by Dr. Will Cole
Every food you choose to eat can be powerful medicine or a powerful risk factor for disease. But with high stakes like these, how do you know which foods do what? You can find information online to justify almost anything you want to eat, so it can be tricky figuring out what’s best for your health. Where do you even start? While each person is different and responds to food in different ways, we do know that for those with blood sugar issues, there are certain foods and dietary practices known to help.
But the foods and diets you think are best for your blood sugar may not actually be therapeutic for your issues. As a functional medicine practitioner, I see many people eating foods every day that contribute to their blood sugar problems—even foods they believe to be healthy choices. I’ve written in the past about the many so-called “health foods” that can fuel insulin resistance and other metabolic health problems, but until now, I’ve never recommended one best overall diet for controlling blood sugar. These are the dietary strategies that have been clinically shown to balance blood sugar (and my favorites for reducing inflammation):
1. The Ketogenic Diet
The high-fat, moderate protein, low-carb ketogenic diet has exploded in popularity in the wellness world, and for good reason. This diet has demonstrated healing power for a variety of health problems. Multiple studies show the ketogenic diet’s ability to lower insulin levels, reduce inflammation, and improve insulin receptor site sensitivity, which helps the body function the way it was designed to function. Most impressively, the ketogenic diet can re-balance out-of-control blood sugar so well that in my functional medicine clinic, it has become my gold standard for anyone wresting with health issues like metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes, and diabetes.
The ketogenic diet accomplishes this feat by transitioning your body from sugar burning to fat burning, so that you no longer need to rely on glucose for energy. Instead, your energy comes from ketones, which are the by-products of fat burning. Ketones are not only a more sustainable form of fuel for your body, but it keeps your blood sugar steadier than a diet fueled by low-fat, high-carb foods like high-fructose fruits, grains, and sugar. Many people who have switched to a ketogenic diet have seen their blood sugar levels normalize rapidly—research has shown that symptoms of type 2 diabetes can even be reversed after just 10 weeks on a ketogenic diet!
No matter what foods you prefer, you can do a ketogenic diet just by shifting your macronutrient ratios and meal plan to focus on the foods high in healthy fat, and away from foods high in carbohydrates and sugar. Even vegetarians and vegans can still do a ketogenic diet by practicing a plant-based version.
2. Intermittent Fasting/Time-Restricted Feeding
Another fantastic tool for blood sugar control is intermittent fasting or time-restricted feeding. These techniques can easily be incorporated into any diet you choose to follow. These techniques either incorporate extended periods of fasting into the day, or limit the window of time during which you will eat. For example, you may fast for 12 hours (overnight) between the last bite of dinner and the first bite of breakfast. Or, you may choose to fast one day per week, or even as often as every other day. Others choose to limit the window in which they will eat to 10, 8, 6, or even fewer hours, depending on how intensive they want to be.
During the eating window, you must be sure to get all your necessary calories and nutrients for the day. The rest of the 24-hour period, they do not eat. This is not as difficult as it sounds because intermittent fasting tends to suppress appetite, and by limiting your food intake to certain windows of time, your body gets a break from constant digestion. That means it has time to rest and has more energy to devote to healing and regeneration. Intermittent fasting, or IF, is especially good for healing insulin resistance and increasing metabolism, according to multiple studies.
One study tested intermittent fasting protocols on three different patients of various ages who were all diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and had been taking medication for their condition for over 10 years. The patients were required to eat a low-carb diet (think: ketogenic) in conjunction with three 24-hour fasts per week. By the end of the trial, not only did each patient lose weight, but they were all able to completely discontinue their insulin medication.
But that’s not all fasting protocols can do. Periods of fasting can also help improve autoimmune symptoms from multiple conditions including type 1 diabetes, by restoring balance to the immune system and driving-down inflammation.
There are many ways to try intermittent fasting, and many levels of intensity. Which should you try? It depends on your fasting experience, tolerance, and schedule. You can check out my article here for all of the ways to fast, but some of my favorites for each level include:
IF for Beginners: The 8-6 Window Plan
Eat only between the hours of 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., allowing for 14 hours of uninterrupted fasting.
IF for Intermediates: The 12-6 Window Plan
Extend the fasting period and only eat between the hours of 12 p.m. and 6 p.m., increasing your fasting time to 18 hours.
IF for Advanced Fasters: Every-Other-Day Plan
Exactly as it sounds, eat normally every other day, and fast for a full 24 hours every other day.
IF for Super Advanced Intermittent Fasting: OMAD
This is a 23:1 fasting to eating protocol, hence its name: OMAD (one meal a day). For a full run-down on OMAD, check out my article on the subject.
If fasting sounds too intense, or it’s just not for you, another great way to kick off your wellness journey and get control over your blood sugar at the same time is by trying a paleo diet. This diet focuses on clean, whole-food sources such as vegetables, fruit, meat, wild-caught fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, and healthy non-refined oils, while eliminating dairy, grains, processed foods, sugar, and legumes. This diet provides the body with ample nutrition through natural foods humans are meant to eat, and by removing the foods we know cause blood sugar spikes and processed foods containing chemical preservatives and other artificial ingredients, blood sugars often stabilize naturally.
It’s interesting that a traditional “diabetes diet” focuses on the foods a paleo diet eliminates—whole grains, dairy products, legumes, and root vegetables. It is also lower in total fat. Yet, it is less effective. In a study published in Cardiovascular Diabetology, those following a paleo diet had significantly lowered glucose levels compared to those following a conventional diabetic diet.
4. AIP (Autoimmune Protocol)
This dietary strategy is similar to a paleo diet, but slightly stricter. It eliminates additional foods known to be immune stimulants for some people: eggs, nuts and seeds, and nightshade vegetables and spices (tomatoes, all peppers except black pepper, eggplant, all potatoes except sweet potatoes, tomatillos, paprika, and goji berries). Those with autoimmune blood sugar problems like type 1 diabetes and type 1.5 diabetes (also known as LADA, or Late Autoimmune Diabetes of Adulthood), can benefit from taking these additional foods out from their diets. This isn’t going to cure you, but it can help your immune system as well as your blood sugar to stabilize.
There are limited studies on the effects of an AIP diet on blood sugar specifically, but because it is so similar to a paleo diet (eliminating blood sugar spiking foods like grains, legumes, and sugar), it’s logical to conclude that this diet would be beneficial, if not more so, for blood sugar control, especially when it has an autoimmune component.
Of course, every person responds to foods and dietary strategies differently, and there may be other diets that work to balance blood sugar for some people. However, in my practice, these are the top four methods that I’ve seen yield real results in my patients.
If you want to learn more about your own health case please check out our free health evaluation. We offer in person as well as phone and webcam consultations for people across the country and around the world.
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