Sweets and Lows: The best—and lightest—ways to treat hypoglycemia

Question:

What are some good ways to treat low blood sugar levels without adding too many calories?

Answer:

I think that most people with type 1 diabetes (T1D) have experienced the dilemma of getting a low blood glucose (sugar) level and having to treat it with an uncomfortably high number of calories. I remember that just after I was diagnosed, I gained a bit of weight. And even though I had been at an unhealthy weight when I was diagnosed, it was still upsetting to me that I started to gain weight and couldn’t get a handle on it. Suddenly, my diet and eating patterns had to change to accommodate my T1D. The fear of going too low made me overcompensate when I noticed that my blood sugar was dropping. I had no idea how to manage the additional calories that I didn’t account for in my usual diet plan—calories that, to make matters worse, often had to be added at night. So I set myself a goal: I would find easy ways to get my blood glucose up to a normal level with fewer than 100 calories.

I have discovered a handful of options, and I’ll describe all of them, but first let me stress my most trusted way to raise low blood sugar—glucose tablets. Usually distributed by companies like Dex4 or ReliOne, you can find them in many national chain stores. Why do I love glucose tablets? Let me count the ways (and the calories).

  1. Each tablet has 15 calories and 4 grams of carbohydrates (CHO). I have found that three tablets (45 calories, 12 grams CHO) is the average amount I personally need to treat a low blood glucose level. It is so easy to measure how much you’re consuming, just by counting the tablets, which works out a lot better than just grabbing a handful of gummy bears and not knowing—afterward—how many you really ate.
  2. I’ve also found that while the glucose tablets are tasty, they’re not that tasty. I have zero willpower when it comes to candy. I can say to myself, “15 gummy bears equals three glucose tablets,” but I cannot control my hand from grabbing just a few more, and then a few more, which slowly but surely results in me consuming the entire bag. Glucose tablets, however, are big and dry, and harder to chew and swallow than most sweets—not something I would keep snacking on after getting my blood sugar level back to normal.
  3. Glucose tablets are located in the medical section of the store—not the candy aisle—and their packaging is not enticing like a colorful pack of candy. This really helps me remember that they are not a treat. At home, I place my glucose tablets in a separate cabinet from my snacks, so when I grab them, my mind is focused on treating a medical issue, not on nibbling.

But man cannot live by glucose tablets alone, and I’ve got a few tried-and-true methods to effectively treat a low blood sugar without bringing your calorie count too high.

    • Practice portion control. Check out the supermarket for prepackaged snacks that are limited in size and calories. Always make sure that the amount of CHO is what you need, because when you are low, your body will need CHO and won’t really care about calories. For example, eating a 100-calorie pack of beef jerky, which has a lot of protein but only a few grams of CHO, will not immediately raise your blood sugar, leading to a potentially dangerous situation. I’ve relied on prepackaged, 100-calorie bags of cookies, granola snacks, and even dried fruit. For example, Cinnamon Flavor Quaker® Granola Bites have 90 calories and 14 grams of CHO per bag. Just resist the urge to grab another bag if you don’t really need it.
    • Play the numbers. granola barAnother option is to memorize the number of calories in your favorite fruits and make sure they are available when you need them. Keep it simple with a cup of grapes (about 70 calories, 15 grams CHO) or a medium-size tangerine (about 50 calories, 12 grams CHO). And as a year-round option to keep on hand, stock up on convenient, portion-controlled canned fruit. One easy pick is the pop-top cans of peaches in light syrup (Del Monte brand 4-ounce cans each contain 50 calories, 13 grams CHO).
    • Know your temptation. One thing I know to avoid during a hypoglycemic event is that leftover piece of cake that’s calling my name from the refrigerator. I have never succeeded in using cake to raise a low glucose level. I always end up eating too much too quickly—which results in overcompensating into a high glucose level. I’ve also had to practice caution with goodies like Hershey’s Kisses®. Four of the little sweeties deliver just under 90 calories and about 13 grams of CHO—but who can stop at four?
    • Lock in laser focus. My endocrinologist suggested convincing myself that when my blood glucose level is low, it is a time to focus on getting it to a healthy level—not a time to relax and snack. She said to treat it with the same mentality I would a high blood glucose level. For example, with a high glucose level, you would carefully measure the amount of insulin that you need, because overcompensating is dangerous. The same mentality should be used when treating a low glucose level—consider what level you are at, how rapidly you are dropping, what level you want to be at, and how much food it will take to get you there. If you do go with the method of eating sweets, try to convince yourself that, medically, consuming too much will be counteractive to the greater issue at hand, which is getting your glucose levels back to normal.

No matter which of these methods—or which combination of them—works for you, in the end, you’ll achieve two things: one, when your blood sugar is back up to a healthy level, you’ll know how much you ate to get it there; and two, you’ll be able to successfully resist the urge to gobble more.