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The Blood Sugar Battle

Posted by: on April, 2 2012

Lava Magazine:  The blood sugar battle

As athletes, we’re quick to recognize the signs and symptoms of low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)—specifically, rapid fatigue, chills, moodiness, anxiety, lack of concentration, depression, dizziness, and headaches. For those of us with a poor handle on our diet (i.e: incorrect macronutrient distribution, poor food choices, or inadequate sport nutrition intake and timing) fluctuating blood sugar levels not only place stress on our bodies, but can be physically and mentally draining on a day-to-day basis.

Whether you admit to infrequent eating during the day, regularly gravitate toward edible energy-boosting pick-me-ups like caffeine, soda, energy drinks, and sugar, consume alcohol on a daily basis or neglect to prioritize your sport nutrition intake during training, it’s likely that your blood sugar levels are out of control. In an atmosphere like this, peak performance might elude you.

Blood sugar is the new buzz term when it comes to performance, body composition, and increasing lean muscle

In reviewing lifestyle patterns among individuals with a fasting blood sugar level of greater than 120 mg/dl or an A1C value of more than six percent, it’s likely that sugar and processed carbohydrates are to blame for diabetics demonstrating lab values and body weight patterns exceeding optimal reference ranges (1). Over the past few years, blood sugar control has extended itself beyond the clinical setting. Now more than ever, “blood sugar” is the new buzz term as it relates to performance, body composition changes, dietary planning, increasing lean muscle mass, and improving overall health.

Insulin and carbs

Let’s look at the role of insulin, specifically as it relates to blood sugar control and your active lifestyle.

Unfortunately, insulin has the same bad reputation as fluctuating blood sugar levels. Secreted by islet cells within the pancreas, insulin assists in transporting glucose after a meal, in order to fuel the muscles, liver, fatty tissues, and red blood cells. Because the body enjoys breaking down everything you eat into simpler substances, consider insulin as the concierge of your body. As insulin is released into the bloodstream (after eating), its primary role is to shuttle glucose, amino acids, and fats into body cells.

As an active individual, your goal is to keep your blood sugar in check. It may surprise you to learn that insulin is likely the most anabolic hormone you have in your body, working toward your advantage when training to improve lean muscle mass and reach your athletic aspirations? Talk about a free ergogenic aid that will pass any drug test!

Since insulin helps us metabolize carbohydrates(2), and knowing that exercise aids in glucose metabolism during activity, there’s little need for athletes to avoid carbs. Rather than telling yourself that all carbs are off limits, a plant-strong diet supported by lean protein, heart-healthy fats and whole grains is the best way to maintain a healthy body weight. It’s rather your choice of carbohydrates, along with the quantity and timing, that may be the underlying factor in reaching your body composition and performance goals. (Although insulin sensitivity can vary person to person, it’s important to recognize that as a low carb diet may reduce insulin sensitivity, aerobic and strength training, along with subtle dietary changes, will certainly enhance insulin sensitivity (3).)

Understanding that too much circulating insulin will stimulate the uptake of fatty acids by fat cells, thus converting these lipid molecules into triglycerides, it’s important to recognize the better carbohydrate sources to keep yourself in good health. Certainly dieting, over-exercising, or living with an off-limit food list is not the answer to reaching your goals. For an easy diet jump-start, a few replacements to encourage a more “whole food’ diet will certainly help you feel more in control over your appetite and cravings, along with feeling more energized throughout the day.

The role of chromium

Enter chromium. If you struggle to lose weight, change your body composition (despite training vigorously), or have trouble feeling satisfied during the day, constantly battling cravings for sugar, chromium may be your answer. Essential for the breakdown of carbohydrates and fats, this essential mineral is required for normal functioning of the body. Promoting the use of glucose by body cells and tissues, chromium increases the use of insulin, thus helping to maintain blood glucose levels. Particularly useful for diabetics and individuals struggling with insulin resistance, athletes may also benefit from boosting intake of food sources of chromium in their diets (4).

Any diet that restricts food groups also restricts calories. With restrictions comes missed opportunities in providing the body with quality nutrients. Think not of what you can’t eat, but what you can. Rather than blaming your body for slow metabolism, perhaps it’s time to assess what is on your plate (or missing from your plate) and what that food has to offer in helping you meet your body composition and performance goals.

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Marni Sumbal, MS, RD, CISSN is a Registered Dietitian with a Master of Science degree in Exercise Physiology. She is the owner of Trimarni Coaching and Nutrition, LLC  and is a USAT Level-1 coach. Marni recently finished her 2nd Ironman World Championship race in Kona, and enjoys spending time in her kitchen coming up with vegetarian creations. If you can’t find her writing this monthly column, cooking or training, she is likely outside running with her furry best friend, Campy.