In the world of wellness, science is king. Understanding the effects of glucose on the body is critical to metabolic well-being. We have a wealth of hard data and information at our fingertips, but perhaps the greatest source of understanding of our health is within our own bodies. The body is a finely tuned instrument giving real-time feedback. It clues us in to how we are processing and using the food we eat and how that fuel has a nearly immediate impact on our chemistry.
The Science of Glucose
Glucose response is one of the most telling indicators of how our body is performing. Understanding the chemistry behind it can help us make informed choices, get us healthier, and keep us that way.
From the moment food enters your mouth, the chemistry begins:
When you eat carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into simple sugars. Salivary amylase is an enzyme that converts (multiple chain molecule) carbohydrates into simpler molecules that can pass through the walls of the small intestine for absorption into the bloodstream. As sugar levels rise, the pancreas releases the hormone, insulin. Simple carbohydrate molecules convert rapidly into glucose which tends to provide a rush of energy followed by a “crash”. They provide calories but lack vitamins, nutrients and fiber. Complex carbohydrates take more time to process which allows for a more steady release of glucose into the bloodstream. Complex carbohydrates also retain their nutrients and are rich in fiber. This aids in digestion and helps you to feel full for a longer period of time.
The proteins we eat are broken down by stomach acid and enzymes. Then bile introduced within the small intestine prepares the fat for absorption through its sensitive walls. Intravascular and tissue glucose is utilized for cellular energy for red blood cells, neurovascular, and brain tissue, most notably. The glucose needed by our organ systems can be obtained through our diet, but can also be created from non-glucose forms. Surprisingly, we do not need to consume glucose from our diet. Our body can simply make its own.
What Is Insulin Resistance?
Circulating glucose has several pro-inflammatory effects which is great for inflammation, but glucose is still bad for us. Excess blood sugar signals the pancreas to produce insulin to help transport the glucose into cells to be used as energy. However, if high glucose levels are maintained, insulin production increases. Eventually, excess circulating insulin creates a ‘numbness’ of sorts. The cells in your muscles, liver and fat don’t respond to the insulin and can’t use the glucose in your blood for energy. This resistance to insulin further compounds the effects of high blood sugar as the pancreas responds by making more insulin.
Excess glucose is converted into free fatty acids, which then serves as the precursor for VLDL and LDL lipoprotein particles. Both are considered “bad” cholesterol with VLDL containing more triglycerides and LDL containing more cholesterol. These lipoprotein particles carry cholesterol and triglycerides, which then integrate into the lining of our arteries. From here they become inflamed and connect with macrophages (white blood cells) to build up and create ‘sticky’ arteries, leading to atherosclerosis (clogged arteries) and ischemia (deprivation of oxygen due to lack of circulation). The result is heart disease.
Excess glucose not converted to glycogen is stored as triglycerides (fat) in the liver. These fatty stores are used to provide energy during times of energy depletion, however, our food abundancy negates any need for such storage. When fat within the liver is not utilized, excess fat can throw our immune responses off balance, leading to inflammation and even some potentially cancer-forming circumstances. In addition, insulin resistance as well as high cholesterol and high triglycerides can be risk factors for Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD).
Listen to Your Body
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So, what foods can be eaten to avoid the detriment of excess glucose?
Assessing calories alone does not address a predominately glucose-rich diet’s inflammatory and insulin-resistant effects. Simply counting calories can cheat us out of beneficial calories from proteins and fats that our bodies use to function and lose excess weight.
The Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load to Estimate the Impact of Glucose.
The Glycemic Index (GI)
The GI references the ‘power’ or impact of glycemia (blood sugar levels) after eating 50g of a particular food relative to 50g of glucose. Some foods high on the glycemic index from 70 to 100 include:
- refined sugar
- white flour
- white bread
- white rice
- sweet drinks
Those simple carbohydrates quickly convert into monosaccharides that absorb and circulate as glucose.
Complex carbohydrates, such as legumes and green or bright-colored vegetables, take longer to convert and score lower on the Glycemic Index. Please do not be fooled by the marketing ploy, “whole grain and heart healthy”. “Whole grain” food sources such as wheat bread have a glycemic index as high as 70. Pasta, rice, and cereals are also similar or even higher. Lentils, on the other hand, have a much lower glycemic index score of 21. Non-starchy vegetables, such as broccoli are even lower at 15.
The Glycemic Load (GL)
The GL is a more practical measure of how a particular food will affect your blood sugar levels. The GL takes into account, the average serving size of a particular carbohydrate. It then estimates how long the glucose will take to enter the bloodstream and how much glucose per serving it provides. High GL diets may significantly increase the risk of type-2 diabetes.
To illustrate the differences between Glycemic Index and Glycemic Load, consider foods like watermelon, pumpkin, cantaloupe and pineapple. While they may have a high Glycemic Index, a single serving may contain relatively low-carbohydrate characteristics. For example, watermelon, as its name suggests, is mostly water. It has a high GI of 72 but because the carbohydrate content of one serving is small, its GL is only 4. A 1-cup serving of watermelon only contains 11.4g of carbohydrates. To reach the 50g of carbohydrates per serving the Glycemic Index evaluates, you would have to eat over 4 servings at once. So watermelon may cause a small spike in blood sugar, but it won’t last very long due to the low carbohydrate content of one serving.
If you’re wondering whether these estimation tools are worth considering, let’s think about it this way: ultimately, an individual’s blood glucose level tested 1-2 hours following eating would be the best indicator of a food’s impact on glycemia. There is such phenomenal feedback available to us if we learn how our blood glucose levels respond to different foods. Checking your blood glucose level is feasible by utilizing a point of care glucometer, which can be purchased without a prescription online or from your local drug store. Knowledge is power and knowing the chemistry of your body and how it responds to glucose could change your life!
Well-Being: A Tribe Planted with Purpose
The Well-Being Program, developed by Dr. Allison Hull, an Internal Medicine and Pediatric provider with Florida Medical Clinic, helps you to foster a physical awareness in order to optimize your metabolic, cognitive and emotional wellness. “In Well-Being, we arm our members with the skills to interpret the results of their glucose testing so they can make better decisions about the foods they eat.”
In short, we know that our bodies are designed to best convert and deliver the energy we need to support our organs and functions. We can either support this by feeding it the fuel that makes it run optimally, or we can overload it with sugar and risk a lifetime of poor health.
Wellness coaching utilizes tools to promote mindfulness coupled with available technology to help you identify how your current and newly formed habits affect your health.
Meet Dr. Allison Hull, Internal Medicine and Pediatrics Physician and Medical Director of ‘Well-Being: A Tribe Planted with Purpose’
Are you ready to empower yourself and improve your metabolic health?
Allison Hull, DO is a practicing, dual board-certified adult internist and pediatrician. As founder and CEO of Well-Being, Dr. Hull has been empowering patients, employees, and community organizations to optimize their health, prevent disease, and mitigate chronic conditions.
Disclaimer: This post is not a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment from a licensed medical professional.