Which Foods Lower Blood Sugar?

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in Blood Sugar

Can You Believe The “Experts”?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

which foods lower blood sugarYour blood sugar levels have been creeping up. Your doctor has been bugging you to do something about it – even threatening to put you on medications if you don’t get your blood sugar under control. So, which foods lower blood sugar?

Now it’s the first of the year, and you’ve vowed to do something about it. You have vowed to make better food choices. That should be easy. There is lots of great advice about foods that lower blood sugar on the internet. For example, in a recent search, I found articles proclaiming “9 foods that lower blood sugar”, “7 foods that control blood sugar”, and “12 power foods to beat diabetes”.

But, are those foods the right ones for you? What if we are remarkably different in our blood sugar responses to the same food? This is just what a recent study suggests.

How Was The Study Designed?

A group of scientists in Isreal set out to test the hypothesis that people eating identical meals might have a high variability in their post-meal blood glucose response (Zeevi et al, Cell, 163, 1079-1094, 2015).

measure glucoseThe investigators enrolled 800 subjects ages 18-70 into their study. None of the individuals had diabetes. However, 54% of them were overweight (BMI ≥ 25 kg/m2) and 22% of them were obese (BMI ≥ 30 kg/m2). Thus, their subject population was typical of the adult population of almost every Western, industrialized country.

All 800 subjects were followed for one week during which time:

  • They were connected to a continuous glucose monitor, which measured their blood glucose levels every 5 seconds.
  • They were given a Smartphone app and instructed to log their food intake, exercise, and sleep in real time.
  • They were told to follow their normal daily routine and dietary habits except for the first meal of every day, which consisted of five different types of standardized “meals” (glucose, fructose, bread, bread with butter, bread with chocolate), all providing 50 gm of available carbohydrate.

The glucose monitor recorded blood sugar responses for 2 hours following each meal. From that information, the investigators calculated a PPGR (post-prandial glycemic response), which I will mercifully refer to as “blood sugar response”, for every meal eaten by every subject throughout the week.

The standardized “meals” eaten at the beginning of the day were used to validate the study. For example:

  • Two of the standardized meals were given to each subject twice during the study separated by at least one day.
    • There was very little variability in blood sugar response when the same standardized meal was given to the same subject on different days.
    • However, there was a significant amount of variability in blood sugar response when the same standardized meal was given to different subjects.
  • The average blood sugar response to each of the standardized meals was very similar to literature values from previous studies (Most previous studies have reported only average blood sugar responses, not individual variability).

In short, the results from the standardized “meals” validated both the reliability and reproducibility of the data.

Finally, to eliminate as many confounding variables as possible, the investigators compared blood sugar response only for those meals in which a single food was the major component of the meal and that food provided 20-40 gm of carbohydrate.

Here is where things got really interesting!

Which Foods Lower Blood Sugar?

breadThis study showed that there is tremendous individual variability in the blood sugar response to any given food. For example, individual blood sugar responses varied by:

  • 4-fold for sugar-sweetened soft drinks, grapes and apples.
  • 5-fold for rice.
  • 6-fold for bread and potatoes.
  • 7-fold for ice cream and dates.

Put another way:

  • Some people had almost no blood sugar response to cookies, but a very high blood sugar response to a banana.
  • Other people had almost no blood sugar response to bananas, but a very high blood sugar response to cookies.

That is a pretty striking result. Which foods lower blood sugar? This study suggests that some people trying to control their blood sugar can eat bananas, while others should avoid them. It might even mean that some people trying to control blood sugar can eat cookies. I know that is what many people would like to hear, but I’m not ready to make that recommendation.

Why Is There So Much Individuality in Blood Sugar Response?

good food choicesYou are probably wondering why there is such variability in blood sugar response to the same foods. There are several factors that influence individual blood sugar response. For example,

  • Overweight and obesity (Both tend to increase blood sugar response).
  • Dietary habits (Meats, particularly fatty meats, processed grains, and simple sugars tend to increase blood sugar response to a given amount of carbohydrate. Unprocessed grains, fresh fruits & vegetables tend to decrease blood sugar response to a given amount of carbohydrate).
  • What we eat with a given meal (Protein, fiber, and fat in a meal can decrease blood sugar response to the carbohydrate in that meal).
  • Physical activity (Increased muscle mass decreases blood sugar response to a given amount of carbohydrate).
  • The bacteria in our intestine (This may be a chicken-and egg thing. The bacteria in our intestine are influenced by our dietary habits.)
  • Genetics.
  • Things we don’t yet know about.

The good news is that we can actually control some of these variables. The ones over which we have the most control are weight, dietary habits, what we eat along with the carbohydrates in our meals, and physical activity.

What Does This Mean For You?

blood sugarThe authors concluded that “universal dietary recommendations [for lowering blood sugar levels] may have limited utility.”  That is because dietary recommendations are based on average responses and none of us are average. As the saying goes “We are all wonderfully [and differently] made”.

So, when you read about diets and foods that will help you keep your blood sugar levels under control, take those recommendations with a grain of…sugar. They are a good starting place, but you need to listen to your body, and eat the foods that work best for you.  So, which foods lower blood sugar?  It is different for different people, but there are some variables you can control.

Don’t get carried away, however. I’m pretty sure Twinkies washed down with a soft drink are bad for just about everyone.

More importantly, control the variables you can – weight, dietary habits, foods you eat along with carbohydrates, and physical activity. If you control those four variables, you will be well on your way to ideal blood sugar control.

 

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study has shown that there is tremendous variability in blood sugar response to identical meals from one individual to the next.
  • The authors of the study concluded that “universal dietary recommendations [for lowering blood sugar levels] may have limited utility.” That is because dietary recommendations are based on average responses, and none of us are average.
  • So, when you read about diets and foods that will help you keep your blood sugar levels under control, take those recommendations with a grain of…sugar. They are a good starting place, but you need to listen to your body, and eat the foods that work best for you.
  • There are variables influencing our blood sugar response that we cannot control, such as genetics. However, there are some very important variables that we can control. For example, we can improve our blood sugar response by:
    • Attaining and maintaining ideal weight. Losing as little as 5-10 pounds can result in a significant improvement.

 

    • Eating a diet that emphasizes fresh fruits & vegetables, nuts, and whole grains and minimizes meats, especially fatty meats, processed grains, and simple sugars. This may act by influencing the bacteria that populate our intestine.

 

    • Consuming carbohydrates along with protein, fiber-rich foods, and even some fat in the same meal.

 

    • Increasing physical activity, especially activity that increases lean muscle mass.

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Latest Article

A Low Carb Diet and Weight Loss

Posted January 15, 2019 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney

 

low carb dietTraditional diets have been based on counting calories, but are all calories equal? Low-carb enthusiasts have long claimed that diets high in sugar and refined carbs cause obesity. Their hypothesis is based on the fact that high blood sugar levels cause a spike in insulin levels, and insulin promotes fat storage.

The problem is that there has been scant evidence to support that hypothesis. In fact, a recent meta-analysis of 32 published clinical studies (KD Hall and J Guo, Gastroenterology, 152: 1718-1727, 2017 ) concluded that low-fat diets resulted in a higher metabolic rate and greater fat loss than isocaloric low-carbohydrate diets.

However, low-carb enthusiasts persisted. They argued that the studies included in the meta-analysis were too short to adequately measure the metabolic effects of a low-carb diet. Recently, a study has been published in the British Medical Journal (CB Ebbeling et al, BMJ 2018, 363:k4583 ) that appears to vindicate their position.

Are low carb diets best for long term weight loss?

Low-carb enthusiasts claim the study conclusively shows that low-carb diets are best for losing weight and for keeping it off once you have lost it. They are saying that it is time to shift away from counting calories and from promoting low-fat diets and focus on low-carb diets instead if we wish to solve the obesity epidemic. In this article I will focus on three issues:

  • How good was the study?
  • What were its limitations?
  • Are the claims justified?

 

How Was The Study Designed?

low carb diet studyThe investigators started with 234 overweight adults (30% male, 78% white, average age 40, BMI 32) recruited from the campus of Framingham State University in Massachusetts. All participants were put on a diet that restricted calories to 60% of estimated needs for 10 weeks. The diet consisted of 45% of calories from carbohydrate, 30% from fat, and 25% from protein. [So much for the claim that the study showed low-carb diets were more effective for weight loss. The diet used for the weight loss portion of the diet was not low-carb.]

During the initial phase of the study 161 of the participants achieved 10% weight loss. These participants were randomly divided into 3 groups for the weight maintenance phase of the study.

  • The diet composition of the high-carb group was 60% carbohydrate, 20% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the moderate-carb group was 40% carbohydrate, 40% fat, and 20% protein.
  • The diet composition of the low-carb group was 20% carbohydrate, 60% fat, and 20% protein.

Other important characteristics of the study were:

  • The weight maintenance portion of the study lasted 5 months – much longer than any previous study.
  • All meals were designed by dietitians and prepared by a commercial food service. The meals were either served in a cafeteria or packaged to be taken home by the participants.
  • The caloric content of the meals was individually adjusted on a weekly basis so that weight was kept within a ± 4-pound range during the 5-month maintenance phase.
  • Sugar, saturated fat, and sodium were limited and kept relatively constant among the 3 diets.

120 participants made it through the 5-month maintenance phase.

 

Do Low-Carb Diets Help Maintain Weight Loss?

low carb diet maintain weight lossThe results were striking:

  • The low-carb group burned an additional 278 calories/day compared to the high-carb group and 131 calories/day more than the moderate-carbohydrate group.
  • These differences were even higher for those individuals with higher insulin secretion at the beginning of the maintenance phase of the study.
  • These differences lead the authors to hypothesize that low-carb diets might be more effective for weight maintenance than other diets.

 

What Are The Pros And Cons Of This Study?

low carb diet pros and consThis was a very well-done study. In fact, it is the most ambitious and well-controlled study of its kind. However, like any other clinical study, it has its limitations. It also needs to be repeated.

The pros of the study are obvious. It was a long study and the dietary intake of the participants was tightly controlled.

As for cons, here are the three limitations of the study listed by the authors:

#1: Potential Measurement Error: This section of the paper was a highly technical consideration of the method used to measure energy expenditure. Suffice it to say that the method they used to measure calories burned per day may overestimate calories burned in the low-carb group. That, of course, would invalidate the major findings of the study. It is unlikely, but it is why the study needs to be repeated using a different measure of energy expenditure.

#2: Compliance: Although the participants were provided with all their meals, there was no way of being sure they ate them. There was also no way of knowing whether they may have eaten other foods in addition to the food they were provided. Again, this is unlikely, but cannot be eliminated from consideration.

#3: Generalizability: This is simply an acknowledgement that the greatest strength of this study is also its greatest weakness. The authors acknowledged that their study was conducted in such a tightly controlled manner it is difficult to translate their findings to the real world. For example:

  • Sugar and saturated fat were restricted and were at very similar levels in all 3 diets. In the real world, people consuming a high-carb diet are likely to consume more sugar than people in the other diet groups. Similarly, people consuming the low-carb diet are likely to consume more saturated fat than people in the other diet groups.
  • Weight was kept constant in the weight maintenance phase by constantly adjusting caloric intake. Unfortunately, this seldom happens in the real world. Most people gain weight once they go off their diet – and this is just as true with low-carb diets as with other diets.
  • The participants had access to dietitian-designed prepared meals 3 times a day for 5 months. This almost never happens in the real world. The authors said “…these results [their data] must be reconciled with the long-term weight loss trials relying on nutrition education and behavioral counseling that find only a small advantage for low carbohydrate compared with low fat diets according to several recent meta-analyses.” [I would add that in the real world, people do not even have access to nutritional education and behavioral modification.]

 

low carb diet and youWhat Does This Study Mean For You?

  • This study shows that under very tightly controlled conditions (dietitian-prepared meals, sugar and saturated fat limited to healthy levels, calories continually adjusted so that weight remains constant) a low-carb diet burns more calories per day than a moderate-carb or high-carb diet. These findings show that it is theoretically possible to increase your metabolic weight and successfully maintain a healthy weight on a low-carb diet. These are the headlines you probably saw. However, a careful reading of the study provides a much more nuanced viewpoint. For example, the fact that the study conditions were so tightly controlled makes it difficult to translate these findings to the real world.
  • In fact, the authors of the study acknowledged that multiple clinical studies show this almost never happens in the real world. These studies show that most people regain the weight they have lost on low-carb diets. More importantly, the rate of weight regain is virtually identical on low-carb and low-fat diets. Consequently, the authors of the current study concluded “…translation [of their results to the real world] requires exploration in future mechanistic oriented research.” Simply put, the authors are saying that more research is needed to provide a mechanistic explanation for this discrepancy before one can make recommendations that are relevant to weight loss and weight maintenance in the real world.
  • The authors also discussed the results of their study in light of a recent, well-designed 12-month study (CD Gardener et al, JAMA, 319: 667-669, 2018 ) that showed no difference in weight change between a healthy low-fat versus a healthy low-carbohydrate diet. That study also reported that the results were unaffected by insulin secretion at baseline. The authors of the current study noted that “…[in the previous study] participants were instructed to minimize or eliminate refined grains and added sugars and maximize intake of vegetables. Probably for this reason, the reported glycemic load [effect of the diet on blood sugar levels] of the low-fat diet was very low…and similar to [the low-carb diet].” In short, the authors of the current study were acknowledging that diets which focus on healthy, plant-based carbohydrates and eliminate sugar, refined grains, and processed foods may be as effective as low-carb diets for helping maintain a healthy weight.
  • This would also be consistent with previous studies showing that primarily plant-based, low-carb diets are more effective at maintaining a healthy weight and better health outcomes long-term than the typical American version of the low-fat diet, which is high in sugar and refined grains. In contrast, meat-based, low-carb diets are no more effective than the American version of the low-fat diet at preventing weight gain and poor health outcomes. I have covered these studies in detail in my book “Slaying The Food Myths.”

Consequently, the lead author of the most recent study has said: “The findings [of this study] do not impugn whole fruits, beans and other unprocessed carbohydrates. Rather, the study suggests that reducing foods with added sugar, flour, and other refined carbohydrates could help people maintain weight loss….” This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.

The Bottom Line

 

  • A recent study compared the calories burned per day on a low-carb, moderate-carb, and high-carb diet. The study concluded that the low-carb diet burned significantly more calories per day than the other two diets and might be suitable for long-term weight control. If confirmed by subsequent studies, this would be the first real evidence that low-carb diets are superior for maintaining a healthy weight.
  • However, the study has some major limitations. For example, it used a methodology that may overestimate the benefits of a low-carb diet, and it was performed under tightly controlled conditions that can never be duplicated in the real world. As acknowledged by the authors, this study is also contradicted by multiple previous studies. Further studies will be required to confirm the results of this study and show how it can be applied in the real world.
  • In addition, the kind of carbohydrate in the diet is every bit as important as the amount of carbohydrate. The authors acknowledge that the differences seen in their study apply mainly to carbohydrates from sugar, refined grains, and processed foods. They advocate diets with low glycemic load (small effects on blood sugar and insulin levels) and acknowledge this can also be achieved by incorporating low-glycemic load, plant-based carbohydrates into your diet. This is something we all can agree on, but strangely this is not reflected in the headlines you may have seen in the media.
  • Finally, clinical studies report averages, but none of us are average. When you examine the data from the current study, it is evident that some participants burned more calories per hour on the high-carb diet than other participants did on the low carb diet. That reinforces the observation that some people lose weight more effectively on low-carb diets while others lose weight more effectively on low-fat diets. If you are someone who does better on a low-carb diet, the best available evidence suggests you will have better long-term health outcomes on a primarily plant-based, low-carb diet such as the low-carb version of the Mediterranean diet.

For more details read the article above.

 

 

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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