Blood Sugar and Metabolism: Why Calories aren’t King

CALORIES

 

Wouldn’t our jobs be much easier if all there was to healthy weight maintenance and optimal well-being was striking a balance between calories in and calories out? It just is not that simple. If weight loss and metabolism were as simple as eating less and moving more, our jobs as health and exercise professionals may not be as valuable. Understanding the role blood sugar plays and how it is affected by macronutrient balance, and coupled with resistance training is vital to orchestrating optimal fat loss.

Now, this is not to say that a caloric deficit is not required for a shift in weight. It is. But too often weight loss is reduced to a simple “balancing” act. Here’s what the bigger picture entails and what health and exercise professionals need to remain cognizant of.

Blood Sugar is Queen

Blood sugar management and regulation do not always get the attention these processes require or deserve. Partly, because there is a misconception that only those with diabetes need to be concerned with what their blood sugar is doing. Not true. Blood sugar and its management are important biological and behavioral processes for all individuals – diabetic or not.

The Why

When blood sugar is on a constant daily rollercoaster, insulin is recruited more often (the “fat-storing” hormone). When insulin is at the forefront and working overtime, glucagon (or the “fat-burning” hormone) is on the bench. Instead, if you were to graph blood sugar response, it should resemble a gentle wave profile with subtle (and not drastic) rises and drops throughout the day.

The lesson for us all is this: a calorie deficit is important for weight reduction (and is only one component) but if your client is eating and operating in a calorie deficit, their hormones will not be as efficient at supporting fat loss (which is different than weight loss and a point that gets confusing for consumers). Ultimately, clients will have a harder time reaching their goals and are likely to experience frustration along the way.

The How

First, always have a dietitian consult with clients who are pre-diabetic or diabetic. Both are conditions that require intervention. Second, keep in mind your certified scope of practice related to nutrition. Providing insight and information such as evidence-based recommendations, legitimate sources for recipes, leading grocery store tours, and meal prepping skills and tools are all within your scope (among other things).

Three key suggestions and general guidelines you can recommend include encouraging clients to:

  1. Focus on a combination of protein, high fiber, and healthy fats at meals
  2. Pair carbohydrates with healthy fats and/or proteins (fruit with nuts or nut butters, whole-grain English muffin with eggs, etc.).
  3. Select the highest-fiber sources of the starchy carbs (quinoa, whole grains, lentil pastas, oats, etc.).

Benefits Beyond Blood Sugar 

There are countless benefits associated with the three guidelines above – aside from controlling blood sugar. Meals and snacks based on these three principles offer greater satiety, higher mineral content, digestive system benefits, mental benefits, and energy. When clients are more satisfied with their meals, they are not preoccupied with thinking about food, tracking food, or obsessively measuring grams and ounces.

There is a food freedom that comes from balancing meals consistently instead of worrying about being over or under a certain caloric intake. The human body is not a calculator; it’s a complex set of systems that need the right fuel consistently (not necessarily the “right number”). Besides, there is no simple (or 100% accurate) way to measure a person’s caloric needs (aside from using a metabolic cart and even then, there are errors in measurements).

Focus on protein, the fiber, and the quality fat sources and your clients will be able to better control their blood sugar and make their fat-burning hormones happy and optimally functional.

About

Dr. Erin Nitschke, NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1 is a health and human performance college professor, fitness blogger, mother, and passionate fitness professional. She has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and college instruction. Erin believes in the power of a holistic approach to healthy living. She loves encouraging her clients and students to develop body harmony by teaching focused skill development and lifestyle balance. Erin is also the Director of Educational Partnerships & Programs for the NFPT. Erin is an editorial author for ACE, IDEA, The Sheridan Press, and the Casper Star Tribune. Visit her personal blog at belivestaywell.com