The long slow burn keeps hunger at bay
Ever found yourself succumbing to hunger pangs at 3pm in the afternoon and reached for a chocolate bar to get you through? If you have, then you aren't taking advantage of the long, slow burn.
Eating regular, healthy and nutritionally balanced meals can be difficult during the working day and many people overlook this important aspect of their lifestyle. Whether it is skipping breakfast to make sure that we catch our train or grabbing a sandwich on the run to our next meeting, we are simply fuelling our hunger.
How our blood sugar levels affect us
Our feelings of hunger are closely allied to our blood sugar levels. If we go for hours without eating, our blood sugar levels can become very low and cause us to feel shaky, weak and nauseous. Low blood sugar levels also affect our concentration, energy levels and mood.
Grabbing a chocolate bar might make us feel good for a little while, but the short-term energy boost is normally followed by a further fall in blood sugar levels. Making us feel as hungry as ever.
What foods affect our blood sugar levels?
It is mainly the carbohydrates (starch and sugar) in food that determine our blood sugar levels. And, depending on the type of carbohydrate, their effect can be helpful or unhelpful:
Simple sugars - such as those found in processed/sugary foods like sweets, biscuits and chocolate.
Simple sugars are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and cause rapid rises in blood sugar levels. However, these surges are usually followed by rapid drops.
Starchy carbohydrates - such as whole grains, pasta, rice, cereals, beans and lentils.
Starchy carbohydrates take some time to be broken down in the digestive system and are more steadily absorbed by the body. This means that starchy carbohydrates are best at keeping blood sugar levels stable and are a much better source of energy.
Aim for a slower "burn"
Special circumstances mean that we sometimes have to rethink our diets. For example:
The way different foods affect blood sugar levels is known as their glycaemic index (GI). This is a numerical system that tells us how fast a particular food triggers a rise in our blood sugar levels. As a rule of thumb, it's best to aim for foods that have a low or moderate GI. Foods with a high GI will cause a more dramatic rise in blood sugar while foods with a low or moderate GI will bring about a smaller rise. In other words, a slower "burn".
Why does it matter?
Apart from not functioning at our best, sharp fluctuations in blood sugar levels are thought to be undesirable to our general health. Experts agree that diets high in simple sugars and low in starch increase the risk of developing diabetes, high blood fat levels, high blood pressure and heart disease.1,2,3,4
Keeping on an even keel
Of course, it's always tempting to grab a quick fix of a cup of coffee and a chocolate bar when the hunger pangs strike.
Unfortunately, this break time pick-me-up won't be of much help. Caffeine-containing drinks -combined with the rapidly absorbed simple sugars in sweets, biscuits and chocolate - encourage the body to produce adrenaline. This hormone causes blood sugar levels to rise and gives us a short-term energy boost, but this is then followed by a further fall. In addition, adrenaline is a stress hormone - so too much of it can make us irritable and moody.
Instead, the best option is to avoid the hunger pangs in the first place. And below is a range of advice to help you keep your blood sugar levels under control throughout the day.
First things first
Breakfast is your first and most important meal of the day. During the night your blood sugar levels will have plummeted so it's important to refuel your body first thing in the morning if you're going to avoid feeling wobbly by lunchtime.
Try to make enough time for breakfast. Eating on the run can make you feel more stressed and you'll be more likely to fall for the high fat/high sugar "snack trap" later in the day.
Ideally, breakfast should contain about 25 percent of your daily calorie intake with a good mix of foodstuffs containing starchy carbohydrates and fibre. It's also an ideal opportunity to start clocking up those recommended five or more servings of fruit and vegetables per day.
- Muesli and porridge are good breakfast cereals. They contain plenty of "slow burn" starchy carbohydrates, and fibre.
- Fruit. Dried apricot, grapefruit, kiwi fruit, banana or orange slices will help to sweeten your cereal.
- Milk on your cereal provides protein and calcium. The low-fat options of semi-skimmed or skimmed are best.
Tackling the traditional full English breakfast
- You don't necessarily have to say goodbye to the traditional "full English breakfast" - just look on it as an occasional treat!
- If you do treat yourself to the traditional "full English breakfast", keep the fat level low by grilling and poaching the ingredients. For example, poaching the egg instead of frying it and grilling very lean bacon.
- Baked beans, grilled tomato and grilled mushrooms are great low-fat, fibre-containing extras, but watch out you don't add unnecessary fat by spreading lots of butter or high-fat spread on the bread or toast which goes with it.
Make time for lunch
Ideally lunch should be the largest meal of the day, but often this simply isn't practical. Missing lunch entirely or grabbing a sandwich and eating it on the move is often the norm for many busy people.
One answer might be to plan lunch ahead of time. Preparing a healthy packed lunch to take to work is ideal. Even eating just a light lunch will make it less likely that you'll be reaching for the crisps and chocolate bars in the middle of the afternoon.
It's true that a lunch based on carbohydrates can sometimes leave you feeling sluggish and sleepy in the afternoon. But eating protein foods with smaller portions of bread, potatoes and rice should help to avoid this. And including a piece of fresh fruit, some dried fruit or salad will help to keep you on course for five portions of fruit and vegetables each day.
Light lunch suggestions
- Useful protein-rich foods include chicken or lean meat, oily fish (such as tuna, smoked trout or mackerel), egg, tofu and nut or bean pate.
- Go for a really big salad. Lots of sandwich shops and supermarkets now stock ready prepared salad boxes. But beware of salads drenched in high-fat mayonnaise.
- Why not make your own salad? For variety you can include a range of vegetables outside of the standard lettuce, tomato and cucumber. For example, grated raw vegetables, sliced raw peppers, kidney beans, chick peas, cooked pasta and rice, yoghurt or cottage cheese, nuts and seeds (in moderation).
- Soup is an ideal lunch choice but watch out for too many "creamy" soups which can be high in fat.
- Rye bread, pumpernickel, pitta bread and oatcakes are ideal "slow burning" accompaniments for your salad, soup or sandwich filling.
How to snack sensibly
But what should you do if you still get the occasional energy dip during the day? What's the best choice of snack?
Go for these snacks as they are low in fat and will satisfy your hunger pangs for longer:
- fresh fruit - apples, cherries, grapes, oranges, pears and plums are particularly satisfying
- dried fruit - for example dried apricots, apple rings and banana chips
- raw vegetables of all types (which can be eaten with hummus or low-fat cottage cheese dips)
- nuts and seeds (in moderation)
Try to avoid these high-fat sugary snacks. They will only give you a short burst of energy that will not last:
- biscuits and cakes - if you really can't resist, then go for a plain digestive biscuit, rich tea, muffin or plain sponge cake
- crisps - try an oatcake or rice cake instead
- ice cream - a low fat-fruit yoghurt will be much more satisfying and less high in fat and sugar
- chocolate - a handful of nuts or seeds is a lower fat, low-sugar alternative
Don't stop drinking
Last of all, don't forget the importance of drinking plenty of fluid. And this means water or water-based drinks - not caffeine-loaded beverages such as tea, coffee or cola.
While you're busy at work it's easy to forget to stay hydrated. If you don't drink enough fluid, you'll quite quickly become dehydrated. Dehydration causes loss of concentration, dipping energy levels and headaches. Aim for at least 6 - 8 glasses of water a day.
- Salmeron J et al. Dietary fiber, glycemic load, and risk of non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus in women. JAMA 1997; 277: 472-77
- Liu S et al. Whole-grain consumption and risk of coronary heart disease: results from the Nurses' Health Study. Am J Clin Nutr 1999; 70: 412-9
- Frost G et al. Glycaemic index as a determinant of serum HDL-cholesterol concentration. Lancet 1999; 353: 1045-48
- Salmeron J et al. Dietary fiber, glycemic load, and risk of NIDDM in men. Diabetes Care 1997; 20: 545-550
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