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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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