A visual guide to managing your blood sugar levels and improving your health

Xavier Roger


When we eat, our bodies break down food into carbohydrates, proteins, fats and other nutrients.

Carbohydrates then get turned into simple sugar molecules: glucose, which enters the blood through the walls of your gut.

When blood sugar levels rise, your pancreas releases insulin, which gets glucose into your cells for immediate fuel and into your muscle, liver, or fat cells for storage, where it becomes glycogen, a storage form of sugar. In this way, the blood sugar levels don’t get too high.

As cells absorb blood sugar, its levels in the blood begin to fall. When blood glucose levels fall too low, the pancreas starts making glucagon, a hormone that signals the liver to start releasing stored sugar.

The interplay of insulin and glucagon ensures that cells throughout your body, and especially in the brain, have a steady supply of blood sugar.

So, it’s normal for your blood glucose levels to rise and then fall again in the hours after having a meal. This increase in circulating blood sugar usually starts after about 30 minutes and returns to baseline around two hours later.

However, the management of blood sugar can get off balance and lead to excessive spikes or dips of glucose in the blood.

These blood sugar spikes can happen in people with metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that occur together, like obesity, high blood pressure and high blood sugar. Most people who have metabolic syndrome have insulin resistance which means that cells in the body don’t respond to insulin. Their blood sugar stays high, which can lead to the development of Type 2 diabetes. One in 3 people over 20 years old has metabolic syndrome.

People with diabetes also often experience these blood sugar spikes after meals, which can lead to complications. One in 5 people doesn’t know they have the disease.

There is not enough research on blood sugar responses in healthy individuals, according to Sarah Berry, a professor at King’s College London. Many people who were never diagnosed with prediabetes or diabetes can have spikes in their blood glucose that reach the diabetic range.

How peaks and dips can harm

A high peak in glucose in response to eating carbs can cause inflammation. When these spikes are excessive and repeated, it contributes to unfavorable, low-grade chronic inflammation, atherosclerosis, and beta-cell degeneration, and may lead to weight gain. These factors are associated with an increased risk of developing obesity, Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other metabolic diseases. High blood sugar after a meal raises the risk of cardiovascular disease even in people with normal fasting glucose.

Too much blood glucose can also lead to a decreased ability for brain cells to take in glucose, causing brain fog, a term used to describe mental fatigue and difficulty focusing.

People who have a dip in their blood sugar can end up feeling hungrier potentially leading to overeating and weight gain. On the other hand, managing glucose levels after meals can help reduce cravings. The drop in glucose levels can cause mood to worsen and even make people angrier.

For healthy people, their concern may not be health risks but not feeling quite well after a meal. This varies from person to person. Those who experience high peaks may feel jittery while big dippers may feel grumpy.

Start with breakfast

What you have for breakfast can shape your blood sugar response for meals later in the day.

“I believe by having a really high-carb breakfast in the morning, you are setting yourself up to have bigger peaks and dips from the beginning that may for some individuals drive them to continue on this roller coaster,” says Berry.

Some studies show that those who skip breakfast may have worse blood sugar and insulin control. However, that may be because people who skip breakfast tend to have poorer diets overall

“I believe you should be having fat, protein, fiber and carbohydrates in every meal, including your breakfast and including all snacks, and not having any single-nutrient meals,” Berry said.

Opt for a balanced diet

It’s important to focus on the overall quality of your food and stick to a balanced diet.

Consider eating less processed food. It can cause higher glucose spikes and you may get hungry sooner. These foods are usually high in calories, fat, sugar and salt but low in fiber, so they break down quickly in the body and can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels. They often contain additional ingredients, which are harmful. These foods include frozen meals, packaged snacks, granola bars, sodas, and some cereals.

Adding protein and fiber to a meal will slow down the rate at which your stomach empties, and glucose will get into the blood more slowly. Certain proteins also trigger the release of insulin and if you’ve got more insulin, the glucose is cleared more quickly. Fiber may affect the gut microbiome in a way that affects glucose metabolism as well.


Our body is unable to absorb and break down fiber. That means plant-based foods with lots of fiber don’t raise blood sugar. When soluble fiber passes through the body it absorbs water and turns into a gel slowing down digestion and, in particular, the absorption of carbohydrates. Even a modest increase in fiber intake helps to lower blood glucose levels.

It’s not only important to eat lots of fiber, but also to have a variety of different plant-based foods, so your gut microbiome is more diverse. Berry recommends having 30 different types of plant-based foods over the week.

Some high-fiber options to consider include beans, peas, brussels sprouts and broccoli.


Swapping pastries for some protein at breakfast may have many benefits. A high-protein breakfast may lead to weight loss and better muscle health and may also help with glucose levels.

In one study, participants ate either a small, high-carb breakfast or a larger, high protein and high-fat breakfast for three months that provided about 33% of total daily calories. The high protein and high-fat breakfast group lowered their hemoglobin A1C (a measure of blood glucose levels over three months) and blood pressure.

In another research, people with Type 2 diabetes switched between having an omelet and oatmeal for breakfast. On days with the omelet, they ate less afterward, had fewer cravings and their glucose levels were more stable throughout the day.

For protein, choosing healthy protein sources like eggs, salmon, chicken, tofu and beans in place of red meat and processed meat can lower the risk of several diseases and premature death.


Including fats in your diet may improve glycemic control.

Foods containing saturated fat, especially animal products such as meat, butter and dairy, may not affect blood sugar but are harmful to cardiovascular health. Cutting down on foods high in saturated fat, like sausages, burgers, full-fat dairy products, coconut and palm oils, and pastries and replacing them with foods higher in unsaturated fat, like olive oil, avocado, salmon, trout, nuts and seeds can help keep cholesterol levels in the healthy range. Nuts contain compounds that help balance insulin and glucagon, hormones involved in maintaining glucose levels.


Replacing highly processed and refined carbohydrates with whole grains is a great way to increase your fiber intake and keep your glucose levels stable. For example, if you have a piece of toast consider choosing whole-grain varieties of bread with added seeds. Add some protein and fat too. For the toast, add some peanut butter. If you prefer fruits, consider adding some plain unsweetened yogurt, nuts and chia seeds.


Exercise causes muscle cells to absorb sugar from the blood, helping to lower blood sugar levels. Get some squats, push-ups, or sit-ups soon after the mealSimply walking for 10 minutes after eating may also lower the glucose spike. No time for exercise while working in the office? Doing calf raises while seated, the so-called soleus push-up, can also improve blood glucose control.

Individual response

Berry cautions against trying to get glucose levels as flat as possible. It’s also important to keep in mind that people can have a wide range of responses to many foods.

“I think one thing everyone should be cautious of is that we all respond so differently and we see this, particularly with glucose,” Berry said. “So what might work for one individual might not work for another.”

In one study, when people ate identical foods, like bread and butter or chocolate, some had substantial blood sugar spikes while others did not. Your genetics, gut microbiome, insulin sensitivity, weight and lifestyle can determine how you respond to different foods. Talk to your doctor to determine what’s best for you.




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