What you will learn from reading Glucose Revolution:
– What glucose is, why it’s important and what we mean when we talk about glucose spikes.
– The short term and long term harm caused by glucose spikes.
– 10 Hacks to to avoid (reduce) spikes while still eating the food we love.
Glucose Revolution Book Summary
This book is organised into three parts:
1) what glucose is and what we mean when we talk about glucose spikes,
2)why glucose spikes are harmful, and
3) what we can do to avoid spikes while still eating the food we love.
PART I: WHAT IS GLUCOSE?
Glucose and Glucose Spikes:
Glucose is our body’s main source of energy. We get most of it from the food we eat, and it’s then carried in our bloodstream to our cells.
Its concentration can fluctuate greatly throughout the day, and sharp increases in concentration -these are called glucose spikes – which affect everything from our mood, our sleep, our weight, and our skin to the health of our immune system, our risk for heart disease, and our chance of conception.
When we make lifestyle changes to avoid spikes, we flatten our glucose curves. The flatter our glucose curves, the better. With flatter glucose curves, we reduce the amount of insulin – a hormone released in response to glucose – in our body, and this is beneficial, as too much insulin is one of the main drivers of insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and PCOS.
With flatter glucose curves, we also naturally flatten our fructose curves – fructose is found alongside glucose in sugary foods – which is also beneficial, as too much fructose increases the likelihood of obesity, heart disease, and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease.
If our glucose levels are out of balance, dials flash and alarms go off. We put on weight, our hormones get out of whack, we feel tired, we crave sugar, our skin breaks out, our hearts suffer.
How Plants Create Glucose
So how do plants make their… plant stuff, if it isn’t from soil?
Plants have put together a very elegant solution: the ability to transform not soil but air into matter. Plants combine carbon dioxide (from the air) and water (from the soil, but not actually soil), using the energy of the sun, to make a never-before-seen substance that they use to themselves. This substance is what we now call glucose. Without glucose, there would be no plants and no life.
As you can see above, plants create their own food. In human terms, it would be like being able to inhale molecules from the air, sit in the sun and create a creamy lentil soup inside our stomachs without needing to find it, cook it, or swallow it.
Chaining Glucoses to make Starch:
Among the things plants can make from glucose is starch.
A living plant needs a supply of energy at all times. However, when it’s not sunny out, either because it’s cloudy or because it’s dark, photosynthesis cannot take place and provide the plant with the glucose it needs to survive. In order to solve this problem, plants make extra glucose during the day and pack it away into reserves for later use.
The thing is, storing glucose isn’t easy. Glucose’s natural tendency is to dissolve into everything around it. So, they enlist tiny helpers called enzymes that grab glucose molecules and attach them to each other, hundreds and thousands of times over. The result is a long chain of glucose, no longer racing and dashing in random directions.
This form of glucose is called starch. It can be stored in small amounts throughout the plant, but mostly in its roots.
Another enzyme (there are a number of them) can be called on to perform a different task. Instead of attaching glucose molecules hand to hand to make starch, this enzyme connects glucose molecules hand to foot, and the resulting chain is called fibre.
This substance is as important as grout between the bricks of a house. It’s what allows plants to grow tall without falling over. It’s most commonly found in trunks, branches, flowers and leaves, but there is fibre in roots and fruit as well.
Flirtatious fruit :
If you were to lick glucose, it would taste sweet. But plants also transform some of their glucose into molecules that are 2.3 times as sweet, called fructose. Plants concentrate fructose into fruit apples, cherries, kiwis and more that they dangle from their branches. The purpose of fructose is to make fruit taste irresistible to animals.
Most of plants’ fructose is used in this way, but some, with the help of another enzyme, links up, for a time, with glucose. The result is a molecule called sucrose. Sucrose exists to help plants compress energy even further (a sucrose molecule is slightly smaller than a glucose and fructose molecule side by side, which allows plants to store more energy in a tighter space).
For plants, sucrose is an ingenious temporary storage solution, but for us, it has a huge significance. We use it every day, under a different name: table sugar
The digestion of Glucose into the blood stream:
The most common way (but not the only way) for us to get the glucose we need is by eating it.
Starch – When we eat, we break starch down into glucose, using the same enzyme that plants use to do this task: alpha-amylase. Starch is turned into glucose extremely quickly in our body. In general, the process happens mostly in our gut, where it goes unnoticed. The alpha-amylase enzymes snap the bonds of the chain, and glucose molecules are freed.
Glucose – from fruit is ready to be used and does not need to be snapped.
Sucrose (half glucose, half fructose) – does need to be snapped, and there’s an enzyme that separates it into glucose and fructose molecules.
Fructose – is a little more complicated. After we eat it, a portion of it is turned back into glucose in our small intestine. The remainder of it stays in fructose form. Both permeate the lining of our gut to enter our bloodstream.
Fibre – Enzymes work to snap the bonds of starch and sucrose, but there is no enzyme that can snap the bonds of fibre. It doesn’t get turned back into glucose. This is why when we eat fibre, it remains fibre. It travels from our stomach to our small and large intestines. And this is a good thing.
Gluconeogenesis – Glucose is so important to our cells, if we can’t find any to eat, our body can make it from within. That’s right, we don’t photosynthesise and make glucose out of air, water and sunlight, but we can make glucose from the food we eat – from fat or protein. Our liver, through a process called gluconeogenesis, performs this process.
The making of Carbohydrates:
It has become accepted that the name for this family of glucose would be ‘carbohydrates’. Why carbohydrates? Because it refers to things that were made by joining carbon (carbo) and water (hydrate), which is what happens during photosynthesis.
You may have heard of this family under its popular nickname, carbs.
Carbohydrates= Starch + Fibre + Sugars (glucose, fructose, and sucrose)
You’ll notice that within the carbohydrate family, scientists decided to make a subgroup for the smallest molecules: glucose, fructose and sucrose. This subgroup is called sugars.
The scientific word sugars is not the same as our common table sugar, even though the sugars group does include the molecule that constitutes table sugar, sucrose.
The Natural vs the Unnatural:
Nature intended us to consume glucose in a specific way: in plants. Wherever there was starch or sugar, there was fibre as well. This is important, because the fibre helped to slow our body’s absorption of glucose.
Today, however, the vast majority of supermarket shelves are packed with products that contain mostly starch and sugar. From white bread to ice cream, sweets, fruit juices and sweetened yoghurts, fibre is nowhere to be seen. And this is on purpose: fibre is often removed in the creation of processed foods, because its presence is problematic if you’re trying to preserve things for a long time.
Fibre is often removed from processed foods so that they can be frozen, thawed and stored on shelves for years without losing their texture. Take, for example, white flour: fibre is found in the germ and bran (outer husk) of the wheat kernel that is stripped away during milling.
The basis of food processing is to first strip away the fibre, then concentrate the starch and sugars.
Plants have been concentrating glucose, fructose and sucrose in their fruit forever, but a few millennia ago, humans began to do the same: we started breeding plants so that, among other reasons, their fruit would taste even sweeter.
Fructose – the hidden demon:
Gucose spike from a sweet food (cupcake) is worse for our health than a glucose spike from a starchy food (rice).
The reason has nothing to do with the glucose measured, though; it has to do with a molecule that’s not visible.
A sweet food contains table sugar, or sucrose that compound made up of glucose and fructose. A starchy food doesn’t. Whenever we see a glucose spike from a sweet food, there is a corresponding fructose spike that unfortunately we can’t see.
Part II WHY ARE GLUCOSE SPIKES HARMFUL?
When doctors measure the amount of glucose in our body, they often draw our blood and assess its concentration there. But glucose doesn’t just stay in our blood. It seeps into every part of us, and it can be measured anywhere.
When it comes to glucose levels we should focus on avoiding spikes, whatever your fasting level is, because it’s the variability caused by spikes that is most problematic. It’s years of repeated daily spikes that slowly increase our fasting glucose level, a pattern we discover only once that level is classified as prediabetic. By then, the damage has already started.
In this book, Jessie Inchauspe advises you to flatten your glucose curves, which means zooming out and seeing fewer and smaller spikes over time. Another way to describe flattening your glucose curves is reducing glycaemic variability. The smaller your glycaemic variability, the better your health will be.
Each of us is made up of more than 30 trillion cells. When we spike, they all feel it.
Glucose’s primary biological purpose once it enters a cell is to be turned into energy. The powerhouses responsible for this are microscopic organelles found in most of our cells called mitochondria. Using glucose (and oxygen from the air we breathe), they create the chemical version of electricity to give each cell the power to do whatever it needs to. As glucose floods into our cells, it heads straight to the mitochondria to undergo its transformation.
To understand how mitochondria respond to a glucose spike coming their way, imagine – a steam train engine room worker who is putting coal onto the fire to generate the steam. Imagine having a steady supply of coal being given to him/her which is enough to cover the output of energy. Now imagine coal is just consistently delivered to the cabin and he can’t give it back but has to store it. Eventually the coal will pile up around the cabin and he/she won’t be able to move.
Mitochondria feel the same way when we give them more glucose than they need. They can burn only as much glucose as the cell needs for energy, not more. When we spike, we deliver glucose to our cells too quickly. The speed – or velocity at which it is delivered is the issue. Too much at once and problems pile up!
Too much glucose = oxidative stress:
According to the latest scientific theory, the Allostatic Load Model, when our mitochondria are drowning in unnecessary glucose, tiny molecules with large consequences are released by our cells: free radicals. When free radicals appear because of a spike, they set off a dangerous chain reaction.
Free radicals are a big deal because anything they touch, they damage. They randomly snap and modify our genetic code (our DNA), creating mutations that activate harmful genes and can lead to the development of cancer. They poke holes in the membranes of our cells, turning a normally functioning cell into a malfunctioning one.
When there are too many free radicals to be neutralised, our body is said to be in a state of oxidative stress.
Oxidative stress is a driver of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cognitive decline and general ageing. And fructose increases oxidative stress even more than glucose alone. That’s one of the reasons that sweet foods (which contain fructose) are worse than starchy foods (which don’t). Too much fat can also increase oxidative stress.
Over decades cells become ravaged. Because they’re stuffed, crowded and overwhelmed, our mitochondria can’t convert glucose to energy efficiently. The cells starve, which leads to organ dysfunction.
Why you are toasting: glycation and inflammation
This may come as a surprise to you, but you are currently cooking. More specifically, you are browning, just like a slice of bread in the toaster.
In 1912, a French chemist by the name of Louis-Camille Maillard described and gave his name to this phenomenon, now known as the Maillard reaction. He discovered that browning happens when a glucose molecule bumps into another type of molecule, causing a reaction. The second molecule is then said to be ‘glycated’. When a molecule is glycated, it’s damaged.
Fructose molecules glycate things 10 times as fast as glucose, generating that much more damage. Again, this is another reason why spikes from sugary foods such as cookies (which contain fructose) make us age faster than do spikes from starchy foods such as pasta (which doesn’t).
The combination of too many free radicals, oxidative stress and glycation leads to a generalised state of inflammation in the body. Inflammation is a protective measure; it’s the result of the body trying to defend against invaders. But chronic inflammation is harmful because it turns against our own body. From the outside, you might see redness and swelling, and on the inside, tissues and organs are slowly getting damaged
Tetris to survive: Insulin and fat gain:
When our glucose levels increase, our pancreas becomes the orchestra conductor of Tetris.
One of the pancreas’s main functions is to send a hormone called insulin into the body. Insulin’s sole purpose is to stash excess glucose in storage units throughout the body, to keep it out of circulation and protect us from damage.
Insulin stashes excess glucose in several storage units:
Enter storage unit number one: the liver. The liver is a very convenient storage unit, because all of the blood that comes from the gut carrying new glucose from digestion has to go through the liver.
Our liver turns glucose into a new form, called glycogen. It’s equivalent to how plants turn glucose into starch. Glycogen is actually the cousin of starch – it’s composed of many glucose molecules attached hand to hand. If excess glucose stayed in its original form, it would cause oxidative stress and glycation. Once transformed, it does no damage.
The second storage unit is our muscles. Our muscles are effective storage units because we have so many of them. The muscles of a typical adult weighing around 68 kilos (10st10lb) can hold about 400 grams of glucose as glycogen, or the amount of glucose in seven large McDonald’s fries.
The liver and muscles are efficient, but we tend to eat much more glucose than we need, so those storage units get full rather quickly. Fairly soon, if we didn’t have another storage unit for extra glucose, our body would lose its game of Tetris.
The Third Storage … Fat reserves – Which part of our body can we grow very easily, without much effort and just by sitting on our couch? Say hello to our fat reserves.
Once insulin has stored all the glucose it can in our liver and muscles, any excess glucose is turned into fat and stored in our fat reserves. And that’s one of the ways we gain weight.
And then some. Because it’s not just glucose that our body has to deal with, it must also dispose of fructose. And unfortunately, fructose cannot be turned into glycogen and stored in the liver and the muscles. The only thing that fructose can be stored as is fat.
**Ironically, many processed foods that are ‘fat-free’ contain a lot of sucrose, so the fructose in it is turned into fat after we digest it.**
How to lose weight:
When our glycogen reserves begin to diminish, our body draws on the fat in our fat reserves for energy – we’re in fat-burning mode – and we lose weight.
But this happens only when our insulin levels are low. If there is insulin present, our body is prevented from burning fat: insulin makes the route to our fat cells a one-way street: things can go in, but nothing can come out. We’re not able to burn any existing reserves until our insulin levels start coming back down about two hours after the spike.
But if our glucose levels, and therefore our insulin levels, are steady, we shed pounds.
Glucose Spikes – Short term effects:
First, many of us feel hungry again shortly after we eat and here again, it has to do with glucose. If you compare two meals that contain the same number of calories, the one that leads to a smaller glucose spike will keep you feeling full for longer.
Second, constant hunger is a symptom of high insulin levels. When there is a lot of insulin in our body, built up over years of glucose spikes, our hormones get mixed up.
Leptin, the hormone that tells us we are full and should stop eating, has its signal blocked, while ghrelin, the hormone that tells us we are hungry, takes over.
What the researchers discovered was fascinating. When the subjects’ glucose levels were stable, they didn’t rate many of the foods highly. However, when their glucose levels were decreasing, two things happened. First, the craving centre of their brain lit up when pictures of highcalorie foods were shown. Second, the participants rated those foods much higher on the ‘I want to eat it’ scale than when their glucose levels were stable!
When we eat something that tastes sweet, we may think that we are helping our body get energised, but it’s just an impression caused by the dopamine rush in our brain that makes us feel high. With every spike, we are impairing the long-term ability of our mitochondria. Diets that cause glucose rollercoasters lead to higher fatigue then those that flatten glucose curves.
Note: the following short term effects are also mentioned but I didn’t take any notes on them:
Poor Sleep, Cold Complications, Harder to Manage Diabetes, Migraine and Memory and cognitive function issues
Glucose Spikes – Long-term effects:
Acne and other skin conditions
Raise your hand if you wish you had known this in high school: starchy and sugary foods can set off a chain reaction that can show up as acne on your face and body and can even make your skin look visibly redder. This is because many skin conditions (including eczema and psoriasis) are driven by inflammation, which, as you learned, is a consequence of glucose spikes.
Ageing and arthritis
Depending on your diet, you may have spiked your glucose (and fructose) tens of thousands more times than your neighbour has by the time you reach 60. This will influence not just how old you look externally but how old you are internally. The more often we spike, the faster we age.
Glycation, free radicals and the subsequent inflammation are responsible for the slow degradation of our cells what we call ageing. Free radicals also damage collagen, the protein found in many of our tissues, which causes sagging skin and wrinkles and can lead to inflammation in joints, rheumatoid arthritis, degradation of cartilage and osteoarthritis: our bones get brittle, our joints are in pain and we definitely can’t go for a run in the park
When we talk about heart disease, cholesterol is often the main topic of conversation. But that conversation is shifting; we’ve discovered that it isn’t just a matter of ‘too much cholesterol’. In fact, half of the people who have a heart attack have normal levels of cholesterol. We now know that it’s a specific type of cholesterol (LDL pattern B) as well as inflammation that drive heart disease. Scientists have found out why this is the case. And it’s linked to glucose, fructose and insulin.
First, glucose and fructose: the lining of our blood vessels is made of cells. These cells are particularly vulnerable to mitochondrial stress and glucose and fructose spikes lead to oxidative stress. As a result, the cells suffer and lose their smooth shape. The lining of the vessels becomes bumpy, and fat particles get stuck more easily along the uneven surface.
Second, insulin: when our levels of insulin are too high, our liver starts producing LDL pattern B. This is a small, dense kind of cholesterol that creeps along the edges of the vessels, where it’s likely to get caught. (LDL pattern A is large, buoyant and harmless – we get it from eating dietary fat.)
Finally, if and when that cholesterol is oxidised – which happens the more glucose, fructose and insulin are present it lodges under the lining of our blood vessels and sticks there. Plaque builds up and obstructs the flow, and this is how heart disease starts.
Note: the following long term effects are also mentioned but I didn’t take any notes on them:
Depressive Episodes, Alzheimers and Dementia, Cancer Risk, Gut Issues, Infertility, Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, Wrinkles and Cataracts
Part III: How can I flatten my glucose curves?
Hack 1: Eat foods in the right order
Hack 2: Add a green starter to all your meals
Hack 3: Stop counting calories
Hack 4: Flatten your breakfast curve
Hack 5: Have any type of sugar you like – they’re all the same
Hack 6: Pick dessert over a sweet snack
Hack 7: Reach for vinegar before you eat
Hack 8: After you eat, move
Hack 9: If you have to snack, go savoury
Hack 10: Put some clothes on your carbs
HACK 1: EAT FOODS IN THE RIGHT ORDER:
Two meals consisting of the same foods (and therefore the same nutrients and the same calories) can have vastly different impacts on our body depending on how their components are eaten.
Jessie Inchauspe was taken aback when she read the scientific papers that proved this, most notably a seminal one out of Cornell University in 2015: if you eat the items of a meal containing starch, fibre, sugar, protein and fat in a specific order, you reduce your overall glucose spike by 73 per as well as your insulin spike by 48 per cent.
What is the right order? It’s fibre first, protein and fat second, starches and sugars last. According to the researchers, the effect of this sequencing is comparable to the effects of diabetes medications that are prescribed to lower glucose spikes.
Why does this work? As we’ve seen, fibre isn’t broken down into glucose by our digestive system. Instead, it goes through from sink to pipe to… sewage, slowly and unchanged. But that’s not all.
Fibre has three superpowers:
- First, it reduces the action of alpha-amylase, the enzyme that breaks starch down into glucose molecules.
- Second, it slows down gastric emptying: when fibre is present, food trickles from sink to pipe more slowly.
- Finally, it creates a viscous mesh in the small intestine; this mesh makes it harder for glucose to make it through to the bloodstream. Through these mechanisms, fibre slows down the breakdown and absorption of any glucose that lands in the sink after it; the result is that fibre flattens our glucose curves.
Any starch or sugar that we eat after fibre will have a reduced effect on our body. We’ll get the same pleasure from eating it but with fewer consequences.
There’s a scientific explanation for this improvement in her hunger: the Cornell research team showed that if we eat our food in the wrong order (starches and sugars first), ghrelin, our hunger hormone, returns to pre-meal levels after just two hours. If we eat our food in the right order (starches and sugars last), ghrelin stays suppressed for much longer.
How quickly can I eat the foods one after the other?
Many different timings were studied in clinical settings – 0 minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes; they all seem to work. As long as you eat starch and sugars last, even if it’s without stopping, you will flatten your glucose curve.
HACK 2: ADD A GREEN STARTER TO ALL YOUR MEALS
I know you’re probably thinking this is the same as the hack above (eat your veggies first).
No! This hack is on another level. Jessie is recommending to add a dish at the beginning of your meals. You will eat more than you usually do and flatten your glucose curves in the process. The goal here is to return to how food used to be, before it was processed: wherever there were starches and sugars, there was also fibre. By adding a delicious green starter, we’re bringing fibre back.
Fibre is in the structural lining of plants – it’s abundant in their leaves and bark. So unless you’re a wood-eating termite, you get most of your fibre from beans, vegetables and fruit.
This plant-made substance is incredibly important to us: it fuels the good bacteria in our gut, strengthens our microbiome, lowers our cholesterol levels and makes sure everything runs smoothly. One of the reasons a diet high in fruit and vegetables is healthy is because of the fibre it provides.
What’s the easiest thing to start with?
Buy a bag of spinach at the supermarket, toss 3 cups of it in a bowl with 2 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 tablespoon of vinegar (any kind you like), and salt and pepper, and top with a handful of crumbled feta cheese and toasted nuts. (It’s okay, in fact good, to mix some protein and fats into your green starter.) You can also add pesto, grated Parmesan cheese, and some toasted seeds, as you prefer. It should be something quick that you find tasty. This isn’t cooking; it’s assembling.
Top tip: Beware of ready-made dressings, as they’re often packed with sugar and loaded with vegetable oil – it’s better to make a simple one from scratch with the ratio of oil and vinegar I describe above. I make a batch of dressing every Sunday and keep it in the fridge to use all week.
HACK 3: STOP COUNTING CALORIES
If you follow the hack from the previous chapter, you will start adding calories to your meal in the form of a green starter. If you’re hoping to shed pounds, you may wonder:
Is that really a good idea? Won’t adding calories make me gain weight? The short answer is no.
The long answer involves understanding more about the types of calories we’re eating and setting things on fire.
What are calories?
To measure how many calories are in, say, a doughnut, here’s what to do: dehydrate the doughnut and place it in a cubicle submerged in a water bath. Then set the doughnut on fire (yes, really) and measure by how many degrees the water around it warms up. Multiply the temperature change by the amount of water in the container, the energy capacity of water (which is 1 calorie per gram per degree), and you’ll get the number of calories in the doughnut.
So when we say, ‘This doughnut and this Greek yoghurt have the same number of calories’, we’re really saying, ‘This doughnut and this Greek yoghurt warm up water by the same number of degrees when we burn them.’
In any case, calories measure heat generated, nothing else.
Why Calories matter less then you think:
Judging a food based on its calorie content is like judging a book by its page count. The fact that a book is 500 pages long can certainly give you some information about how long it will take to read (about 17 hours), but it’s unfortunately reductive. If you walk into a bookstore and tell an employee you want to buy ‘a 500-page book’, they will look at you a little strangely and then ask for clarifications. One 500-page book is not the same as another 500page book, and likewise one calorie isn’t the same as another calorie.
One hundred calories of fructose, 100 calories of glucose, 100 calories of protein and 100 calories of fat may release the same amount of heat when they burn, but they have vastly different effects on your body. Why? Because they are different molecules.
Here’s this fact in action: in 2015, a research team out of UC San Francisco proved that we can keep eating the exact same number of calories, but if we change the molecules we eat, we can heal our body of disease. They demonstrated, for example, that calories from fructose are worse than calories from glucose (it’s because fructose, as you know from Part I, inflames our bodies, ages our cells and turns to fat more than glucose does).
This study involved obese teenagers. They were asked to replace the calories in their diet that came from fructose with calories from glucose (they replaced fructose-containing foods such as doughnuts with foods containing glucose but no fructose such as bagels). The number of calories they consumed was kept constant. What happened? Their health improved: their blood pressure improved and their triglycerides-toHDL ratio (a key marker of heart disease, as we learned in Part II) improved. They started reversing the progression of their fatty liver disease and their type 2 diabetes. And this profound change in their health happened in just nine days.
The fact that all calories are not equal is something that the processed food industry does its best to obfuscate. It hides behind calorie counts because they divert our attention away from scrutinising what’s actually in the box – such as lots of fructose, which, unlike glucose, cannot be burned by our muscles for fuel and is almost all converted post-digestion into fat. Look at the ‘shout lines’ on snack packets when you next go to the store, and you will see what I mean.
HACK 4: FLATTEN YOUR BREAKFAST CURVE:
The fact that a bowl of cereal causes spikes makes empirical sense. Cereal is made of either refined corn or refined wheat kernels, superheated, then rolled flat or puffed into various shapes. It’s pure starch, with no fibre left. And because starch is not the most palatable thing on its own, table sugar (sucrose, made of glucose and fructose) is added to the concoction. Vitamins and minerals join the mix, but the benefit of these doesn’t outweigh any of the harm of the other components.
When 60 million Americans eat a cereal such as Honey Nut Cheerios for breakfast in the morning, they are pushing their glucose, fructose and insulin levels into damaging ranges. Thus every day sixty million Americans are generating swarms of free radicals in their bodies, taxing their pancreas, inflaming their cells, increasing their fat storage and setting themselves up for a day full of cravings from shortly after they get out of bed.
It’s a common assumption that eating something sweet for breakfast is a good thing because it will give us energy. But that’s actually not correct: though eating something sweet will give us pleasure, it’s not the best way to give us energy.
Why? Well, as you know, when we eat glucose, we trigger insulin production. Insulin wants to protect us from the onslaught of glucose, so it removes it from circulation. So instead of the newly digested molecules staying around in our system to be used for fuel, they are stored away as glycogen or fat.
On top of that, first thing in the morning, when we are in our fasted state, our bodies are the most sensitive to glucose.
Our stomach is empty, so anything that lands in it will be digested extremely quickly. That’s why eating sugars and starches at breakfast often leads to the biggest spike of the day.
Breakfast is the worst time to eat just sugar and starches, yet it’s the time at which most of us eat just sugar and starches.
Top tip: Go savoury – The best thing you can do to flatten your glucose curves is to eat a savoury breakfast. In fact, most countries have a savoury option: in Japan, salad is often on the menu, and in Turkey, you’ll find meat, veggies and cheese; in Scotland, smoked fish; and in the United States, omelettes.
The Breakfast order – First, eat protein, fats and fibre – an egg, – an egg, for example, a couple of spoonfuls of full-fat yoghurt. Then have the sweet food: cereal, chocolate, French toast, granola, honey, jam, maple syrup, pastries, pancakes, sweetened coffee drinks.
Build your savoury breakfast plate:
An ideal breakfast for steady glucose levels contains a good amount of protein, fibre, fat and optional starch and fruit (ideally, eaten last).
Make sure your breakfast contains protein And no, this does not mean gobbling down 10 raw eggs every morning. Protein can be found in Greek yoghurt, tofu, meat, cold cuts, fish, cheese, cream cheese, protein powder etc..
Add fat Scramble your eggs in butter or olive oil, add slices of avocado, or add five almonds, chia seeds, or flaxseeds to your Greek yoghurt. By the way, never eat fat-free yoghurt – it won’t keep you full.
Extra points for fibre- It can be challenging to get fibre in the morning because it means eating veggies for breakfast. I don’t blame you if you aren’t into that. But if you can, try. I love mixing spinach into my scrambled eggs or tucking it underneath a sliced avocado on toast.
Smoothies – You can enjoy a smoothie for breakfast; it just has to incorporate protein, fat and fibre. Start your smoothie with protein powder, then add a combination of linseed or flaxseed oil, coconut oil, avocado, seeds, nuts and a cup of spinach.
Finally, add some sugar for taste: ideally berries, which add a sweet taste but are significantly higher in fibre than other fruits.
HACK 5: HAVE ANY TYPE OF SUGAR YOU LIKE – THEY’RE ALL THE SAME:
Many people believe that some sources of sugar (namely fruits) are good for us and it’s only the refined sugars in sweets, cakes and confectionary that are the bad for us. Indeed, we’ve been indoctrinated with the idea.
To think that is to misunderstand the nature of sugar because sugar is sugar; it’s the same whether it comes from corn or beets and has been crystallised into white powder, which is how table sugar is made, or from oranges and kept in liquid form, which is how fruit juice is made. Regardless of which plant they come from, glucose and fructose molecules have the same effect on us. And denying that fruit juice is harmful because of the vitamins it contains is a game of dangerous deflection.
The molecules are what matter: by the time they reach your small intestine, they’re all just glucose and fructose. Your body doesn’t process sugar differently whether it came from a sugar beet, an agave plant, or a mango. As soon as a becomes sugar like any other fruit is denatured and processed and its fibre is extracted, it sugar.
What is true, however, is that if we are going to eat some sugar, a whole piece of fruit is the best vehicle for it. First, in a whole piece of fruit, sugar is found in small quantities. And you’d be hard pressed to eat three apples or three bananas in one sitting – which is how much can be found in a smoothie.
Even if you did eat three apples or three bananas, you would take some time to eat them, much longer than it would take you to drink them in a smoothie. So the glucose and fructose would be digested much more slowly. Eating takes longer than drinking. Second, in a whole piece of fruit, sugar is always accompanied by fibre. As explained earlier, fibre significantly reduces the spike caused by any sugar we eat.
By blending a piece of fruit, we pulverise the fibre into tiny particles that can’t fulfil their protective duties any more. In case you’re wondering, this does not happen when we chew – our jaws are powerful, but not as powerful as a blender’s metal blades making 400 rotations per second. As soon as we blend, squeeze, dry and concentrate the sugar and remove the fibre in fruit, it hits our system fast and hard and leads to a spike.
There is something else that doesn’t matter: the name of the food:
This is surprising to most people, but on a molecular level, there is no difference between table sugar and honey. And there is no difference between table sugar and agave syrup. In fact, there is no difference between table sugar and any of these: agave syrup, brown sugar, caster sugar, coconut sugar, icing sugar, demerara sugar, evaporated cane juice, honey, maple syrup, molasses, muscovado sugar, palm sugar, palmyra tree sugar. They are all made of glucose and fructose molecules. They are just packaged differently, named differently, and priced differently.
Brown sugar (which sounds healthy, right?) is made of the exact same thing as white sugar, except that it is tinted (yes, tinted) with molasses, a by-product of the sugar-making process, to make it look more wholesome.
Many of us have heard that honey and agave contain ‘natural’ sugars. And that dried fruit, such as dried mango, contains ‘natural’ sugars because they come from a fruit. It’s, um, natural to think that those options are better for us than table sugar. But here’s something to chew on: all sugar is natural, because it always comes from a plant. Some table sugar even comes from a vegetable (sugar beets). But that doesn’t make it any different. There is no good or bad sugar; all sugar is the same, regardless of the plant it comes from.
What about agave syrup’s ‘lower glycaemic index’?
We have been told that agave syrup is better for us than sugar because it has a lower glycaemic index. What’s that about?
Although sugar is sugar, regardless of its source, what is true is that the ratio of glucose and fructose molecules is different from sugar to sugar. Some sugars contain more fructose, while others contain more glucose.
And while agave syrup may be often recommended to people with diabetes and women diagnosed with gestational diabetes it actually contains much more fructose than table sugar (90 per cent compared to 50 per cent). This means that the fructose spike is bigger.
Recall from earlier, that fructose is worse for us than glucose: it overwhelms our liver, turns to fat, precipitates insulin resistance, makes us gain more weight than glucose and doesn’t make us feel as full. As a result, since agave has more fructose than table sugar does, it is actually worse for our health than table sugar. So, don’t believe the hype.
The good news: this all means you can pick any sugar you like.
HACK 6: PICK DESSERT OVER A SWEET SNACK
When we’re done eating, our organs are just getting started and they keep working for four hours on average after our last bite. This busy time is the post eating, or postprandial, state.
What happens in the postprandial state
The postprandial state is the period of our day when the largest hormonal and inflammatory changes take place.
To digest, sort and store the molecules from the food we just consumed, blood rushes to our digestive system and our hormones rise like a tide. Some systems can be hold (including your immune system), while others are activated (such as fat storage). Insulin levels, oxidative stress and inflammation increase. The bigger a glucose or fructose spike after a meal, the more demanding the postprandial state is for our body to deal with, because it has more free radicals, glycation and insulin release to manage
The postprandial state is normal, but it’s also an effort for our body. Processing a meal can take more or less work, depending on the amount of glucose and fructose that we’ve just consumed
When our body is not in the postprandial state, things are a little easier. Our organs are on clean-up duty, replacing damaged cells with new ones and clearing our systems. For instance, the gurgling we feel in our small intestine when we haven’t eaten in a few hours is our empty digestive tract cleaning its walls. When our body is not in the postprandial state, our insulin levels come down and we can go back to burning fat instead of stashing it.
You might have heard that back in prehistoric times, we could, if needed, go a long time without eating. It’s because we could easily switch between using glucose for fuel (from our last meal) to using fat for fuel (from our fat storage). This switching ability, as mentioned earlier, is called metabolic flexibility. It is a prime measure of a healthy metabolism.
Why dessert wins – By having our sweet treats as a dessert rather than a snack we keep our system out of the postprandial state for longer. That means there’s time for the clean-up I described above.
TRY THIS: If you feel the urge to eat something sweet between meals, put it aside – in the fridge or somewhere else – and enjoy it for dessert after your next meal instead.
HACK 7: REACH FOR VINEGAR BEFORE YOU EAT
Mix a vinegar drink and sip it before you eat your next sweet treat – whether for dessert or on the occasions when you have it as a stand-alone snack.
The recipe is simple, but has a strong impact. A drink consisting of a tablespoon of vinegar in a tall glass of water, drunk a few minutes before eating something sweet, flattens the ensuing glucose and insulin spikes. With that, cravings are curbed, hunger is tamed and more fat is burned.
What researchers found was that by adding vinegar before meals for three months, the subjects lost 2 to 4 pounds and reduced their visceral fat, waist and hip measurements and triglyceride levels.
In one study, both groups were put on a strict weight loss diet, and the vinegar group lost twice as much weight (11 versus 5 pounds), even though they ate the same number of calories as the non-vinegar group. A Brazilian research team explained that because of its effect on fat loss, vinegar is more effective than many thermogenic supplements touted as fat burners.
To understand how this happens, we have an important clue: the amount of insulin also decreases when vinegar is consumed before eating (by about 20 per cent in one study).
This tells us that drinking vinegar does not flatten glucose curves by increasing the amount of insulin in the body. And this is a very good thing. What we really want to do is flatten our glucose curves without increasing the amount of insulin in the body. Which is what vinegar does.
How vinegar works
Remember the enzyme from earlier, alpha-amylase? This is the enzyme that in plants chops starch back up into glucose and in humans turns bread to glucose in our mouths. Scientists have found that the acetic acid in vinegar temporarily inactivates alpha-amylase.
As a result, sugar and starch are transformed into glucose more slowly, and the glucose hits our system more softly. You may recall from Hack 1, ‘Eat foods in the right order’, that fibre also has this effect on alpha-amylase, which is one of the reasons fibre helps flatten our glucose curves, too.
Second, once acetic acid gets into the bloodstream, it penetrates our muscles: there, it encourages our muscles to make glycogen faster than they usually would, which in turn leads to more efficient uptake of glucose.
HACK 8: AFTER YOU EAT, MOVE
Post-eating sleepiness is particularly curbed by this technique. And it works even better when you drink vinegar mixed into a tall glass of water before you eat.
The more and the harder a muscle is told to contract, whether consciously or unconsciously, the more energy it needs. The more energy it needs, the more glucose it needs. With every new muscle contraction, glucose molecules are burned up. And we can use this fact to our advantage to flatten our glucose curves.
When you use your muscles, instead of accumulating, the extra glucose is used up.
So we can eat the exact same thing, and then, by using our muscles afterwards (within 70 minutes of eating; more on that below), flatten the glucose curve of that food.
You can work out at any time up to 70 minutes after the end of your meal to curb a glucose spike; 70 minutes is around the time when that spike reaches its peak, so using your muscles before that is ideal. You can also use your muscles acutely in a push-up, a squat, a plank, or any weight-lifting exercise. Resistance exercise (weight-lifting) has been shown to decrease the glucose spike by up to 30 per cent and the size of further spikes over the following 24 hours by 35 per cent.
It’s rare that you’ll be able to curb the entire glucose spike, but you can make a sizeable dent in it.
And here’s the best part: when we move after eating we flatten our glucose curve without increasing our insulin level – just as was the case with vinegar. Although our muscles usually need insulin to stash glucose away, if they are currently contracting, they don’t need insulin to be able to uptake glucose.
TRY THIS: Rate how you feel when you have a sweet snack and then stay sitting. Rate how you feel when have the same treat and walk 20 minutes afterwards. How is your energy? How is your hunger level in the next few hours?
How many minutes of exercise do you need?
It’s up to you to find what works. Studies usually look at 10 to 20 minutes of walking or 10-minute strength or resistance sessions. I’ve found that I have to do about 30 squats to see any change to my glucose level.
Why does fasted exercise lead to a glucose spike? Is that bad?
When you exercise and you haven’t yet eaten, i.e., you are engaging in fasted exercise, your liver releases glucose into your blood to fuel the mitochondria in your muscles. This shows up on a glucose monitor as a spike – because there is one. These spikes do cause oxidative stress, by increasing free radicals, but the exercise that causes them also increases your ability to get rid of free radicals, and, importantly, that improved defence against free radicals lingers longer than the acute, exercise-induced production of free radicals. Thus, the net effect of exercise is to reduce oxidative stress. Exercise is therefore considered a hormetic stress on the body. This means that it is a type of beneficial stress that causes our bodies to become more resilient
The combo – Now you know the amazing combo for snacking on something sweet without incurring a big glucose spike in your body: vinegar before, exercise after.
HACK 9: IF YOU HAVE TO SNACK, GO SAVOURY
This hack is particularly self explanatory when you need a snack reach for the savoury options not the sweet such as nuts, cheese etc…
HACK 10: PUT SOME CLOTHES ON YOUR CARBS
So this hack is for those times – for real-life eating when we have to grab something on the way to the bus, when we’re at a party or a business breakfast. It’s for those times when we’re going to eat a slice of cake for breakfast because we’re hungry and it’s there.
The solution is simple, and it’s been mentioned before. Combine starches and sugars with fat, protein or fibre. Instead of letting carbs run around naked, put some ‘clothes’ on them. Clothes on our carbs reduce how much and how quickly glucose is absorbed by our bodies.
TRY THIS: When hungry, naked carbs look very appealing. So try to keep in mind that the hungrier you are, the emptier your stomach probably is, and therefore the bigger the spike those naked carbs will cause.
Do whole grains still need clothes?
We often think that if grains are whole (brown rice, brown pasta, etc.), they are much better for us. The truth is, they are only very slightly better – starch is still starch. Pasta or bread that boasts ‘whole grain’ on its packaging has still been milled – which means that some of its fibre has gone.
Lentils and pulses are different, though: they are better for you than rice, because although rice (or pasta or bread) is 100 per cent starch, lentils and pulses contain starch, fibre and protein. Remember: when we combine glucose with other molecules, whether we have diabetes or not, our body receives it at a more natural, manageable speed, and we curb the glucose spike.
Which fat should I add?
Unlike sugar (there is no good or bad sugar; all sugar is the same, regardless of the plant it comes from), some fats are better for you than others.
Good fats are saturated (fat from animals, such as butter, ghee and coconut oil) or monounsaturated (from fruit and nuts such as avocados, macadamia nuts and olives). For cooking, use saturated fats – they’re less likely to oxidise with heat. Monounsaturated fats, such as olive and avocado, can’t stand the heat as well. A good rule of thumb to distinguish between them: cook with fats that are solid at room temperature when you can.
Bad fats (which inflame us, harm our heart health, make us gain visceral fat and increase our insulin resistance) are unsaturated and trans fats, which are found in processed oils – made from soybean, corn, rapeseed, safflower and rice bran oil- and fried foods, and fast foods. (The one seed oil that isn’t as bad is flaxseed oil.)
THE CHEATSHEET SECTION
When a craving hits
1. Give a craving a 20-minute cooling-off period. Back in hunter-gatherer days, decreases in our glucose levels signalled that we hadn’t eaten in a long time. In response, our brain told us to choose high-calorie foods. Today, when we encounter a decrease in glucose levels, it’s usually because the last thing we ate caused a glucose spike.
2. If the 20 minutes have come and gone and you’re still thinking about that cookie, set it aside for dessert at you next meal.
At a bar
When you’re at a bar a When you order a drink at a bar, you don’t have to order glucose and fructose spike along with it. (That is a lot for the liver to handle.)
Alcohols that keep our levels steady are wine (red, white, rosé, sparkling) as well as spirits (gin, vodka, tequila, whisky and even rum). We can drink these on an empty stomach, and they don’t cause a glucose spike. Watch out for mixers: adding fruit juice, something sweet, or tonic will cause one. Drink your alcohol on the rocks, with sparkling water or soda water, or with some lime or lemon juice. When it comes to beer, which causes spikes because of its high carb content, ale and lager are preferable to stout (such as Guinness) and porter. Even better, go for low-carb beer.
Where to look at the supermarket
The items on supermarket shelves don’t get a gold star for honesty. Far from it. If a processed food will cause a glucose spike, it’s not going to be up front about it on the packaging.
It’s going to hide that secret, distracting you with labels such as ‘fat-free’ or ‘no sugar added’ – which unfortunately don’t mean that the food is healthy. In order to find out if a processed food will cause a glucose spike, don’t look at the front. Look at the back.
First place to look is the ingredients list. Ingredients are sorted in descending order by weight. If sugar is in the top five ingredients, that means a hefty proportion of that food consists of sugar, even if it doesn’t taste sweet – a soft white roll, for example, or a bottle of ketchup – and will cause a glucose spike. If sugar is in the top five ingredients, you know what that means: a hidden fructose spike.
The next place to look is the Nutrition Facts. One thing to keep in mind is that in recent years manufacturers have been reducing the recommended serving sizes on their packaging to make things look better in terms of grams of sugar. A smaller serving size means less sugar per serving. So know that the absolute numbers you see on packaging are not the most important thing. Rather, it’s the ratios that hold the key.
Here’s how to evaluate the ratios
First things first: you can skip right past the Calories line. Yes, it’s the line in the biggest type, because that’s what manufacturers want you to focus on. But as you now know, the molecules matter more than the calories.
When assessing dry foods, such as cookies, pasta, bread, cereal, cereal bars, crackers and crisps, head to the Total Carbohydrate section. The grams next to Total Carbohydrate and Total Sugars represent the molecules that cause a glucose spike: starches and sugars. The more grams of these, the more the food will lead to a rise in your glucose, fructose and insulin levels and set off the chain reaction that keeps you craving sweet things.
This section also contains the Dietary Fibre line, fibre is the only carbohydrate that our body doesn’t break down the more fibre in the food, the flatter the glucose curve after eating it. So here’s a tip: for dry foods, look at the ratio of Total Carbohydrate to Dietary Fibre.
Find the number next to Total Carbohydrate and divide it by five. Try to find a food that has that amount of Dietary Fibre (or as close to it as possible).
Why five? It’s an arbitrary cut-off, but it’s close to the ratio we find in fruit such as berries. The science is not exact, but the closer the food is to this ratio, the flatter the curve it will cause.
TRY THIS: Grab something in your pantry that you eat often. Turn to the back of the box and check whether it will cause a spike. Is sugar in the top five ingredients? Is there at least 1 gram of fibre for each 5 grams of total carbohydrate?