Instagram accounts like @glucosegoddess have gone viral for promoting the link between sweet, starchy foods and hormone health. But can changing your diet help with day-to-day health and energy levels? 

Hormone health has been a big topic of discussion recently in the world of health and fitness, from conversations around coming off the pill to studies looking at the link between gut health and serotonin. And many dietitians and nutritionists believe the food we eat could be having an impact on our hormones, particularly for women who struggle with conditions such as PCOS and endometriosis.

In particular, there has been a lot of talk about the impact of glucose and blood sugar spikes on hormonal health, mostly via social media content created by people like biochemist and author Jessie Inchauspé, who runs the Instagram account @glucosegoddess. 

Inchauspé’s ideas are based on the idea that glucose – which is a simple sugar broken down from food that contains carbohydrates and is used as our body’s main source of energy – isn’t just something people with diabetes should be concerned with, as has often been the case in the past. 

According to Inchauspé, glucose spikes are something that can affect everything from energy, cravings, sleep, ageing, fertility and skin, especially for women, and she creates content around how to minimise glucose spikes to prevent this.

What is a glucose spike and what causes it?

So, what exactly is a glucose spike? Essentially, it’s a temporary rise in blood sugar followed by a drop in blood sugar that can make you feel very energised quickly after eating an unbalanced meal that is high in carbohydrates, and tired and sluggish shortly after. 

“When you’ve got lots of insulin going around you, your body is working hard to manage your blood glucose which can make it feel hard to concentrate and like your body is fighting against you,” explains dietitian Sophie Medlin.

There isn’t a huge amount of research on how blood sugar spikes affect people without diabetes. However, one 2008 study looking at “normal subjects” as well as people with type 2 diabetes found that glucose spikes and sharp drops could have a negative impact on endothelial function (which regulates blood clotting and assists the body’s immune response, among other things) and oxidative stress (which can lead to fatigue, memory loss, brain fog and muscle or joint pain) for both groups.

On social media, Inchauspé often recommends that people avoid sweet, carb-heavy breakfasts, and instead opt for a well-balanced, high-protein meal to start the day. This is because having a breakfast that is high in carbohydrates and sugar – for example, common choices such as cereal or jam on toast – can spike your glucose levels, which could have a negative impact on your energy levels throughout the day.

Why are glucose spikes an issue for people with hormonal conditions like PCOS?

This is especially important for women who struggle with hormonal conditions like PCOS, who might have a natural resistance to insulin. 

“When we have an influx of glucose, which happens after any meal that contains carbohydrates, we’re going to see an increase in our glucose levels and our body’s natural response is then to release insulin,” explains Jodie Relf, a registered dietitian and brand ambassador for PCOS supplement brand MyOva. 

“The insulin acts like a key, moving to the cells of the body and opening them up so that the glucose can move from the bloodstream into the cells. But for people with PCOS, there is something wrong with that lock and key mechanism.”

This means that for women with certain hormonal conditions, glucose often isn’t transferred into the cells as a source of energy. Instead, it stays in the bloodstream. Increased levels of glucose in the bloodstream on a regular basis over long periods of time can increase the risk of diabetes, so glucose spikes can be a serious problem.

On top of this, because of this process, the body tends to produce more insulin, because it hasn’t reached the cells, which can cause a rise in the body’s overall insulin levels. “As a result of this, when our insulin levels are elevated, a hormone called sex hormone binding globulin (SHBG), which binds to any excess oestrogen and testosterone in the system, decreases. This means that the oestrogen and our testosterone levels increase,” Delf explains.

Increased oestrogen and testosterone levels are what cause some of the common symptoms of PCOS, such as acne, unusual hair growth and irregular or absent periods. For this reason, managing glucose spikes is thought to be especially important and useful for people with conditions such as PCOS.

What if you don’t have a hormonal issue?

But is it really that important for the average person? According to Medlin, it shouldn’t be something people without hormonal conditions should be seriously concerned about. “Some variation in your blood glucose is really normal and it’s actually healthy and important that your body does that,” she explains. 

But she does caveat that by explaining that managing glucose spikes could certainly help with energy levels and brain fog: “Having an even blood glucose throughout the day with smaller peaks and troughs is much more manageable for people when it comes to concentration and focus.”

There have been some studies that back this up. A 2018 paper found that increased glucose intake could negatively impact cognitive performance, while a 2014 study suggested that high carbohydrate breakfasts spike glucose and lead to an earlier return of appetite, so might be less satiating. 2011 research found that increased glucose spikes could lead to increased cravings too – and nothing disturbs your workflow like the thought of what’s lining the shelves of your cupboards.

Which foods spike glucose levels?

It’s crucial to remember that managing your blood sugar levels isn’t about cutting out carbs. “There are carbs that are good for maintaining our blood sugars, like wholegrains for example,” Medlin says.

Rather than cutting out carbs, it’s about eating varied, well-balanced meals, which is something few of us do at breakfast time. Plus, it’s a good idea to avoid cakes, pastries and white breads, because these foods contain refined carbohydrates, which break down in the body very quickly, leading to sharp glucose spikes. “What we need to aim for is that we’re pairing our carbohydrates with fibre, protein or fat – or all three of those things,” Relf recommends.

Switching to savoury breakfasts: the experiment

As someone with no known hormonal conditions, I was interested to see what kind of effect eating more balanced breakfasts would have on me in the short-term. Usually, I eat the same breakfast every day – porridge, a banana, berries, cinnamon and honey. I decided to switch to savoury options, incorporating a mix of healthy fats, protein, fibre and carbs into each meal.

Day one

What I ate: 1 piece of sourdough toast, half an avocado, 1 fried egg and 2 Richmond vegetarian sausages.

How I felt: I woke up with a sweet craving this morning and was a bit annoyed about the fact I’d committed to eating a savoury breakfast. I felt full after eating this meal, but I still had a sweet craving, so I had a glass of orange juice. I definitely felt satiated for longer than usual after eating this meal. Normally, the hunger pangs kick in a couple of hours after breakfast, but today, I definitely felt fuller for longer.

Day two

What I ate: 2 pieces of sourdough toast, 1 avocado, scrambled egg, feta and walnuts.

How I felt: This is one of my go-to lunches, so I decided to have it for breakfast. Again, I had a sweet craving as soon as I woke up and immediately after eating, but I ignored it this time and it had gone 30 minutes after eating. I did notice that I wasn’t having as many sweet cravings as usual throughout the day, but that could have been a coincidence.

Day three

What I ate: A spring onion and feta omelette.

How I felt: I did a morning gym session today before eating and I didn’t have any sweet cravings afterwards. After eating the omelette, I felt more full and energised than normal – plus, this was a really delicious breakfast. I got hungry at around 12pm, which is about the same time as normal, and I did have some sweet cravings in the afternoon.

Day four

What I ate: 2 crumpets, 1 avocado, 2 fried eggs, feta.

How I felt: I really enjoyed this breakfast and it kept me full until about 1:30pm. I think having a combination of carbs and eggs seems to be a filling combination for me.

Day five

What I ate: 2 crumpets with butter and a banana.

How I felt: I wasn’t feeling very well today and didn’t have much of an appetite, so I had a pretty small breakfast that probably wasn’t the best for energy. It was also a carb-heavy meal with very little protein.

Day six

What I ate: 2 boiled eggs, 2 pieces of toast and a banana

How I felt: This is one of my favourite weekend breakfasts and, paired with a banana, it kept me full and satisfied until lunch.

Day seven

What I ate: I was out for brunch today so I had a croissant with eggs, cheese and garlic mushrooms.

How I felt: I felt a little bit sluggish after eating this, but energised a few hours after (and for the rest of the day).

Day eight

What I ate: 1 avocado on sourdough toast with vegan chicken and feta.

How I felt: This was probably my favourite breakfast, mostly because this mock chicken (from The Vegetarian Butcher) is so delicious (and super high in protein, which is always good with animal product replacements). I felt full all day and didn’t have as many sweet cravings around lunch or after meals as I usually do.

Is it worth switching to balanced savoury breakfasts?

Focusing on eating breakfasts that wouldn’t spike my blood sugar definitely made me think about trying to have more balanced meals. I always think about how well-balanced my lunch and dinner are, but rarely breakfast. After a week of having breakfasts packed with healthy fats, protein and fibre, I’ve noticed a positive effect on my energy, although I’d probably have to stick to the savoury breakfasts a little longer to work out if this was more than psychological. 

I did miss having my usual porridge and I’ll probably go back to having it, but to make this a more well-rounded breakfast, I’ll be adding seeds and nut butter. That’s all you need to do to increase the fibre, protein and fat content of carb-heavy meals. Simple.

3 energy-boosting, savoury breakfast ideas

  1. Avocado on toast with poached eggs
  2. Chia pudding with almond milk and nut butter
  3. Omelette with spinach, mushrooms and cheese

Images: Getty

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