To start with, it will be helpful when trying to understand how blood sugar works and what it all means by understanding some of the basic processes.

Our body converts the food we eat into glucose (sugar) which our cells can use as energy, a fuel of sorts. If we eat more food than required, all of the extra glucose is stored. Our pancreas and liver work together to keep a balance between the storing and using of this glucose, depending on the demands of the body. High levels of glucose in the blood triggers the pancreas to release a hormone called insulin which helps to ferry the glucose into the cells. Some foods are converted to glucose quickly so will abruptly elevate our blood glucose levels. Other foods are digested much slower and therefore the conversion is slower also, creating a steadier release of blood glucose.

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HEALTHY FOODS ARE KEY: Eating a balanced diet, reducing carbohydrate and sugar intake while increasing the whole foods, is the ideal treatment for type 2 diabetes, says Bridie Kersten. PICTURE: Unsplash/Keit Trysh

 

"Often, more than 50 pe rcent of the cells that regulate the insulin process are damaged or destroyed before any symptoms of diabetes or pre-diabetes becomes evident which is why everyone can benefit from being aware of these processes, even if they have never had any blood sugar issues yet."

This is where the concept of high and low GI foods comes from. High GI foods spike our blood glucose suddenly while low GI foods provide a sustained release of blood glucose. Fibre, good fats and protein will also slow the conversion to glucose as these take longer to digest. This is why the sugar in an apple does not have the same affect when eaten as part of a whole apple as when it is drunk as apple juice (without the fibre). Good fats have a similar effect and are an important part of maintaining blood glucose levels.

What happens when blood sugar is no longer under control?
Sugar and refined carbohydrates in excess overwhelm our bodies with sugar, forcing our pancreas to pump out insulin at an alarming rate. When exposed to high levels of insulin over long periods of time, our cells slowly become resistant or immune to its ability to unlock them to accept glucose. An immunity to the effects of insulin means that the blood sugar levels are no longer properly controlled. This leads to conditions such as type 2 diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is often categorised with what are called metabolic illnesses or conditions because it is so closely connected to the delicate balance of the digestion and then the usage of our food.

Often, more than 50 pe rcent of the cells that regulate the insulin process are damaged or destroyed before any symptoms of diabetes or pre-diabetes becomes evident which is why everyone can benefit from being aware of these processes, even if they have never had any blood sugar issues yet. Type 2 diabetes did, in fact, used to be called adult onset diabetes but in the developed world, we see children as young as two and three-years-old now developing the condition which is largely a lifestyle disease. There is a little more than a lack of health education to blame here. This can be attributed to the fact that foods that come with a “nutritious” label can contribute to poor blood glucose levels, such as breakfast cereals and fruit juices.

What can I do to manage my blood sugar?
The newest and strongest of clinical evidence suggests that reducing carbohydrate and sugar intake while increasing the whole foods in the diet is the ideal treatment for type 2 diabetes. As always, the newest research even shows a link to gut health: poor gut health has been linked to an increase in damage to the cells in the pancreas, further reducing their ability to function correctly. Improving gut health is about eating a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables for their fibre and nutrient content, fermented foods such as yoghurt where possible for probiotics, and, minimising sugars and refined carbohydrates.

Regular exercise has also been shown to change the way that cells react to insulin, making them more sensitive to it. This therefore means that our cells are better able to respond to and use blood glucose, reducing the risk of diabetes. It also improves our muscle cell’s ability to use the glucose taken from the blood more effectively.

Bridie Kersten is a registered nutritionist with an advanced diploma in nutrition and a Bachelor of Health Science (biochemistry and nutritional medicine).