Food Pairing: A Simple Strategy for Stabilizing Blood Sugar and Lowering Oxidative Stress

The more we learn about the integral role blood glucose and insulin levels play in our overall health, the more we feel the need to lean into the simple but effective strategies for stabilizing the levels of these vital biomarkers.

Drawing from recent scientific studies, and emerging research in the field of glycemic variability, we will explore the complex interplay between carbohydrates, healthy fats, dietary fiber and high-quality proteins. We will also discuss the connection between oscillating glucose levels and oxidative stress, illustrating the importance of focusing on lifestyle factors that promote glucose stability.

To begin, it is vital to first grasp the importance of maintaining consistent blood sugar levels. Beyond the immediate (though sometimes subtle) symptoms associated with variable blood sugar levels — such as fatigue, mood swings, anxiety and severe cravings — recent studies published in JAMA solidify the data supporting the idea that elevated glucose variability is a distinct risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Another study published in Diabetes revealed a concerning, though unsurprising, connection between fluctuating glucose levels and oxidative stress. Oscillating glucose levels, characterized by recurrent spikes and crashes throughout the day, appear to provoke oxidative stress, which is well known to contribute to cellular damage and inflammation within the body and the arterial walls. It is also interesting to note that mildly elevated blood sugar levels, though with lower variability (less ups and downs), resulted in lower levels of oxidative stress than was noted in those with lower average glucose levels but higher and more frequent fluctuations. 

So, what can we do in our everyday lives to promote blood sugar stability and subsequently less oxidative stress? One strategy that has proven extremely helpful is food pairing. Recent studies have highlighted the significance of combining carbohydrates with healthy fats, fiber, and high-quality proteins to mitigate the glycemic impact of meals and snacks. Put simply, pairing your carbs with a source of fat, fiber or protein will lower the glucose response to your food. 

To understand this more fully, let’s delve into the science behind each macronutrient group:

  1. Carbohydrates: Carbs are your body’s main energy source, but when eaten in isolation they can lead to rapid spikes and subsequent crashes in blood sugar levels.
  2. Healthy Fats: Fats found in healthy sources such as avocados, nuts, seeds, olive oil and fatty fish play a pivotal role in slowing carbohydrate digestion and absorption, curbing the glucose spike from a given meal. Fats also foster a sense of satiety, discouraging overconsumption and the resultant glucose spikes that occur with mindless eating. 
  3. Fiber: Dietary fiber, abundant in fresh fruits, vegetables and some whole grains, can act as a shield for the quick absorption and glucose spike often associated with eating carbs in isolation. Fiber helps to orchestrate a slow and gradual release of glucose into the bloodstream, fostering overall improvement in blood sugar levels throughout the day. 
  4. Quality Protein: Proteins, such as lean meats, beans, nut butters and some dairy products, help to curb glucose spikes and assist in blood sugar regulation by modulating the post-meal insulin response. 

Pairing carbohydrates with your choice of healthy fat, fiber or quality protein is an extremely effective and intuitive method for promoting blood sugar stability. Simple examples of food pairing include eating an apple (carb) with peanut butter (fat/protein), a slice of toast (carb) with avocado (fat/fiber) or sprinkling chia seeds (fiber/fat) in your morning oats (carb). 

While these examples are generally not challenging to orchestrate, it is important to remember that this approach applies universally. Whether you are designing a well-balanced smoothie, crafting a beautiful pasta dish or preparing a hearty salad for family dinner, having a mental checklist of the components of a well-paired/balanced meal will help ensure your food is contributing to your overall health and well-being. For instance, that pasta dish may include a gluten-free pasta (carb) and marinara sauce (mostly carb). So to promote blood sugar balance, consider adding ground turkey (protein), steamed broccoli (fiber) or a handful of olives (fat). To that fruit smoothie, add half an avocado (fat/fiber) or a spoonful of almond butter (fat/protein) for a more stable response. 

While pairing foods is not the only evidence-based strategy for stabilizing blood sugar levels, it is one of the most effective and easy to incorporate into everyday life. By promoting blood sugar balance throughout the day, we are not only lowering glycemic variability and the resultant mood swings and cravings, we are also able to positively impact levels of oxidative stress and systemic inflammation. So next time you reach for that banana, remember to give it a buddy. Your blood sugar will thank you later!

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