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How Does Intermittent Fasting Affect Glucose Levels?

April 13, 2021
Written by
Team NutriSense
Reviewed by
intermittent fasting glucose levels

Intermittent fasting (IF) is the intentional restricting of our mealtimes to maximize health. Media coverage tends to paint IF as the latest fad diet … except it’s neither a fad nor a diet. IF existed long before it blipped on Google Trends (before humans could read or write, actually, but more on that later). IF lacks other diets’ bizarre rules: “eat only grapefruit” or “drink cabbage juice.”

IF really isn’t a “diet.” Think of intermittent fasting like the dietary cousin to restricting kids’ screen time. Limiting computer time keeps our kids from gorging on YouTube and helps their developing brains. IF does the same for our bodies.

Quick background on intermittent fasting

Simplicity

The secret to IF’s appeal is its simplicity. You merely don’t eat for a certain number of hours per day (or days per week). Those who practice 16/8 IF, for example, fast for 16 hours and then allow themselves food for eight hours. While a 16-hour fast sounds extreme, remember, you’ll probably be asleep for eight of those hours. And, really, we shouldn’t be eating late at night anyway, right? Paired with a sensible meal plan, IF can be a powerful tool for controlling blood sugar levels.

Fad diets fail because they ask us to juggle a thousand different rules. Is this vegetable Keto-approved? Are these burgers Paleo? IF replaces the maze of rules with one simple code: only eat during a set window of time.

Evolutionarily normal

The way most Americans eat—breakfast when we wake, lunch near noon and dinner near sunset—is a new-ish invention. Three meals just happened to fit the Industrial Revolution workday. Even in modern times, “three square meals'' isn't universal. Non-diabetics with hypoglycemia, for example, often eat many smaller meals a day to regulate blood sugar. Many farming cultures eat five or six meals a day. The Greeks and Spanish are infamous for their 11pm “dinners.” 

For most of human history, we ate what we could when we could. We have body fat for a reason, after all. When our ancestors failed hunting Mammoths, fat kept them alive. When they found a walnut grove, our ancestors gorged to build up fat reserves. Simply put, our forebears lived in a perpetual state of intermittent fasting.

Ages of hunter-gathering shaped our bodies. From an evolutionary standpoint, intermittent fasting is more “normal” than breakfast-lunch-dinner. Add in issues brought on by our modern processed foods, ultra-rich and sugar-heavy, and it becomes clear that maybe IF, biologically speaking, is the way to go.

intermittent fasting weight loss

Weight loss

This is the hook for most people to try IF. Systematic studies show a strong correlation between IF and weight loss. Between 2001 and 2009, 27 different trials examined the interplay of IF and weight loss. Participants lost weight in all 27 trials. That’s an astounding result. 

The asterisk here (there’s always an asterisk, right?) is that the study of intermittent fasting is a relatively nascent field. Established science generally stretches back decades and centuries. Scientists need much more data before definitely linking IF and weight loss. Still, participants losing weight in 27 of 27 IF trials is a very promising start.

Longevity

The other interesting aspect of IF is its potential to extend human lifespan. Obviously, weight loss lowers our risk for a whole host of diseases. Less disease means longer life. IF offers more than that, though. Emerging science suggests that IF affects our bodies on a cellular level, improving health and increasing lifespans.

Autophagy is the process by which our cells break down old materials. Think of it as cellular recycling. Enzymes break down cellular waste and use the product to build fresh new cells. Science suggests intermittent fasting increases autophagy, making our cells more efficient recyclers. This makes us, on a cellular level, “younger.”

IF also increases mitochondrial efficiency. Those who still remember their paper plate/jelly bean cell projects from middle school will proudly tell you the mitochondria is “the powerhouse of the cell.” Mitochondria produce the chemical energy our cells rely on. As we age, our mitochondria become less efficient. Studies show, however, that IF reverses cellular aging, giving us the mitochondria of a (relative) teenager.

what is intermittent fasting

Things to consider before intermittent fasting

Though the benefits of IF are alluring, it must be said that this kind of deliberate restriction isn’t for everyone.

The chronically underweight and those who suffer eating disorders

Twitter Founder and CEO Jack Dorsey claims eating one meal a day (OMAD) gives him a laser-like focus. If Dorsey were a woman, though, especially a young woman, would we call his habits “intermittent fasting” or would we call them an “eating disorder?” The line can be blurry. And for those who have suffered past eating disorders or the chronically underweight, it’s a line best avoided.

Pregnant and breastfeeding women

IF probably isn’t a great idea for pregnant and breastfeeding women. IF’s caloric restriction can negatively impact fetal development. And because breastmilk nutrition is largely informed by what the mother eats, restricting diet during breastfeeding can produce less nutritious milk.

Chronic fatigue and burnout

The “warning label” on most every scientific study of IF is how it interplays with stress. Deliberately restricting our caloric intake puts a stress on our bodies. For most, this low-level stress is beneficial. It does, after all, help us lose weight and revitalize our cells. 

However, for those who already live under a high degree of bodily stress, or those who pair IF with other activities such as cold therapy or lots of high intensity training, extended IF can overload our body’s stress tolerance and cause negative effects.

Insulin therapy and hypoglycemic medications

Because IF directly affects our body’s production of blood sugar, those on insulin therapy or medications that cause hypoglycemia should contact their doctor before beginning an IF regimen.

guide to intermittent fasting

How intermittent fasting affects glucose levels

When it comes to IF and blood glucose, the results are so much more than just calories and weight loss. IF is a boon for numerous bodily systems. It lowers blood glucose. It increases our bodies’ sensitivity to insulin. It reduces inflammation. It makes our digestive and metabolic processes more adaptable, and it can even change when and how our bodies make blood sugar.

Lower insulin levels

While our body does produce some insulin throughout the day, the majority of insulin release happens when we eat. Counting meals and snacks, the typical adult eats six or seven times a day. This means our insulin levels spike six or seven times a day. IF, by reducing the frequency of eating and snacking, lessens our insulin spikes and reduces our body’s overall insulin levels.

Why is this good? Because, in addition to its role in regulating our blood sugar levels, insulin plays a part in cell growth, and both DNA and RNA synthesis. Dangerous increases in insulin levels not only impact our blood sugar, but can hinder cell growth and bodily regeneration.

Increased insulin sensitivity

IF’s increased insulin sensitivity goes hand-in-hand with reduced insulin levels. The more our insulin spikes, the more our body becomes accustomed to insulin (like needing more coffee in the morning the longer you drink it). So the next time we eat, our body needs to spike even more insulin to get the job done. 

Additionally, reductions in adiposity (the scientific term for losing body fat) increase our sensitivity to insulin. And wouldn’t you know? One of the benefits of IF is that the weight we lose tends to be fat. This reduces our “adiposity” and increases our insulin sensitivity. 

Even with no weight loss, with no reduction in our body fat, science suggests IF still increases our bodies’ sensitivity to insulin. The bodily changes triggered by IF tend to “reprogram” our metabolism. In this scenario, our bodies are like a computer on the fritz—turning it off and back on again usually fixes the problem. IF is like a power switch, resetting how our bodies respond to insulin. Increased insulin sensitivity means our bodies require less insulin to lower our blood glucose.

how to intermittent fasting

Lower inflammation

Our bodies become inflamed as a response to stressors. We often think of stressors as germs or viruses, but the process of metabolizing food is an energy-intensive process that puts oxidative stress on our bodies. Too much oxidative stress makes it difficult for our bodies to detoxify; it’s why so many products and supplements tout themselves as “antioxidants.”

IF, it turns out, is a kind of all-natural antioxidant. Because those who practice IF intentionally limit when they eat, they also, by extension, limit the oxidative stress of metabolism. Limiting this kind of stress is key; a number of diseases—Alzheimers, Parkinson’s, and, most pertinently, diabetes—are thought to arise from excess inflammation and oxidative stress. Lowering inflammation through IF can reduce our susceptibility to these diseases and lessen our symptoms if we already have them. 

Improved metabolic flexibility

As we talked about above, humans aren’t really designed for “three square meals a day.” We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to subsist through cycles of feast and famine. Our ancestors couldn’t just call for fast-food delivery when they got the munchies. The food they did get wasn’t always nutritionally sound, either, meaning the body jealously stored whatever nutrients it could find.

IF simulates our evolutionary feast and famine cycles, but on a much smaller scale. It trains our bodies to smartly use it’s metabolic resources. For example, if your stomach is empty and your body needs energy, IF trains it to metabolize fat reserves as nature intended. This tends to stabilize our blood sugar levels, flattening peaks and lifting valleys. This kind of metabolic flexibility also reduces the side-effects of hunger, meaning we won’t get “hangry” if we’re a few minutes late for dinner.

intermittent fasting meal plan

Early time restricted eating

One of the hidden superpowers of IF is how it boosts our natural circadian rhythms. Deep within everyone’s brain is a master clock that, taking into account external data such as sunlight, nudges our bodies toward certain activities. This circadian rhythm, as it's called, is like having a smartphone pre-set with a whole day’s worth of alarms—wake up, eat lunch, etc.—but much less annoying.

Our circadian rhythm includes a glucose/insulin timer. Sensitivity to insulin actually decreases as the day wears on. It takes our bodies longer to process a piece of toast at 9 PM than it does at noon. Those who practice early time-restricted feeding IF, (sticking with a 16:8 pattern but eating only between 10AM and 6 PM, say), boost insulin’s circadian effectiveness. Overall insulin sensitivity rises. Mean glucose levels fall. By shifting our eating window earlier in the day, we are aligning our food intake with when our body is naturally most insulin sensitive, reducing spikes in insulin and blood sugar.

monitor intermittent fasting

How to monitor your blood sugar levels with intermittent fasting

Continuous Blood Glucose Monitors

The important factor here, the one we’ve yet to talk about, is data. Certainly those who practice IF will feel the differences in energy level, but how our bodies feel doesn’t always line up with how our bodies function. We need a steady stream of hard data to ensure our bodies are working like they should.

In this case, a Continuous Glucose Monitor (CGM) is key. CGMs, like those offered from NutriSense, put the power of data in the palm of our hands. Just like the jogger who tends to run faster when they see their pace displayed on their smartphone, we eat smarter and lower our glucose when we have the easy, continual blood sugar data a CGM provides. This data stream is so important, in fact, that many of the studies linking IF to lower glucose levels actually use CGMs to gather data.

With the aid of a quality CGM, we can try on different IF regimes—OMAD, 5:2, or 16/8—like we try on jeans. The glucose data will tell us which kind of IF is the best fit. A CGM gives us instant, reliable blood glucose information to maximize the health benefits of intermittent fasting.

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How Does Intermittent Fasting Affect Glucose Levels?
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Pairing Your Food: Are there Good and Bad Combinations?
Pairing Your Food: Are there Good and Bad Combinations?

Are eggs and beans bad for you? Should you forgo the fruit juice with your cereal at breakfast? The NutriSense Nutrition Team tells you more about how healthy some common food pairings are for you.

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8
min
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Eating for Endurance
Eating for Endurance

Learn everything you need to know about eating if you are an endurance athlete.

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12
min
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A Closer Look at Heart Rate Variability
A Closer Look at Heart Rate Variability

Heart rate variability is the variation in time between your heartbeats. Learn more about it, why tracking your trends matters and how it can give you insights into your fitness, stress, diet, and overall health.

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8
min
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Living with Autoimmune Conditions: Multiple Sclerosis
Living with Autoimmune Conditions: Multiple Sclerosis

Living with an autoimmune condition can be challenging. Continuing our series on these conditions, learn more about detecting, treating, and managing Multiple Sclerosis.

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6
min
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Reading Nutrition Facts Labels Like a Pro: Dietitian Tips and Tricks
Reading Nutrition Facts Labels Like a Pro: Dietitian Tips and Tricks

When you're looking to buy a specific food product, the nutrition facts label can help you make informed choices about the foods you eat. Our dietitians put some tips together on what to look for on nutrition labels to make the best choices for your health.

Podcast
46
min
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FUELED | Wellness + Nutrition with Molly Kimball
FUELED | Wellness + Nutrition with Molly Kimball

Molly Downey, RDN, LDN, nutrition manager at NutriSense, delves into all things glucose and wellness, and how devices like these can inform us about our health, on this episode of FUELED with Molly Kimball.

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8
min
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Are Sardines Good for Your Health?
Are Sardines Good for Your Health?

Sardines are small, but they pack a big nutritional punch! Learn more about the health benefits associated with eating them and check out some fun facts about this flavorful, nutrient-dense food.

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9
min
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9 Essential Ways to Track Your Fitness (That Don’t Involve a Scale)
9 Essential Ways to Track Your Fitness (That Don’t Involve a Scale)

Most fitness tracking metrics involve stepping on the scale, but they don't always have to! Here are nine other ways to track your fitness.

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14
min
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Foods You Should Avoid Eating If You Have Prediabetes
Foods You Should Avoid Eating If You Have Prediabetes

There are many food items that can worsen the effects of prediabetes. Here are some foods you should avoid or limit your intake of throughout your day.

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11
min
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How Many Meals Should You Eat in a Day?
How Many Meals Should You Eat in a Day?

What's the perfect time to eat, and how many meals should you eat in a day? Explore how eating at different times and frequencies each day impacts your body and blood glucose.

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6
min
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NutriSense Dietitians Recommend: Glucose-Friendly Apple Cider Vinegar Drinks
NutriSense Dietitians Recommend: Glucose-Friendly Apple Cider Vinegar Drinks

Looking for a way to add apple cider vinegar into your diet? Start with some of these delicious glucose-friendly ACV drinks, recommended by our Nutrition Team.

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8
min
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Benefits of Walking After Eating: From Regulating Blood Sugar To Lowering Blood Pressure 
Benefits of Walking After Eating: From Regulating Blood Sugar To Lowering Blood Pressure 

Find out how taking a walk after your next meal can benefit various aspects of your health, including your blood glucose levels.

Podcast
55
min
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I Think, I Can—Using Technology as a Window Into Your Physiology
I Think, I Can—Using Technology as a Window Into Your Physiology

Molly explains how using a continuous glucose monitor is what personalized health care means. If you want to fine-tune your health, tune in to this special episode of I Think, I Can.

Podcast
10
min
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My Day | My Life: Nutritionist Carlee Hayes' Canine Cuddles
My Day | My Life: Nutritionist Carlee Hayes' Canine Cuddles

My Day | My Life explores the lives of people who have, in one way or another, mastered the art of aging. In this episode, meet Carlee Hayes, dietitian and Nutrition Manager at NutriSense.

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9
min
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Common Workout Injuries and How to Prevent Them
Common Workout Injuries and How to Prevent Them

Worried about getting injured during your next workout? Learn about the most common workout injuries, how they can affect blood glucose levels, and some tips to help you prevent them.

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6
min
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Eat with NutriSense This St. Patrick's Day
Eat with NutriSense This St. Patrick's Day

Would eating the same meal, at the same time, have the same blood glucose response for three different people? See what our team found out after sampling a delicious corned beef and cabbage dish in preparation for St. Patrick's Day!

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7
min
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Build Healthy Habits During Lent
Build Healthy Habits During Lent

Do you know what you're giving up for Lent this year? For those who observe it, this can be a good time to give up bad habits, and add healthy ones into your routine! Read on to find out more about how to build healthy habits this season.

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11
min
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Do You Know How Healthy Your Breakfast Cereal Is?
Do You Know How Healthy Your Breakfast Cereal Is?

Cereal is one of the most popular breakfast foods out there—but how healthy is it, really? Review the nutritional content of some popular breakfast cereals, and learn how to choose a healthy option for your individual needs.

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9
min
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Obesity: What You Should Know and Some New Research on the Condition
Obesity: What You Should Know and Some New Research on the Condition

Did you know that more than two in five adults have obesity? Find out more about the pressing public health issue, review some new research that is shedding light on the condition, and learn how to diagnose and treat it.

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7
min
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Tips for a Healthy, Happy Purim
Tips for a Healthy, Happy Purim

Purim, a joyous occasion celebrated around March or April every year, is just around the corner! Read on to learn more about the holiday and the delicious foods that accompany it.

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9
min
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Vinegar and Blood Sugar: Does It Lower It?
Vinegar and Blood Sugar: Does It Lower It?

Read on to find out what impact, if any, vinegar really has on our body’s ability to balance blood sugar.

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8
min
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Meal Frequency and Insulin Sensitivity: How Many Times Should You be Eating in a Day?
Meal Frequency and Insulin Sensitivity: How Many Times Should You be Eating in a Day?

If you have insulin sensitivity, is eating two large meals a day or three to five smaller meals better? Find out more about the relationship between meal frequency and insulin sensitivity, and how many times you should be eating in a day.

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9
min
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Understanding the Causes and Symptoms of Endometriosis
Understanding the Causes and Symptoms of Endometriosis

Endometriosis is a common yet often ignored condition. Learn more about the symptoms to watch out for, how you can seek treatment, and read first-hand accounts from two women who have dealt with endometriosis.

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8
min
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The Benefits and Risks of Popular Ayurvedic Herbs and Spices
The Benefits and Risks of Popular Ayurvedic Herbs and Spices

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian holistic healing system that dates back over 5,000 years. In the second installment of our series on the practice, review the benefits and risks associated with popular Ayurvedic herbs and spices.

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7
min
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Can Eating Pizza Raise Your Blood Glucose Levels?
Can Eating Pizza Raise Your Blood Glucose Levels?

Pizza can be challenging to enjoy eating without worrying about how it affects your health. But while it may be indulgent, it is possible to prepare or order it in a way that won’t wreak havoc on your health or blood sugar levels. Read on to find out more!

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8
min
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Do Artificial Sweeteners Raise Insulin Levels?
Do Artificial Sweeteners Raise Insulin Levels?

Review our post on the impacts artificial sweeteners have on blood glucose, insulin, and other areas of your personal health.

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8
min
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What Research Says About Sleep and Blood Sugar Levels
What Research Says About Sleep and Blood Sugar Levels

Recent research has shown that sleep and blood glucose are intricately connected. Read on to learn more about what this means for your blood sugar levels and overall health.

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8
min
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Understanding the Relationship Between Menopause and Metabolic Health
Understanding the Relationship Between Menopause and Metabolic Health

Did you know that menopause can affect your metabolic health, and vice versa? Read on to understand the relationship between metabolic health and menopause, and how to manage metabolic health during your menopausal journey. 

Podcast
57
min
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How a Continuous Blood Sugar Monitor Can Help You Find Your Perfect Diet
How a Continuous Blood Sugar Monitor Can Help You Find Your Perfect Diet

In this episode learn the truth about how we react to certain foods in regards to our blood sugar response and how you can tailor your diet according to your CGM results.

Podcast
66
min
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All About Blood Sugar With Molly Downey, RDN
All About Blood Sugar With Molly Downey, RDN

This week, dive into how to eat your carbs and manage your blood sugar, too with Molly Downey, RDN, LDN.

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8
min
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A NutriSense Dietitian's Favorite Kitchen Staples
A NutriSense Dietitian's Favorite Kitchen Staples

Food can be fun, pleasurable, and nutritious all at the same time. Read on to learn more about the two nutrient-dense kitchen staples one of our dietitians swears by to help optimize her health!

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10
min
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10 Tastiest Nutrient-Dense Foods From Around the World
10 Tastiest Nutrient-Dense Foods From Around the World

Instead of the type or amount of food you eat, you should focus on the amount of nutrients you're adding to every meal. Here are some of our favorite nutrient-dense foods from around the world to help you get started.

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7
min
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Do Pineapples Raise Blood Sugar Levels?
Do Pineapples Raise Blood Sugar Levels?

Learn everything you need to know about pineapples, your health, and your blood glucose levels, and see how our dietitians like to eat the sweet, tropical fruit. 

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14
min
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Setting Up The Right Diet Plan For Prediabetes [+Sample Diet Plan Included]
Setting Up The Right Diet Plan For Prediabetes [+Sample Diet Plan Included]

Learn more about the relationship between prediabetes and your diet, and see how to build a diet plan that works for you with some great tips, tricks and recipes from our nutrition team!

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9
min
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What You Should Know About Acupuncture
What You Should Know About Acupuncture

Learn more about the research on, as well as the benefits and risks of acupuncture, a form of alternative medicine that involves inserting needles into your body for pain and stress relief.

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6
min
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Triglycerides and Blood Glucose [+Tips to Lower Triglyceride Levels]
Triglycerides and Blood Glucose [+Tips to Lower Triglyceride Levels]

Learn everything you need to know about the relationship between triglycerides levels and blood glucose.


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5
min
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A Guide to Ayurveda
A Guide to Ayurveda

From acupuncture to chiropractic treatments and homeopathy to holistic healing, complementary and alternative medicine is increasing in popularity. Read on to learn more about Ayurveda, a healing system that originated in India thousands of years ago.  

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7
min
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Sugar and Cholesterol: Does Sugar Raise Your Cholesterol Levels?
Sugar and Cholesterol: Does Sugar Raise Your Cholesterol Levels?

Learn about the impact sugar has on your cholesterol levels and ways to manage your sugar intake.