15 Things Diabetes Doctors Do to Keep Their Own Blood Sugar Under Control
Steal a trick or two from these diabetes experts to keep your blood sugar on track.
How to control blood sugar
Maintaining healthy blood sugar levels for people with type 1 or 2 diabetes includes regular exercise, healthy, nutrient-dense meals, tracking blood sugar levels, and (for some) taking insulin. Here’s some helpful advice from health experts with diabetes on how they manage their own blood sugar that might help make it easier for you to manage your own.
Prepare home-cooked meals
There’s nothing better than eating a delicious homemade meal after a long day at the office. Not only will your stomach thank you, your blood sugar will too! “My family and I eat at home,” says Joel Zonszein, MD, director of the Clinical Diabetes Center at the Montefiore Jack D. Weiler Hospital and professor of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “Eating and talking at the table with my wife and children without our cellphones, the television, or computer is important.”
In fact, research from the Nurses Health Study and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study asked 99,000 men and women about their lunch and dinner habits for more than 30 years. People who reported eating at least two meals at home each day had an average 13 percent lower risk of getting type 2 diabetes compared to people who ate fewer than six home-cooked meals each week. (Cooking at home is just one of the 71 easy ways to prevent type 2 diabetes too if you don’t already have it.)
Exercise for at least 30 minutes a few times each week
It’s no surprise that lowering blood sugar makes the long list of reasons why exercise is good for you. “Aerobic workouts like running tend to keep my blood sugar levels low because I burn through my energy and burn up more glucose faster,” says Jenn LeBlanc, who has type 1 diabetes, a BSN, RN, and certified diabetes educator at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. “Anaerobic exercise is a slow burn and it’s not until hours later that my blood sugar drops.” LeBlanc works out to a 30-minute boot camp fitness video that incorporates short bursts of high-intensity activities mixed with intervals of strength training like lunges and squats. The recommendation is 150 minutes per week or 30 minutes five days per week.
Avoid starchy foods first thing in the morning
No one wants to start his or her day off with a blood sugar spike that can send you crashing later in the day. In the morning, your body goes into hormone overload to help wake you up, also called the “dawn phenomenon.” When your hormone production kicks into high gear, your blood sugar levels rise rapidly. The dawn phenomenon can be a nuisance for people with diabetes because their insulin response can’t adjust properly to the surge in glucose or they will need to use more insulin to handle the surge in blood sugar.
“I notice that if I eat anything starchy in the morning mixed together with the ‘dawn effect’ my sugars go through the roof,” says Scott Soleimanpour, MD, who has type 1 diabetes, an assistant professor of endocrinology at the University of Michigan Health System.
Both he and LeBlanc start their mornings with low-carb breakfasts such as a single serving cup of Greek yogurt with a cup of coffee or a hard-boiled egg paired with a protein shake—breakfast foods that keep them full but don’t send their blood sugar levels skyrocketing.
Eat meals rich in fiber
Fiber-rich foods delay how quickly your body absorbs sugar to prevent your blood sugar from rising rapidly. “I try to eat fiber-rich foods to keep myself full at lunch to minimize snacking later,” says Dr. Soleimanpour, “This way I’m not riding a rollercoaster of high blood sugar and low blood sugar after I eat.”
For lunch, he slurps down a homemade kale smoothie consisting of a few cups of kale and five to six cups of water with just a half to a whole cup of pineapple to get that sweet taste. If he doesn’t get a chance to eat a filling lunch, he opts for a glass of water mixed with a couple tablespoons of dissolvable fiber to keep his blood sugar stable.
Go ahead and eat that slice of toast for breakfast
A slice of toast—even if it’s not whole grain—won’t instantly send your blood sugar through the roof, especially if it’s in moderation. In fact, toasted white bread may have a lower glycemic index than fresh white bread, according to a small study in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. “Toasted bread is better than eating regular bread because you burn some of the carbohydrates,” says Dr. Zonszein. He tries to eat carbs in moderation for breakfast such as half of a bagel or a slice of toast. (Even adding cheese can lower the glycemic impact of the bread itself.)
Of course, whole grain is the smarter choice for people with diabetes because it has more nutrients and the carbohydrates are packed with more fiber, which slows down and blunts the post-digestion rise in blood sugar. (That you need to avoid bread altogether is just one of many diabetes myths.)
Find an activity that helps you relax in five minutes or less
Stress is an unfortunate side effect of the busy lifestyles that most people lead nowadays. If you don’t take a moment to decompress, your blood sugar may rise in response to the excessive amount of hormones you produce when your body goes into “fight or flight” mode. In times of dire stress, your body makes more glucose to compensate for this surge in hormones, which leads to trouble for people with diabetes since their insulin won’t let their cells take in the extra energy for use.
Use a nutritionist to help you make a diabetic-friendly diet plan
“I have worked with a number of phenomenal certified diabetes educators and nutritionists all throughout my career,” says Dr. Soleimanpour. “I would ask for their advice on why a certain food is a good choice or a bad choice. But you don’t have to be an endocrinologist to seek out a nutritionist or diabetes coordinator to get that information.”
In fact, a lot of health insurance plans pay for diabetes education and nutrition, but you’ll want to call to find out your coverage. The more information you have, the more successfully you can manage your diabetes. You can even follow these simple tricks for living well with diabetes from people with diabetes themselves.
Measure your blood sugar an hour before bedtime
Dr. Soleimanpour checks his blood sugar before he goes to sleep every night. “One of the biggest times of day that a diabetic can get low blood sugar is at night,” he says. “If you pick up a blood sugar reading that looks a little lower than normal, now’s the time to make an intervention before you reach that level.”
If you have a bout of low blood sugar before bed, he suggests taking glucose tablets or drinking four to eight ounces of juice. Give your body 20-30 minutes and recheck your blood sugar again before bed to ensure you’re back at a normal reading.
Keep in mind that people with type 1 diabetes need to routinely check their blood sugar because they must take insulin to survive. (The autoimmune condition destroys the insulin-producing cells in the body.) Because of this, people with type 1 are more prone to episodes of low blood sugar.
If you have type 2, the more common form of the disease that can be controlled with healthy eating, exercise, oral medications, and sometimes insulin, check with your doctor as to when and how to check your blood sugar, and what to do about the readings.
Scour the web for new recipes with a skeptic’s eye
Dr. Soleimanpour is always looking for new recipes to add some variety to his meals. But don’t let the name “healthy recipe” fool you. Read the ingredients thoroughly first before you waste your time and money at the grocery store on products that may do your blood sugar more harm than good.
“I read between the lines,” says Dr. Soleimanpour. “You’ll read recipes and think that it’s super healthy, but when you break down the ingredients, you find it’s not as good for you as you thought.” You always want to be sure that the constituents of a new recipe aren’t going to send your blood sugar spiraling out of control.
Swap out fruit juice for actual whole fruits
Get the same great taste of orange juice without the added sugar and eat an actual orange instead. “When you eat an orange, the amount of sugar in one orange is much less than the sugar in squeezed oranges. Plus, you get the fiber from eating a whole orange.” says Dr. Zonszein. “The sugar absorbs much more slowly when you eat whole fruits instead of drinking juice.” Papaya, grapefruit, and melon are other fruits that also have much smaller amounts of carbohydrates and sugar than fruit juice. (Learn more about the best and worst drinks for people with diabetes.)
Research the menu items before you eat at a restaurant
Going out to eat is a bit of a gamble in terms of a meal’s nutrition and ingredients. Though many chain restaurants include the calorie count on their menus, it’s important to know other nutritional values as well. Dr. Soleimanpour tries to do his meal research before he orders anything on the menu.
“Be prepared so you know what you’re eating and what the implications are in the amount of carbs and high fat foods,” he says. Checking out apps like CalorieKing and MyFitnessPal are two handy resources for looking up the nutritional info for a meal at a popular chain restaurant.
Check your blood sugar before you eat every time
Dr. Soleimanpour says the best time to do a routine blood sugar check is right before he eats a meal or snack. “Checking before your meals gives you a good baseline of where your blood sugar starts before you eat,” he says. Checking your blood sugar consistently can help you avoid silent diabetes complications, but check with your doctor as to when you should be doing at-home blood sugar testing.
Eat every 2-3 hours for a blood sugar check reminder
LeBlanc says that eating small meals and snacks frequently doesn’t just keep her metabolism going, it also acts as a nifty reminder to check her blood sugar regularly throughout her busy work day. “I check every time before I eat,” says Leblanc. “It keeps you more routine.”
She checks her blood sugar four to five times a day, which isn’t unusual for someone with type 1 diabetes.
Stay out of the junk food aisle at the grocery store
The saying, “you are what you eat” couldn’t be more true when it comes to your blood sugar. Your blood sugar readings can say a lot about the food you’re eating. Dr. Zonszein tries to avoid pushing his cart towards the shelves stocked with sweets and highly processed foods at the supermarket.
“Choose the proper food when you’re at the store,” says Dr. Zonszein. “If you buy soda and ice cream, you’re going to eat it.” But if you skip buying sugary snacks altogether, there will be no temptation. (Here are some ideas for diabetes-friendly snacks for your next trip to the grocery store.)
Consider investing in a continuous glucose monitor
If you’re looking for a more efficient way to check your blood sugar without pricking your finger multiple times a day, you may want to ask your doctor about using a continuous glucose monitor (CGM). The wearable device measures your blood sugar 24/7 through a tiny sensor that’s inserted under your skin and transmits the information to a wireless monitor on your hip that records the data. These are devices that are more routinely used by people with type 1 diabetes, who usually require more daily testing and adjustment of medication than people with type 2 diabetes.
LeBlanc wears a CGM to help keep track of her blood sugar readings daily, “It alerts me when my blood sugar is getting too high or too low.” Despite making it easier for people to manage their diabetes, CGMs are still not as accurate as they could be. The National Institutes of Health advise people with diabetes to compare their CGM readings with a finger-stick glucose test at least twice a day to verify the device’s accuracy before changing any insulin dosage. With newer devices like Dexcom 6, however, you do not have to check this frequently unless glucose reading is out of range. It’s always a good idea to check fingerstick glucose if the value is unexpectedly low or high and you are not having symptoms.
- Joel Zonszein, MD, director of the Clinical Diabetes Center at the Montefiore Jack D. Weiler Hospital and professor of medicine at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine
- Current Nutrition Reports: "Diet, lifestyle, and genetic risk factors for type 2 diabetes: a review from the Nurses' Health Study, Nurses' Health Study 2, and Health Professionals' Follow-up Study"
- Jenn LeBlanc, who has type 1 diabetes, a BSN, RN, and certified diabetes educator at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston
- Scott Soleimanpour, MD, who has type 1 diabetes, an assistant professor of endocrinology at the University of Michigan Health System
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: "The impact of freezing and toasting on the glycaemic response of white bread"