Dieting when you're prone to low blood sugar
I have a condition called reactive hypoglycaemia. When I eat certain foods, my body makes too much insulin, and my blood sugar levels rapidly drop.
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The symptoms of a full sugar crash are scary – shivering, blurred vision, nausea, extreme weakness, impaired cognition, difficulty speaking, sweating and, sometimes, fainting. On a day-to-day basis, I will experience some effects of low blood sugar, including poor short-term recall, diminished focus, headache, fatigue and aphasia (the inability to recall words). I remember experiencing that last symptom on the first day of a creative writing class and being called “thick” by a Booker listed novelist, in front of 20 other students.
At least she didn't call me fat.
Though I didn't get a formal diagnosis until I was 30, the symptoms were there in my mid to late 20s. I used the early Internet to search for advice and discovered a full “FAQ” on the topic. I wish I could find that document now because it was one of the most succinct and accessible descriptions of the condition and how to manage it that I've ever read, but I do remember some of the advice it gave:
- Eliminate processed sugars from your diet entirely. They are poison.
- Eat fewer simple carbs (fruit, jam, syrup)
- Go for unrefined carbs when possible (brown rice, wholemeal bread and pasta)
- Eat foods with a lower “glycaemic index” (foods that don't raise your blood sugar level as much) in general
- Have a portion of protein with every meal
- Eat smaller meals
- Eat at more frequent intervals – having six or seven “meals” a day
- Eat before bedtime to prevent blood sugar from dropping overnight
- Reduce or eliminate stimulants like alcohol, nicotine and caffeine
- Avoid sweeteners (because they make it more difficult for you to wean yourself off sugar in the long term)
Even then, this seemed like a lot of “rules” to follow – and when you dig into the substance of them, they sometimes spawn sub-rules, like baby spiders breaking out of an egg sac. My success at following this regime has ebbed and flowed over the years and, inevitably, when I am managing the condition well, I start to slip. One piece of cake. A couple of biscuits. Before you know it you're having pizza and chips for lunch and spending the rest of the afternoon trying to remember where your phone is (you're holding it).
Rules like this are not very sociable either. Eating out becomes difficult because two courses in a restaurant are three meals all at once. When you're vegetarian, as I have tried to be since the age of 13, getting enough protein is almost impossible. The canteen in my workplace has vegetarian options, but they don't even try to include protein in them. There's nary a chickpea or a lentil to be seen.
So, what I (and I assume many reactive hypoglycaemics) end up doing is taking some of the advice above, but not all of it. I know that I never have a problem eating frequently – but most of the time that means eating carbs regularly. Pasties, flapjack, chips and cereal bars.
If you want to a) control the condition and – as I am currently trying – b) lose weight at the same time, you can't do that.
So – my approach to losing weight has two components I've told you about so far.
- Counting calories – eating 1800 calories a day.
- Sticking strictly to the rules above.
One of the best ways to do both is to meal plan. I'll talk a bit more about that in my next post.