A nutrient-dense meal that has all the right foods for you should leave you feeling energized, satiated, and satisfied. After all, that’s the point of eating: to fuel your body with energy and provide it with the nutrients it needs.
However, you may be familiar with an uncomfortable sensation after eating that leaves you feeling sluggish, tired, and bloated after eating. So, what gives?
Your postprandial, or post-meal, glucose response plays a big role in how you feel after eating. A poor glucose response can be what leads to that sluggish and tired feeling. Luckily, there are effective ways to manage your postprandial glucose response.
In this article, we share the major culprits of post-meal blood glucose spikes and some actionable tips to help you optimize your postprandial glucose response.
Reasons Why Your Blood Sugar Levels Spike After Eating
While each individual may see their postprandial blood glucose spikes coming from a variety of factors, a majority of them can be traced to three common culprits. Let’s explore each one of these culprits in depth to see how different factors can affect your blood glucose.
1) Your Meal Was High in Carbs
Both simple carbohydrates and complex carbs are broken down into glucose in the body. When you eat a carb-heavy meal, naturally, your blood glucose levels can rise sharply. This may be especially true when the carbs you consume are not paired with fiber or protein sources to slow down your body’s digestion. Board-certified bariatric physician Dr. Kevin Huffman shares:
"Factors such as the type of food consumed and its glycemic index—a measure of how quickly foods break down during digestion to release glucose—are pivotal contributors to postprandial blood sugar spikes. Meals rich in carbs with higher glycemic index values are associated with a more rapid increase in blood glucose levels." - Dr. Kevin Huffman
What happens in the case of a “carb coma” is that there’s a large influx of glucose. And if the body is unable to process the glucose effectively, which helps glucose get into cells to be used properly for many functions, the glucose “sits” in the blood. This leads to high blood sugar levels.
Examples of foods that are considered simple carbohydrates include:
- Fruits without skin (the skin of fruits typically contains fiber)
- Refined grains like white bread
- Sugary beverages like soda, juice, summer drinks like slushies, iced coffee with added sugar
These foods can contribute to blood glucose fluctuations that negatively impact your energy levels and how you feel post-meal.
2) Poor Sleep
Sleep plays a major role in so many of our bodily functions. It helps to regulate appetite, improve mood, and boost cognitive function. Another important role of sleep is that it helps to regulate blood glucose levels. It does this in a couple of different ways.
The first is by helping to regulate appetite. Research has shown that low levels of sleep or poor quality of sleep can affect how your body regulates your appetite. Sleep influences your appetite through affecting levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone, and leptin, the satiety hormone.
Research has also shown that a lack of sleep reduces leptin levels. This means that when you wake up the next day, you’ll be feeling hungrier. This imbalanced hunger can cause you to overeat and eat carb heavy meals, which can lead to blood glucose spikes.
The second way sleep is by directly affecting glucose metabolism. Poor sleep can negatively impact glucose metabolism and increase risk of high blood sugar related conditions.
Too much stress can increase insulin resistance and lead to poor blood glucose levels. Stress can come from a variety of sources, ranging from emotional trauma to infections, physical activity, and even nutrient imbalances.
Dr. Ramit Singh Sambyal of ClinicSpots shares, "stress releases hormones that increase blood sugar levels to provide energy. This is helpful in short-term stressful situations but chronic stress can cause persistently high blood sugar levels."
According to Diabetes UK, stress results in high levels of hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These hormones, like inflammatory molecules, will make it harder for your body to respond to insulin properly. That’s why reducing stress can help to reduce inflammation, helps regulate hunger, and can help to keep your glucose levels stable too.
How Long After Eating Does Blood Sugar Return to Normal?
This is a complex question that requires a more detailed answer. It really depends! Some factors that can affect your blood sugar levels are:
- Your metabolic health
- Your insulin sensitivity
- Whether you had a carb heavy meal and what other macronutrients were present alongside it
- Whether your meal included the right foods for your body
If your blood sugar remains elevated, here are a few things you can do to get your levels down in a hurry.
What Should Your Blood Sugar Be 3 Hours After Eating?
Blood glucose levels between 70 to 99 mg/dl are considered within normal limits for those without diabetes. However, although these levels are considered normal, different individuals may thrive at different blood glucose values within this range.
The Nutrisense Nutrition Team generally recommends daily average glucose of <105 mg/dL for a healthy individual, with fasting values between 70-90 mg/dL. It’s also best to avoid repeated spikes of >140 mg/dL.
When it comes to postprandial levels, a blood glucose measurement under 140 mg/dL (7.8 mmol/L) is a normal value two to three hours after eating. In some cases, your body may actually be fully capable of a healthy glucose meal recovery response, but if the meal contains a higher fat load alongside higher carbs, the high fat can delay the release of food from your stomach.
This can cause glucose to be released in "spurts" over longer periods of time. So while some fat in your meals can be good, if you pair higher fats with higher carbs (creamy pastas, for example), you might see more negative impact on how long it takes for your glucose to return to baseline after eating.
Research also shows that postprandial blood glucose of < 55 to 60 mg/dl between two to five hours of eating is considered reactive hypoglycemia and may predict diabetes development.
Tips for Managing After-Meal Blood Sugar Spikes
Sweets are usually foods higher in sugar with very little fiber. As we discussed, these types of foods, especially added sugars, can lead to glucose spikes.
Instead, opt for foods that you love to eat and are helpful for optimal glucose responses. While you don’t have to cut your dessert out completely, you can reduce the portion size, have it with a little protein, or take a walk after to support a healthier postprandial glucose response.
As stress can contribute to inflammation and insulin resistance, it’s important to know how to manage it. Here are some effective ways to reduce stress:
- Engage in mindfulness.
- Try meditation.
- Set boundaries and block off some time in your schedule for “me time.” Take this time to do activities that fill you with joy.
- Take daily walks in nature or go hiking
- Get enough sunlight.
- Eating an anti-inflammatory, micronutrient-rich diet.
Take 10 Minute Walks After Meals
As we mentioned, daily walks have been shown to be effective for blood glucose. According to Dr. Kathryn Miller of the In Stride Clinic, "walking or cycling are examples of light to moderate exercise that can help reduce blood sugar levels by encouraging muscles to use more glucose for energy and enhancing insulin sensitivity."
Research has shown that walking after eating can significantly lower blood glucose, especially after carb-heavy meals. You can take a ten minute walk or extend it even longer. The important part is that you enjoy the walk, whether that means soaking in some sun or spending time with your pet on your walk.
Eat More Protein
Research suggests that 1.6 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight can be a good starting place for adults who engage in intense physical activity and are looking to build muscle and strength. However, protein needs can vary depending on the individual, and more may be necessary.
It’ll also be beneficial to focus on whole food, complete protein sources such as pasture raised poultry and eggs, wild caught seafood, and minimally processed red meats.
Eat More Fiber
Fiber helps to regulate blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels, which decreases your risk of getting type 2 diabetes. In fact, a meta analysis found that people consuming higher amounts of fiber had significantly lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than people who eat low amounts of fiber.
According to the analysis, the reduction in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes can range anywhere from 15 to 19 percent. Here is a general guideline from the Mayo Clinic, but keep in mind that these numbers may need to be adjusted based your unique body:
- For females, aim to consume 21 to 26 grams of fiber a day.
- For males, aim to consume 30 to 31 grams of fiber a day.
Drink More Water
Hydration is always important, but it can help manage blood glucose by:
- Regulating appetite
- Increasing your metabolic rate
- Supporting digestive and cognitive function
- Replacing high calorie and metabolic health damaging sugary beverages like soda, which can really spike blood glucose
Fluid needs can vary depending on the individual, so ask your dietitian about a specific amount you should be aiming for when it comes to getting enough water in. The Nutrisense Nutrition Team recommends adding in a pinch of salt to every eight ounces of water to maintain your electrolyte levels.
Get The Right Amount of Sleep
Because sleep plays an important role in glucose metabolism and appetite regulation, getting lots of beauty sleep in is crucial for better metabolic health. A good number to aim for is anywhere from seven to nine hours of sleep each night. Make sure that sleep is actually restful by practicing good sleep hygiene and sleeping in a dark, cool, quiet room.
Engage with Your Blood Glucose Levels with Nutrisense
Your blood sugar levels can significantly impact how your body feels and functions. That’s why stable blood glucose levels can be an important factor in supporting overall wellbeing.
With Nutrisense, you’ll be able to track your blood glucose levels over time using a CGM, so you can make lifestyle choices that support healthy living.
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Heather is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN, LDN), subject matter expert, and technical writer, with a master's degree in nutrition science from Bastyr University. She has a specialty in neuroendocrinology and has been working in the field of nutrition—including nutrition research, education, medical writing, and clinical integrative and functional nutrition—for over 15 years.