Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels is essential for overall health and wellbeing. High blood sugar levels, particularly in individuals living with diabetes, can lead to a range of complications; such as nerve damage, kidney damage, and cardiovascular disease.
Fortunately, adopting a low carb lifestyle can be an effective way to help control blood sugars and improve overall health. For example, changing your dietary approach to a low carbohydrate lifestyle has been found effective in helping those with type 2 diabetes and prediabetes with glycaemic control and weight loss. Many individuals who follow a low carb lifestyle have been able to achieve remission from type 2 diabetes.
What do we mean by remission?
There’s no complete consensus on the exact definition of type 2 diabetes remission. The American Diabetes Association defines complete remission as having both an HbA1c within normal levels (below 42 mmol/mol (6%)) and a fasting blood glucose of less than 5.6 mmol/L (101 mg/dL) which has been achieved without diabetes medication.
On the other hand, researchers on the UK-based Diabetes Remission Clinical Trial (DiRECT) define remission as having a HbA1c of less than 48 mmol/mol (6.5%) that is sustained after one year.
People with type 1 diabetes have also reported much more stable blood sugar levels, making the condition easier to predict and manage.
How do carbohydrates affect the body?
Carbohydrates provide energy to help to fuel the body, as do proteins and fats. When you consume carbohydrates, your body breaks them down into glucose, which enters the bloodstream and raises blood sugar levels.
Anyone can experience elevated blood sugar levels after meals, even if they haven’t been diagnosed with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. Post-meal blood sugar spikes increase heart disease risk and also affect our energy levels, appetite and mood. Without a doubt, keeping our blood sugar stable is one of the most important targets for improving metabolic health.
A low carb diet limits the intake of carbohydrates, which can help to regulate blood sugar levels by reducing the amount of glucose in the bloodstream.
Why low carb?
How many carbohydrates you eat is one of the most important factors to consider when it comes to managing blood sugar. Carbohydrates, as a food group, have the greatest effect in terms of raising the body's blood sugar levels. Raised blood sugar levels then signal the body to produce more insulin. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that helps to regulate blood sugar levels by allowing glucose to enter cells where it can be used for energy or stored for later use. When blood sugar levels rise, the pancreas releases insulin into the bloodstream to signal cells to take up glucose.
The production and release of insulin are tightly regulated by the body to maintain healthy blood sugar levels. When blood sugar levels remain consistently high, such as in individuals with type 2 diabetes, the body may become less responsive to insulin, leading to insulin resistance.
When cells become resistant to insulin, the pancreas produces more insulin to try to compensate. Over time, the pancreas may become unable to keep up with the demand for insulin, leading to high blood sugar levels and eventually, the development of type 2 diabetes.
By lowering carbohydrate intake via a low-carb lifestyle, less insulin is required to deal with the resultant glucose in the blood. Lower insulin levels translate into improved blood glucose levels and increased insulin sensitivity. It is, for this reason, low carb diets are becoming more commonly used as a method of managing type 2 diabetes. Insulin also plays the role of the body’s fat storage hormone, so reducing insulin in the body with a low carb diet can also help with losing weight.
Common benefits of a low carb lifestyle:
Improved weight loss
Less chance of high sugar levels occurring
Lower risk of severe hypos
More energy throughout the day
Fewer cravings for sugary and snack foods
- Lower risk of developing long-term health complications
What is a low carb lifestyle?
A low carb lifestyle involves limiting the intake of carbohydrates, particularly those from refined and processed sources such as white bread, pasta, and sugary snacks. Instead, the focus is on consuming nutrient-dense, whole foods such as non-starchy vegetables, healthy fats, and lean proteins.
Low carb is a flexible way of eating that allows people to choose a level of carbohydrate that works well for their lifestyle.
The following numbers are used to categorise daily carbohydrate intake:
Moderate carbohydrate: 130 to 225g of carbs.
Low carbohydrate: under 130g of carbs.
Very-low carbohydrate: under 30 to 50g of carbs (also known as ketogenic).
Generally speaking, the lower your carbohydrate intake, the more likely you are to lose weight and the lower sugar levels you are likely to have.
It’s important to choose a level of carbohydrate that works well for you.
Is low carb suitable for everyone?
Low carb diets are suitable for most people. As noted above, if you’re thinking of reducing your carbohydrate intake by a large amount, it’s best to check with your doctor if any precautions need to be made.
If you are pregnant, or planning pregnancy, a very low carb diet may not be appropriate, as the safety of very-low-carbohydrate diets in pregnancy is not currently known.
Take away message
Carbohydrate restriction seems to be by far the most effective dietary strategy for keeping our blood glucose levels within a healthy range. However, if we do choose to include more carbohydrates in our diet, it’s always worth having a few more strategies in mind that can help us keep our blood sugar balanced.