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To get low-carb right, you need to check blood sugars

Posted Jan 19 2010 4:40am
Reducing your carbohydrate exposure, particularly to wheat, cornstarch, and sucrose (table sugar), helps with weight loss; reduction of triglycerides, small LDL, and c-reactive protein; increases HDL; reduces blood pressure. There should be no remaining doubt on these effects.

However, I am going to propose that you cannot truly get your low-carb diet right without checking blood sugars. Let me explain.

Carbohydrates are the dominant driver of blood sugar (glucose) after eating. But it's clear that we also obtain some wonderfully healthy nutrients from carbohydrate sources: Think anthocyanins from blueberries and pomegranates, vitamin C from citrus, and soluble fiber from beans. There are many good things in carbohydrate foods.

How do we weigh the need to reduce carbohydrates with their benefits?

Blood sugar after eating ("postprandial") is the best index of carbohydrate metabolism we have (not fasting blood sugar). It also provides an indirect gauge of small LDL. Checking your blood sugar (glucose) has become an easy and relatively inexpensive tool that just about anybody can incorporate into health habits. More often than not, it can also provide you with some unexpected insights about your response to diet.

If you’re not a diabetic, why bother checking blood sugar? New studies have documented the increased likelihood of cardiovascular events with increased postprandial blood sugars well below the ranges regarded as diabetic. A blood sugar level of 140 mg/dl after a meal carries 30-60% increased (relative) risk for heart attack and other events. The increase in risk begins at even lower levels, perhaps 110 mg/dl or lower after-eating.

We use a one-hour after eating blood sugar to gauge the effects of a meal. If, for instance, your dinner of baked chicken, asparagus brushed with olive oil, sauteed mushrooms, mashed potatoes, and a piece of Italian bread yields a one-hour blood sugar of 155 mg/dl, you know that something is wrong. (This is far more common than most people think.)

Doing this myself, I have been shocked at the times I've had an unexpectedly high blood sugar from seemingly "safe' foods, or when a store- or restaurant-bought meal had some concealed source of sugar or carbohydrate. (I recently had a restaurant meal of a turkey burger with cheese, mixed salad with balsamic vinegar dressing, along with a few bites of my wife's veggie omelet. Blood sugar one hour later: 127 mg/dl. I believe sugar added to the salad dressing was the culprit.)

You can now purchase our own blood glucose monitor at stores like Walmart and Walgreens for $10-20. You will also need to purchase the fingerstick lancets and test strips; the test strips are the most costly part of the picture, usually running $0.50 to $1.00 per test strip. But since people without diabetes check their blood sugar only occasionally, the cost of the test strips is, over time, modest. I've had several devices over the years, but my current favorite for ease-of-use is the LifeScan OneTouch UltraMini that cost me $18.99 at Walgreens.

Checking after-meal blood sugars is, in my view, a powerful means of managing diet when reducing carbohydrate exposure is your goal. It provides immediate feedback on the carbohydrate aspect of your diet, allowing you to adjust and tweak carbohydrate intake to your individual metabolism.
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