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How Our Bodies Turn Food into Energy

All parts of the body (muscles, brain, heart and liver) need energy to work. This energy comes from the food we eat. Our bodies digest the food we eat by mixing it with fluids (acids and enzymes) in the stomach. When the stomach digests food, the carbohydrates (sugars and starches) in the food break down into another type of sugar called glucose. The stomach and small intestines absorb the glucose and then release it into the bloodstream. Once in the bloodstream, glucose can be used immediately for energy or stored in our bodies to be used later. However, our bodies need insulin in order to use or store glucose for energy. Without insulin, glucose stays in the bloodstream, keeping blood-sugar levels high.

Insulin is a hormone made by beta cells in the pancreas. Beta cells are very sensitive to the amount of glucose in the bloodstream. Normally beta cells check the blood’s glucose level every few seconds and sense when they need to increase or decrease the amount of insulin they’re making and releasing. When someone eats something high in carbohydrates, like a piece of bread, the glucose level in the blood rises and the beta cells trigger the pancreas to release more insulin into the bloodstream.

The rise and fall in insulin and blood sugar happens many times during the day and night. The amount of glucose and insulin in our bloodstream depends on when we eat and how much. When the body is working as it should, it can keep blood sugar at a normal level, which is between 70 and 120 milligrams per deciliter. However, even in people without diabetes, blood sugar levels can reach 180 during or right after a meal. Within two hours after eating, blood sugar levels should drop to under 140. After several hours without eating, blood sugar can drop as low as 70.

Using glucose for energy and keeping it balanced with just the right amount of insulin — not too much and not too little — is the way our bodies maintain the energy needed to stay alive, work, play and function even as we sleep. Foods with a low glycemic index (or GI) that provide such key nutrients as calcium, potassium, fiber, magnesium and vitamins A, C and E are the most important foods to help keep up your insulin. These foods include dark green leafy vegetables, like spinach and kale, which are very low in calories and carbohydrates; citrus fruits, such as grapefruits and oranges, which are high in soluble fiber and vitamin C; berries, like blueberries and strawberries, which are packed with antioxidants, vitamins and fiber; tomatoes, which are high in iron and vitamins C and E; and fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon and nuts. An ounce of nuts can go a long way in providing key healthy fats along with hunger management.

  • Do you regularly eat many of these foods?
  • What foods are we missing from this list?

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When You Hit the Afternoon Wall and What to Do About It

You were having a productive work morning when, suddenly, it is 2:30 p.m. and all you want to do is turn off your computer, curl up on a couch and watch Netflix.

While the afternoon slump is perfectly natural (it’s a sign your internal clock is working and that your blood-sugar levels are responding to the food you’re eating), it isn’t an excuse to postpone your afternoon meetings and call it a day. So, what can we do about it?

  1. Change the way we eat

While sugar-heavy or carb-heavy foods can leave you feeling shaky and tired in a few hours, high-fat foods can slow us down.

After we ingest too many empty carbs (foods high in sugar but low in protein) our blood-sugar levels spike, and then when they plummet a few hours later, we experience a “crash” in energy levels.

And unlike carbs, which make our blood-sugar levels erratic, fats digest very slowly. Eating too much of them in one sitting can make us feel lethargic because our bodies have to work harder to break them down.

So instead, eat a lunch that has an almost equal amount of protein and carbs, like a roasted turkey sandwich. The protein helps protect your blood sugar from sharp peaks and valleys and also keeps your energy levels steady. Then have smaller, well-spaced snacks of fruits, vegetables and protein throughout the day to keep blood-sugar levels stable.

   2.  Get some sun

Early exposure to bright light helps set our circadian rhythm for the day. That’s why taking in some natural rays right after we wake up can help us perform better later into the day — and help us sleep better at night.

Instead of taking your morning coffee and going on Facebook or surfing the Web, take a 10-minute walk around your office building and get out in the sun. For us here in Colorado, where it’s sunny most days, this is not a difficult thing to do. Setting our circadian rhythms straight may also help steady our metabolisms. A recent study, by the International Study of Endocrinology, showed that people who bask in bright sunlight within two hours after waking tend to be thinner and better able to manage their weight.

   3. Take a break

Moving around for five to 10 minutes can help boost circulation and also stimulate the mind. Check in with coworkers to see how their day is going. Take a walk around your office building (again) or even look for a guilt-free vending machine!