, pecans—the list goes on. Along with a variety of vitamins and minerals, nuts also supply protein, fat and fiber, a trifecta that stabilizes your body's glycemic response (another term for blood sugar response) after eating a meal, according to research published in Oncotarget. In a separate study looking at Chinese patients with type 2 diabetes, adding about 2 ounces of almonds to the daily diet improved glucose control. So go ahead and grab a handful to help keep glucose steady.
Beans sometimes get a bad reputation because they are rich in carbohydrates. But they offer a source of complex carbs rich in both fiber and protein, which slows the rise in blood sugar to keep you full and feeling satisfied longer—which translates to sustained energy, says Phipps. A half-cup of black beans has more than 7 grams of protein and 8 grams of fiber. Toss some beans on a salad or eat a bowl of chili for lunch to sidestep an afternoon slump.
If you don't choose carefully, your bowl of cold cereal might be serving up mostly refined, highly processed grains—and a whole lot of sugar. Both are associated with a rise in blood glucose. Oatmeal, on the other hand, is a champ at keeping blood sugar steady. In a review of 14 trials, eating a bowl of oatmeal (compared to a control meal) reduced post-meal glucose and insulin levels among patients with type 2 diabetes, according to research in the journal Nutrients.
Pictured Recipe: Chocolate-Raspberry Oatmeal
The American Heart Association recommends eating fish or seafood twice a week to lower the risk of heart disease and stroke. That's especially important in the context of tracking blood sugar, as high blood sugar can damage blood vessels that lead to your heart, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. For a blood-sugar-friendly meal, Phipps recommends incorporating a lean source of protein, like shrimp. Other options include omega-3-rich fish, like salmon and tuna.
When building a blood-sugar-focused diet, try assembling a plate that includes protein, fat and carbohydrates. That way, you get the energy of carbs, plus the blood-sugar-stabilizing (and appetite-taming) effect of protein and fat. Olive oil is not only part of a heart-healthy diet, but has been shown to lower levels of A1C (an average of blood sugar over the last two months) and fasting blood sugar in patients with diabetes, according to a meta-analysis of 29 studies in Nutrition & Diabetes. And for those who didn't have diabetes, consuming olive oil was linked to a 16% lower risk of developing the disease, as the antioxidants in the oil may have a beneficial effect on glucose metabolism. Time to add a drizzle to your next salad!