Updated: Dec 3, 2020
You can burn calories, but you can’t burn off bad nutrition. You also can’t wing your diet as you enter mid- and later life. In my last blog, I shared some eye-opening facts about sugar and how, until our blood sugar is in balance, the body will send all of its healing energy to try to balance it. Today, I would like to share some of my favorite tips to improve your blood sugar balance and anti-inflammatory health. (They are keenly connected.)
Adapted from the plan my nutritionist, Julie Starkel, taught me, this very straightforward approach is designed to create a foundation for eating right, longevity, and aging gracefully. It’s simple and has worked better than any other approach I’ve tried. It’s also easy to personalize or modify for your specific health needs.
1. Make sure you have protein as part of every meal and snack, and make it your first four bites.
Protein is the most satiating food we eat and it takes the longest to break down during digestion, so it allows our metabolic system to function as it was designed. Our goal should be to satiate ourselves with protein, and slow down and even out our blood sugar roller-coaster ride. Eating protein at every meal and snack helps us avoid rushes of glucose from sweet and starchy carbohydrates.
Be mindful of these protein guidelines when choosing the type and amount of protein to eat:
1. How much protein is enough? Very roughly, think in terms of 0.8 to 1.0 gram of protein per kilogram of your body weight (or your “reasonable” goal body weight). In pounds and ounces, that translates into:
200-pound person = 91 kilograms 73-91 grams of protein = 11-14 ounces per day
150-pound person = 68 kilograms 54-68 grams of protein = 8.5-10 ounces per day
120-pound person = 54 kilograms 43-54 grams of protein = 6.5-8.5 ounces per day
One egg generally equals one ounce. Fish, chicken, beef, and other animal proteins all vary slightly, but these estimates should be sufficient.
You can also get your protein from legumes, quinoa, and tofu—these are common choices for vegetarians. Vegetable-based proteins have slightly lower amounts of protein so you can add an ounce or two more of vegetable-based protein to balance the protein you’re getting each day.
2. Eat approximately every three hours—and always include protein.
If you wait too long between meals or snacks, your blood sugar will drop and that can be hard on your system. Low blood sugar has its own chemical that raises its ugly head: cortisol. High levels of cortisol increase inflammation by secreting inflammatory chemicals that break down muscle tissue for energy. Toward that three-hour mark, you reach your lowest blood sugar territory, and you probably won’t feel it right away because the symptoms come later.
The best intervention if you go too long without food is a snack of protein and vegetables with fiber—maybe a small chunk of turkey with a little cucumber, or small egg with tomatoes. That kind of snack brings your blood sugar back up so your body doesn’t start producing reactive responses.
3. Eat breakfast as soon as you can—preferably within 30 minutes of waking.
This will jump-start your metabolism. I found that eating just two or three almonds has a metabolism-raising effect similar to eating a whole meal.
What you choose to eat for breakfast is very important. If you eat something that is primarily made up of carbohydrates (all combinations of grain, sugar, and fruit), such as pastries, cereals, or even granola, you’re going to drive your blood sugar up. This will cause the body to secrete excessive amounts of insulin, which is not good. Plus, you’ll feel excessively hungry and tired later that afternoon, driving you to choose sweets as an afternoon snack as well.
Instead, try eggs, turkey bacon, or even “regular” food like salad bowls with protein and vegetables for breakfast.
4. Plan your meals and snacks for blood sugar sanity.
Having multiple low-glycemic snacks throughout the day may cause fewer spikes in blood glucose than the three-meal-a-day method. The timing or order of snacks can be adjusted to fit your schedule and needs.
Ideally, your dinner is smaller than your lunch and maybe even your breakfast. You certainly don’t want a large meal after 7 pm, except on occasion. It will tax your body’s whole digestive, detoxifying, and healing process.
5. Don’t count calories! Plan your plate instead.
So after you have chosen some protein to put on your plate, what does the rest of your meal look like?
Julie advises her clients to “plan their plates,” and not count calories or measure portions. Your plate should look something like this:
A third of your plate is protein.
Half or more of your plate is vegetables—for example, a salad and/or two vegetables.
For the small portion of your plate that remains—about the size of a small slice of melon—is for starchy root vegetables (like sweet potatoes, parsnips, carrots, beets) or whole grains, but with a preference for the root vegetable since they have more vitamins and are more filling than grains.
Ideally, more than half your total consumption for the day is made up of colorful, non-starchy, or low-starch vegetables. Think of dark leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower. Think of red, green, and orange peppers. All the nutrients and antioxidants you need are coming from vegetables, which will go a long way to helping you with your cravings, weight, and gut health.
Keep your total dairy to a minimum and limit your fruit to a couple of servings a day. Berries are an excellent choice because of their high fiber content.
A Note About Gluten
The plan-your-plate approach to eating takes care of most issues with gluten. It limits the amount of grain or bread you can eat to that “slice of melon” amount. If you avoid processed foods with added sugars (such as sweet muffins, cake, donuts, etc.), you’ll avoid most of the problems that come from eating gluten—and without a lot of effort.
6. Aim for quality.
If possible, choose organic foods and hormone-free and grass-fed meat. Wash fruits and vegetables thoroughly even if they are organic. Look for seasonal food, especially at local outdoor (spring/summer/fall) and indoor (winter) farmers markets.
Though organic food is more expensive, if you avoid waste and eat smaller portions, you will be way ahead in the long run—with your body and your budget.
7. Aim for 8 on, 16 off—16 hours in the day when you’re not eating.
Eating only during an 8-hour window allows your liver to do its job. The liver is critical for digestion, and it takes six-eight hours for it to process all the food that comes in after a meal. So, if you eat dinner at 6 pm, your digestion process will go till midnight or 2 am. From 2 am to 10 am, your liver doesn’t have to deal with food and it can attend to essential repair and detox of our cells. Do this 1-2 times a week.
8. Beware of toxins, including coffee.
Sugar can be seen as a toxin—or addictive substance—which certainly isn’t good!
But did you know that coffee can also be considered a toxin? And, the FDA lists coffee as a food that contains high levels of the carcinogen acrylamide. If you must have that cup of coffee, though, don’t drink it on an empty stomach. The caffeine in coffee triggers cortisol levels to rise. Coffee is also an appetite suppressant, which can work against regular meals and blood sugar balance.
9. For weight loss, aim to match the amount you eat (your “fuel”) to your activity level—before you expend energy.
If your activity is higher in the morning, make sure your breakfast supplies the fuel for that. If most of your activity is in the afternoon or both morning and afternoon, then lunch should provide enough fuel for your upcoming energy expenditure. Dinner isn’t typically as important for building up your energy—unless you go night skiing!
At dinnertime, you’ll still want protein and vegetables, because vegetables provide important nutrients, but you don’t necessarily need anything starchy at the end of the day.
10. Take a few basic vitamins and supplements for a healthy foundation, and develop a longer-term, personalized plan.