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5 surprising ways to manage your blood sugar, according to a dietitian

And you don't even have to count carbs.

Every time you eat any kind of carbohydrate ­ — be it blueberries or a bagel — the starch gets broken into sugar as glucose, the type of sugar in your blood. In response, your body produces insulin, a hormone responsible for ushering that sugar into your cells, where it’s used for energy.

For the 96 million people in the United States with prediabetes and the additional 37.3 million with type 2 diabetes, this system malfunctions, which causes glucose — sugar — to build up in the bloodstream. Ultimately, this excess sugar can injure your blood vessels and nerves and heightens the risk of health complications, including heart and kidney disease.

If you already have prediabetes, managing your blood sugar level is crucial to preventing or delaying type 2 diabetes. And if you have type 2 diabetes, lowering your blood sugar has the potential to reverse the condition enough to make medication unnecessary.

Certainly, your diet plays a part, but there are other ways to improve insulin sensitivity and promote healthier blood sugar levels. Here are five top strategies to help lower your blood sugar.

Eat breakfast – and have it on the earlier side

Skipping breakfast may make it harder to control your blood sugar. In research presented at the Endocrine Society in 2021, scientists looked at more than 10,500 participants’ eating windows — the period during the day when food was consumed.

Researchers found that insulin resistance — when your body becomes less responsive to insulin — was higher among people eating 10 hours or less per day. This is relevant to people practicing intermittent fasting who are restricting eating windows to less than 10 hours per day. However, even those restricting their eating period were less likely to be insulin resistant when their first meal was before 8:30 a.m. And in the study, the early eaters also had lower blood sugar levels.

Other recent research also supports the idea that eating breakfast can help control blood sugar. In a separate study, skipping breakfast worsened insulin response after lunch, and caused blood sugar levels to spike when compared to when breakfast and the same lunch were eaten. So, try to eat a balanced breakfast, such as some fruit with plain Greek yogurt and nuts or eggs scrambled with veggies served with avocado slices.

Have an early dinner

One small study among healthy people found that eating dinner on the earlier side — at 6 p.m. ­— had a positive impact on blood sugar fluctuations throughout the night when compared with eating dinner at 8 p.m. While the study was small, its results were illuminating.

People participating in it followed two protocols ­ — they ate early dinners on some days and late dinners on others. The meals eaten on each occasion were the same proportion of protein, carbohydrate and fat. Since the composition of the meals was the same, it’s likely that the differences in blood sugar were due to meal timing.         

While an early dinner is beneficial, it isn’t always practical. You can make it more doable by prepping some meals or having foundational ingredients on hand — think plain proteins and versatile whole grains. If you’re still working from home, try having an earlier dinner on the days that you have easier access to your kitchen.

Take a 2-minute walk

According to a review of seven studies, even just two minutes of walking after a meal can help lower blood sugar levels. That’s welcome news if you’ve ever wondered how to fit exercise into your busy life! Even a small amount of activity activates your muscles, which allows them to use some of the sugar in your blood for energy, thereby lessening the impact of the meal you just ate on your blood sugar.

To get in the habit of moving after meals, try walking to the end of your driveway and back or pacing your home or office hallway. You can also try other forms of movement. For instance, walk up and down your stairs a few times, do the dishes, or take a couple of minutes to stretch after meals and periodically during the day.

Of course, so it’s still a good idea to aim for the CDC’s recommendation of 20 to 25 minutes of moderate to intense activity most days because being more active helps improve insulin sensitivity. However, it’s good to know that you don’t always have to break a sweat or even exercise for very long to score some benefits. Meanwhile, standing also helps, but not as much as movement.

mature woman walking for wellness outdoors
Different forms of movement like walking up and down your stairs a few times, doing the dishes, or taking a couple of minutes to stretch after meals can help lower blood sugar levels.Getty Images

Get zen

When you experience stress — say, a fight with your partner or a tough week at work — your body releases cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones can be beneficial because they help redistribute and conserve energy, giving you a boost to get you through a crisis. Unfortunately, one way this happens is by altering your insulin sensitivity. At the same time, more sugar is released from your liver–again, to supply energy.

While this hormone balancing act is helpful during short-term crises, typical stressors tend to be more prolonged. That means these biological responses may be haywire for an extended period, leading to higher blood sugar levels. That’s where yoga and meditation come in.

A 2022 review of 28 studies found that mindfulness-based practices resulted in better blood sugar control and improved blood sugar levels over the course of three months. In fact, the results weren’t far off from the blood sugar improvements you’d experience on a typical medication to lower blood sugar levels. That doesn’t mean you should ditch your meds, but rather, try adding these measures into your routine. You can find free yoga and mindful-based meditation practices on YouTube and numerous apps, many with free trials. If you’re new to exercise, check with your physician for the green light to get started.

Rethink your drinks

If you drink diet soda or rely on zero-carb and calorie sweetener packets to sweeten your drinks, you may want to reconsider. While it makes theoretical sense that these sweeteners might help you manage your blood sugar levels, the research suggests otherwise. Evidence suggests that your body may mistake these zero-carb sweeteners for sugar, so it releases insulin without the need to bring blood sugar down. Over time, this pattern can result in faulty insulin receptors and a higher risk of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.

If you’re a soda drinker or regularly consume other sweetened drinks, swapping them for alternatively sweetened ones can be an appropriate short-term strategy. But a better long-term approach is to limit your consumption of artificial sweeteners and choose unsweetened coffee, tea, plain water or naturally flavored seltzer water instead.