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Most plant-based food is incredibly healthy, but often high in carbohydrates. It can leave many wondering how to stabilize blood sugar on a vegan diet without missing out on key nutrients or feeling overly restricted.
The benefits of going plant-based are many, but having wild swings in blood sugar is one of the potential pitfalls of eating carbohydrate rich plant foods. The good news is that it’s possible to maintain a vegan diet without the side effects of blood sugar dysregulation.
The aim of this article is to explain why blood sugar is important and share some tips on how to stabilize blood sugar on a vegan diet. I’ve included scientific references throughout and a bit of anecdotal evidence from my own journey.
What is ‘blood sugar’?
Blood sugar, also referred to as ‘blood glucose’, refers to the amount of sugar that’s circulating in your blood at any given moment. The glucose in your blood comes from the food you eat and is regulated by the liver, intestine and pancreas.
The glucose in your bloodstream acts as a vital fuel source for the body and provides nutrients for the muscles, nervous system and organs. It’s vital that the amount of sugar in your blood is kept consistent for your body to function optimally.
The body is intelligent enough to regulate blood sugar levels by storing excess sugar in the liver and muscles. Alternatively, when blood sugar gets too low, the liver will then release glucose into the bloodstream.
The amount of sugar, or carbohydrates, that you consume will directly impact your blood glucose levels in the short and long term. Adding high amounts sugary foods will make your body work extremely hard to regulate levels in the blood.
Why is stable blood sugar important?
The human body loves stability. Having to constantly adapt and fight against disruptions will put constant strain on its resources and stop it from functioning at a high level.
Stability of blood sugar is absolutely vital for physical and mental health, in the short and long-term. Here are a few key benefits of stable blood sugar levels:
- Improved mood
- Consistent energy levels
- Reduced fatigue
- Less hunger
- Improved brain function
- Better concentration
- Reduced risk of diabetes
- Improved blood vessel health
Learning how to stabilize blood sugar on a vegan diet will provide the body with the consistent fuel source it requires. In turn, this leads to a cascade of immediate and long-term benefits that can improve every aspect of your life.
What causes unstable blood sugar on a vegan diet?
Excess carbohydrates and sugar
The food you eat has a direct impact on your blood sugar levels. Eating foods that contain glucose, i.e. carbohydrates and sugar, will lead to a subsequent rise in blood glucose levels.
The type and amount of carbohydrates you eat will correlate with the blood sugar instability seen after your meal. It will determine how quickly your blood sugar levels rise and fall, while also impacting how high that rise might be.
For example: A can of sugar-sweetened soda will likely see a rapid spike in blood glucose levels, while a small portion of brown rice might see a lower and slower rise.
The factors that come in to play in the above example are the amount of sugar and speed of digestion. The soda contains high amounts of sugar that is rapidly absorbed in the gut, while the rice contains low amounts of slow-digesting carbohydrates.
Eating high amounts of fast digesting carbohydrates and sugars will directly cause big swings in glucose levels. It’s the number one thing to avoid when trying to stabilize blood sugar levels on a vegan diet.
Lifestyle factors that cause unstable blood glucose
It’s been shown that decreased sleep causes higher blood glucose levels and impairs the body’s ability to stabilize blood sugar levels. The same review also found insufficient sleep to be associated with increased food intake and the potential for poor dietary choices.
Lack of exercise
Exercise helps to sensitize your cells to insulin, which is the main hormone that stabilizes blood sugar. If you fail to perform regular exercise, your body will be less adept at dealing with dietary carbohydrates.
Ultimately, this will lead to high blood sugar instability after meals in the short-term and increased risk of dysregulation in the long-term.
Being under stress will cause the body to release cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones act as a signal to the body that more blood sugar is required to provide energy for potential danger.
Gut microbiome status
The presence of specific bugs in your gut is associated with the ability to tolerate dietary carbohydrates. It changes the way your food is digested, which ultimately has an impact on blood sugar stability.
Top tips to stabilize blood sugar on a vegan diet
1. Cut out refined carbohydrates.
The number one cause of unstable blood sugar is refined carbohydrates. These are processed foods that have been stripped of their fiber and nutritional content, but remain extremely high in fast-digesting glucose.
Avoid any products made using white flour (e.g. white bread), white rice, white pasta, pastries and doughnuts. Not only are these foods unhealthful in general; they can also cause wild blood sugar swings.
Once you have removed refined carbs from your diet, you can replace them with ‘whole-food’ alternatives. Rye bread, chickpea pasta and quinoa are some great examples of unrefined carbohydrates that don’t spike blood sugar.
2. Watch out for added sugar.
The amount of sugar consumed in the modern western diet is simply astonishing. The terrifying part is that most people don’t even realize they’re consuming it most of the time. It’s hidden everywhere and it’s causing your blood sugar to spike.
Almost all processed foods contain added sugars, even the savory ones. In addition, popular vegan products like plant milks and dried fruits are often laced with refined sugars that will cause unstable blood glucose swings.
It’s vital that you check the label of any products you buy to assess its sugar content. Always look for unsweetened products, or better yet just eat real whole-foods.
3. Choose low-sugar fruits.
Fruit is often referred to as ‘natures candy’ due to its natural sweetness. Although the sugars in fruits are unrefined and natural, they can still cause a dramatic blood sugar rise.
Every fruit contains a varying amount of sugar, fiber and nutrients; so they all impact the body in a different way. Ideally, you want to stick with fruits that provide plenty of nutritional value without the collateral damage of unstable blood sugar.
Blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries are all nutrient dense choices that are low in sugar. However, it might be best avoiding dates, grapes, mangos and ripe bananas that contain high amounts of sugar.
4. Focus on fiber.
The high fiber nature of a whole-foods vegan diet makes it a great option for stable blood sugar. It significantly slows the rate that carbohydrates are absorbed by the body, leading to a softer rise in blood glucose levels.
Fiber is also a great at activating satiety mechanisms within your body. It swells in the gut to help you feel full sooner in your meal, which will naturally reduce your desire to overeat carbohydrate rich foods
When choosing plant-based carbs; look for foods that are rich in fiber. Beans, legumes, quinoa, buckwheat and whole grains are a few examples. The key here is often to avoid refined carbs that have been stripped of their fiber during processing (e.g. white bread, white rice).
5. Stop snacking.
The classic advice of eating constant small meals has led to much of the metabolic destruction we see in modern society. Humans were not designed to be constantly grazing, we’re not cows.
Constant snacking will cause blood sugar to be unnecessarily high around the clock. It will cause insulin to be continuously stimulated in its attempt to lower your blood sugar, which can lead to diabetes in the long-term.
Stick to 2 or 3 regularly timed meals throughout the day and give your body the chance to ‘rest and digest’ in-between. It will allow blood sugar levels to stabilize and give your body the chance to burn off any excess sugar before you start adding more.
6. Eat a balanced meal.
Avoiding ‘naked’ carbs is vital for vegans trying to stabilize blood sugar. Having a source of protein and/or fat at the same time as your carbohydrates will help to slow digestion.
Slowing the rate of digestion is a superb way to mitigate a blood sugar spike. It also boosts your chances of absorbing vital nutrients and will help you feel full for longer.
Think about how you can pair your foods to get a balanced meal that takes a while to digest. You could pair your banana with some peanut butter or make sure you add tofu and avocado to your favorite potato dish.
7. Eat an appropriate amount of carbs.
The classic advice that you should ‘earn your carbs’ is accurate if your aim is to stabilize blood sugar. You should be looking to match the amount of carbohydrates you eat with your activity level to maintain balance.
Spikes in blood sugar are often caused by the overconsumption of carbohydrates. The body often leaves the ingested glucose circulating in the blood while it searches for a storage space.
By titrating your carbohydrate intake up and down depending on your activity level will help to stabilize your blood sugar. To put it simply; if you’re largely sedentary, you probably don’t need to add much fuel to the fire.
8. Get plenty of exercise.
Exercise is one of the most potent ways to stabilize blood sugar on a vegan diet. It uses up the excess glucose that is stored in your muscles and prepares your body to absorb the next carbohydrate rich meal you ingest.
Having a body that’s ‘primed’ to accept incoming carbs will move sugar out of the blood and into the muscles faster. It will keep blood sugar levels from spiking too high or staying elevated for too long.
The benefits exercise has on blood sugar levels are both short and long-term. Performing physical activity after a meal will rapidly reduce blood glucose, while consistent exercise will make sure your body is always receptive to incoming carbs.
9. Learn how your body works.
The way each person reacts to incoming nutrients is completely unique. Some people naturally have a high tolerance for carbohydrates, while others are more prone to blood sugar swings.
It’s also worth noting that individuals can have completely different reactions to the same food group. Although a banana might have a negligible impact on my blood sugar, that doesn’t mean it won’t affect yours.
The only way to really grasp your body’s reactions to certain foods is by performing your own tests and experiments. Buying a blood glucose monitor online is an inexpensive way to test your reaction to specific foods and personalize your diet.
10. Live a healthy lifestyle.
Following a vegan diet gives you a great chance of having stable blood sugar. However, if you’re sleep deprived and not able to manage your stress levels; you will impair your body’s ability to regulate blood sugar.
Take the time to optimize your habits to make sure you’re getting at least 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. Work on your stress management skills through practices like breath work and meditation.
Although these lifestyle driven changes might seem less tangible to some people, they are remarkably effective. Stable blood sugar often follows overall wellness, so be sure to take a holistic approach to your health practices.
Learning how to stabilize blood sugar on a vegan diet can be difficult, but it’s fundamental to overall health. Keeping a steady glucose level will allow you to maximize the benefits of healthy plant-based foods without the health problems associated with sugar spikes.
The first step is to make sure you’re avoiding vegan junk food. It’s usually the processed and refined foods that make blood sugar regulation difficult, so sticking to whole-foods is often half the battle.
Once you’re eating unprocessed ‘real’ food; you can work on personalizing your diet. Purchasing a blood glucose monitor will allow you to take this next step by assessing your reaction to specific foods.
Making sure you’re eating a diet that’s suitable for your energy requirements and anatomy will pay dividends in the long-run. Heightened blood sugar regulation is strongly associated with avoiding chronic disease and achieving longevity.
In my opinion; eating a whole-food vegan diet that keeps blood sugar in a tight range is the best way to achieve optimal health and increased lifespan.