If you’re regularly feeling “off” and struggling to lose weight despite your best efforts, one sneaky culprit might be your blood sugar levels. “Your blood sugar plays a big role in how you feel day-to-day. It can affect your stress response, sleep, appetite and energy,” explains Krista King, MS, RDN, a certified health coach and owner of Composed Nutrition in Chicago. It’s important to recognize how blood sugar plays a role in your health and weight-loss journey and take measures to help keep blood sugar levels even throughout the day.
Blood sugar imbalances can translate to feeling jittery, dizzy, irritable, experiencing food cravings (especially for carbohydrate-rich foods like sweets), and the affliction known as “hangry,” where you’re both hungry and angry, says King. Experiencing a drop in blood sugar in the middle of the night can also wake you up or give you night sweats, she says. Sleep disruption can then negatively affect your hunger and appetite hormones, further reinforcing the problem.
What’s more, “when your blood sugar is out of whack, you’re more likely to make poorer food choices. Your body tells you ‘I need something right now!’ leading you to grab whatever is around and overeat,” explains Melissa Mitri, MS, RDN. Over time, consuming excess calories can lead to weight gain.
That’s not where the blood sugar-weight gain link ends, though. The hormone insulin regulates the blood sugar in your body, but if your blood sugar is imbalanced, your insulin levels increase to manage blood sugar, says Mitri. That stimulates your appetite and can also have negative effects on your metabolism. “Blood sugar imbalance makes it harder to lose weight, even if you’re in a calorie deficit,” notes Mitri.
To keep your blood sugar levels even throughout the day, here are five smart tips:
Many fad diets like to put entire food groups off-limits, such as carbs. However, carbs along with protein and fat, are essential macronutrients needed for stable blood sugar, says King: “Carbohydrates are your body’s preferred form of energy.” It’s important to prioritize complex carbs, which take longer to digest and provide the body with long-lasting energy and important micronutrients.
Another example is intermittent fasting (IF). If limiting the number of hours you eat is an enjoyable and sustainable way of eating, it gets you to your goals, and you can handily accomplish what you need to in a day, then that’s great. However, it can also backfire, especially if you have a history of disordered eating. Often, placing rules around when you can and cannot eat “further disconnects you from your hunger and fullness cues,” says King. It can put you in a restrict-binge cycle that results in continual blood sugar spikes and dips.
“A balanced breakfast is the best way to set your body up for blood sugar control throughout the whole day,” says Mitri. She recommends eating breakfast within two hours of getting up and including all three macronutrients, such as two eggs, a slice of whole-grain toast, and a little avocado.
“Working from home has provided many people with a free-for-all schedule where skipping meals or eating late (when there’s a hunger emergency) is the norm,” says Mitri. But putting yourself on a meal and snack routine goes a long way toward preventing blood sugar dips. Let your hunger be your guide, but a good rule of thumb is to eat something every 3–4 hours, she says.
“There’s no reason to rush eating the minute you finish a workout, but within an hour you should aim to consume a meal or snack,” says Mitri, especially if you exercised for over an hour. Your muscles use up glycogen (stored glucose) to fuel your workout, and it needs replenishing. Wait too long, and a low blood sugar drop can ensue, causing fatigue and irritability. A smart post-workout snack includes carbs and protein (such as chocolate milk, an apple, and peanut butter or a smoothie).
Stress is tied to your blood sugar response, says King. “Stress turns on the process of gluconeogenesis, which is where your body makes its own blood sugar because it thinks it needs energy to fight or flee,” she explains. Stress management doesn’t have to be a time-consuming task — focus on small things you can do (complete a few stretches, try a five-minute meditation or take a short walk) that puts space between you and your stressor.