In last week’s blog post I talked about how processed foods can cause you to overeat and as a result gain body fat. In the post, I mentioned a few of the mechanisms by which processed foods can cause us to overeat. Processed foods usually lack protein, processed foods lack micronutrients, and processed foods spike override the body’s natural hunger signals. One thing I left off that list though was the potential effect on your blood sugar.
Let’s take a VERY HIGH LEVEL view of what happens to your blood sugar when you consume food.
In general, when you eat carbohydrates, whether the carbohydrates come from broccoli or from a pop tart, the amount of sugar in your blood will rise as the carbohydrate is converted to glucose by your body. Your body needs to tightly regulate the amount of glucose in your blood (there is only ever one teaspoon of sugar in your blood) so it will go to work to try and remove the glucose from your blood to avoid any problems. As your body removes the glucose from your blood your blood sugar will drop, ideally back to a level similar to before you consumed the food.
Below is my own blood sugar graph from a 24 hour period when I was wearing a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). Notice there are some minor spikes and drops but for the most part everything stays within the normal range.
Ideally this is what your blood sugar would look like all the time, however that is not always the case. Sometimes, either because of the composition of the food, your health, the sleep you had the night before, your stress, or any number of other reasons, you consume a food with carbohydrates and your blood sugar rises extremely fast, faster than your body can keep up with. Alarm bells go off and your body over corrects by lowering blood sugar faster and to a level lower than before you consumed the food and you get a very sharp spike and then a very sharp drop.
In this graph the high point is 153 mg/dl and the low point in red is about 45 mg/dl. Just for reference a normal blood sugar would be around 80-90 mg/dl fasted. 153 mg/dl is pretty high and 45 mg/dl is very low.
When your blood sugar drops this low your body starts freaking out again, not because there is too much blood sugar but there is not enough!
What is one way to correct the problem?
EAT MORE FOOD!!!!
So the hunger signals start being sent to your brain encouraging you to eat more.
Can you start to see the problem here?
This is a vicious cycle where you consume processed food, it causes a quick spike and subsequent drop, which causes you to eat more to bring your blood sugar back up and then the cycle repeats itself over and over again!
Research has been able to demonstrate this phenomenon as well. Researchers fed several men and women a set of standardized meals, high carb, high fiber, high protein, high fat, and a oral glucose tolerance meal (pure glucose) and measured the rise and fall of their blood sugar to see if there was any correlation with energy intake at the next meal as well as subjective measurements like hunger .
Researchers found that the bigger the dip in blood sugar after consuming a meal, the more hungry participants were, the less time they waited to eat their next meal, and they consumed more calories at their next meal as well as throughout the day.
Furthermore, if you look at the participants with the greatest blood sugar dip after the meal they had a 9% increase in hunger, waited 24 minutes less to consume their next meal, consumed 75 more calories at their next meal, and consumed 312 calories more throughout the entire day.
You might be wondering what type of meal caused the biggest dips in blood sugar. Unsurprisingly it was the oral glucose tolerance meal, the one of 75g of straight glucose. While the oral glucose tolerance meal was more likely to cause the big blood sugar dip post meal, any meal that caused a dip seemed to have the same effects on caloric intake and subjective measures with the exception of the high carb meal which was not associated with more energy intake at the next meal.
How can we tie this back to my blog post on processed foods and weight gain?
The above study shows that the highly processed meal, the oral glucose tolerance meal, is more than likely going to cause a greater blood sugar dip which can lead to increased caloric intake. If that caloric intake goes beyond what you burn, it will lead to fat gain.
If you are a low-carb advocate you might be quick to blame the carbs in the oral glucose tolerance meal as the problem. However, the high carb meal had just 95g of carbohydrates in it versus 75g in the oral glucose tolerance mean and its glucose dip was not as bad on average when compared to the oral glucose tolerance meal. The high carb meal also contained a small amount of fat, protein and fiber and was not in a liquid form. In other words, it appears that the processing of the meal as well as the presence of additional macronutrients play a role in its effects on your blood sugar.
Strait glucose in a liquid form is probably the most processed meal you can imagine!
Obviously avoiding processed foods is going to mitigate this problem all together. As I said in my last blog post, these foods should not be a staple in your diet, especially if you are someone looking to lose fat. That said, we are all going to encounter our own version of an “oral glucose tolerance meal” from time to time. For some, it might be bananas, for others it might be white rice, for someone else it might be ice cream, so how can we best ensure we don’t have this massive drop in our blood sugar when we choose to consume these foods?
Here are some things you can do:
- Make sure your sleep is on point, worse sleep can cause worse blood sugar control.
- Make sure you are strength training. Muscle can mop up glucose quite efficiently. The more muscle you have the more places you have to put the glucose .
- Go for a walk after consuming your “oral glucose tolerance meal”. Again your muscles will suck up the glucose, and they are more likely to do that if you move afterwards.
If you do those three things you will fare much better than the average person when faced with a huge amount of glucose. As you might have guessed this also aligns nicely from an ancestral perspective as well. Most of the time our ancestors consumed whole foods. Occasionally they found a bee hive and went to town on the honey in there. Surely they would have consumed a fair amount of glucose in short order, but because they were super active, well muscled, and slept well they handled this ancestral oral glucose tolerance meal without skipping a beat!
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(2021, April 12). Postprandial glycaemic dips predict appetite and energy intake in …. Retrieved May 12, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7610681/ ↑