Blood Sugar Part 2 – The failure of low-carb

This is part two in my series on blood sugar. To read part one please CLICK HERE.

Low Carbohydrate Diets

The next solution that seems to be all the rage for dealing with blood sugar issues is low carbohydrate diets. This can come in many forms like the paleo diet, dukkan, Atkins and many more.

As I mentioned in part one, carbohydrates are broken down and used for energy. When the diet is insufficient in carbohydrates – whether that be intentional or not – the body has to get this energy from somewhere else. In the world of low carb writing this is portrayed as a seamless process. The body naturally switches to using fats or protein for energy and things carry on as usual. This unfortunately is not the case.

The process of converting fats and proteins to glucose is actually part of the stress response. You may have heard that you can go for weeks without food, but only a couple of days with water. Well glucose is like water: it is the brain’s source of energy and even a small drop in levels can have a huge impact. As a fail safe the body is able to convert fat and protein to glucose, but this only happens in the presents of the stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol.

People should be trying to keep stress hormones on the low side. They are fantastic as part of the body’s stress response and nice to know you have them in the locker when they are needed. But, a diet low in carbohydrates means the body has to constantly convert fats and protein to glucose and this means higher circulating amounts of stress hormones.

People recommend low carbohydrates diets as a way to get insulin under control; carbohydrates tend to cause a larger release of insulin. Insulin is seen as something bad as it supposedly leads to diabetes and fat storage, so if you can have a diet with low carbohydrates then insulin levels will be lower making you thinner and healthier.

The problems with this theory

There are a number of problems with this low carbohydrate take on things. The first is the ideas about how insulin works in the body. Insulin is portrayed as this horrible hormone that you want to keep as low as possible. This is not the case and insulin is actually very important; you want insulin to rise after a meal to help with sugar getting in your cells so it can be used for energy. The problems arise when insulin is high all the time, not because of a rise after a meal.

If insulin is regularly high, removing carbohydrates from the diet is not solving the problem. In the short-term, it can have a great effect as insulin levels go down with less carbohydrates; the problem is it doesn’t stay like this. While carbohydrates cause the biggest rise in insulin, protein and fats can also cause it to rise. Over time, insulin levels begin to creep up again even though there is fewer and fewer carbohydrates in the diet. You haven’t dealt with the mechanism that causes the problem, but just tried to sweep it under the rug. You end up with someone who is eating basically no carbohydrates, but has high insulin levels like they are living off soda and chocolate all day.

Relying on fat and protein as your main source of energy is incredibly inefficient. When the body switches into the conversion mode, using fats and protein for energy, it is not very discerning where it is getting it from. So while you have just eaten a big meal of fat and protein, the body also breaks down its own tissues to be used as energy. This means that once the energy needs have been met these tissues once again to be repaired. It would be one thing if the conversion were happening just on the food you are eating, but this is not the case. You end up wasting a lot of energy on needless catabolism: wasting energy that could be better used for many other functions within the body.

Another problem is the quality of people’s fat tissue. The body uses fat cells to store away toxins to be stable and minimise damage to the body.  People’s fat cells are also incredibly high in unsaturated fats, mostly because of the cheap vegetable oils that have entered nearly all our foodstuffs. The catabolic state of breaking down the tissues liberates these toxins and oxidise the unsaturated fats so they are now circulating in the body. Normally these are dealt with as a slow process through the liver. It does it at a rate that it can excrete the toxins and manage the oxidative damage with anti-oxidants. Using fat and protein for energy speeds up this process, but overburdens the liver and the rest of the detoxification system. This has a negative knock-on effect on the body.

So what is the solution?

So if low GI carbohydrates and low carbohydrate diets are not the answer, what should you be doing to help with blood sugar?

I think the focus has to be repair and long-term health. Root vegetables like carrots, sweet potato, yam, potatoes, squashes (summer and winter), swede, turnips, beetroot, and celeriac are all fantastic. While some may be high on the GI index, they have a positive effect on insulin sensitivity in the body and your ability to get energy into the cells. They are helping to fix a broken system.

Include fruit throughout the day as part of your meals or snacks. Fruit is a fantastic source of energy and contains good amounts of fructose and glucose. Tropical fruits like mango, banana, pineapple, lychee, guava, papaya and watermelon seem to get lots of good press in the nutrition sphere.  I find that locally grown and seasonal fruits can be just as useful at helping with blood sugar balance.

Look at when you have the most problems with blood sugar and do as much of your eating in this period. I seem to have the most difficulty keeping blood sugars balanced in the morning. I tend to have breakfast around 7:30am, then at 10am have another proper sized meal, and then have a big lunch around 1pm. I don’t seem to get the same blood sugar problems in the afternoon and might have a small snack around 4pm and then a lighter dinner. This is what works for me.

There are lots of people who would find this a dreadful way to eat. They have much more problems with blood sugar in the evening (or even while sleeping); they would do better to be eating a bigger meal later in the day.

You should look out for signs like feeling tired or irritable, strong cravings for food (particularly sweets) or coffee, getting cold hands and feet, frequent urination, clear urination or urgency to urinate, headaches, or changes in mood. These can all be signs that you blood sugar levels have dipped (or possibly crashed). With these symptoms in mind, experiment with changing your meal schedule around and eating more at the times these problems arise. As you become in tune with your problems times you can become more pre-emptive so the issues don’t arise.

The point is to work out what is the best pattern for you to give yourself stable energy levels throughout the day. And don’t be dogmatic about it. I previously needed a huge dinner and was always starving come night time. Things have now changed so I have amended how I structure my eating.

In the next post I will continue with my suggestions for balancing blood sugars. We will also look at some new solutions that I have been researching and trying out on myself. As part of the post I will explain why I now drink a lot less water and why I have actively started eating more sugar. Stay tuned.

Follow Chris on Facebook and Twitter.

Chris Sandel is the founder of He is a nutritionist, working with clients on a one-on-one basis, as well as creating online trainings and products about health and nutrition. He is the author of The Health Trap: Why "Healthy" Eating Isn't Always Healthy which is available on Amazon UK and Amazon USA.

Chris has three free emails series. One is on how to quit dieting. One is on simple tests you can do at home. And the other is his take on the world's healthiest foods.


  1. Fascinating articles Chris, can’t wait to read the next part.

  2. Chris Sandel says:

    Thanks Charlotte. The 3rd part should be up early next week.

Speak Your Mind