science of us

I Wanted to Know My Blood Sugar

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Recently, the psychiatrist and nutritionist Georgia Ede wrote a Psychology Today post suggesting that everyone get a blood-sugar-measuring tool called a glucometer, even non-diabetics. (The post’s title: “The Number One Tool for Improving Your Health This Year.”) I’m not at risk for diabetes, but I am easily led, and I wanted one. Something about the combination of ritual, quantification, and little needles appealed to me — almost like smoking cigarettes, but with blood instead of fire. A nurse friend told me it was a bad idea. “Don’t do it,” she said. “Too much information is not good information.”

Ede’s reasoning is that glucometer use could help all people prevent diabetes, since consistently high blood sugar can be an indicator of prediabetes. According to the CDC, in 2015, 44 percent of adult Americans were either diabetic or prediabetic, with 90 percent of those prediabetes cases being undiagnosed. Also from the CDC: “Type 2 diabetes can be prevented or delayed with healthy lifestyle changes, such as losing weight, eating healthy food, and being active.”

A glucometer “leads you out of the darkness and into the light,” Ede writes, memorably, by giving you “speedy feedback” about your body’s reaction to your diet. When we eat, different foods release different amounts of glucose (sugar) into the bloodstream. This triggers the release of the hormone insulin, which then essentially shoos the glucose out of the bloodstream and into the body’s cells, for use or storage. Lingering high levels of glucose in the bloodstream can indicate diabetes or prediabetes — symptoms include fatigue, frequent urination, excessive thirst, and headaches. (Starchy, high-carbohydrate meals eaten without fat or protein typically cause the highest blood sugar spikes, although everyone’s responses are different.) Blood sugar readings can “improve rapidly when you make the right changes,” Ede writes, “which is gratifying and empowering.”

Later, I came across a long post by a non-diabetic dietician and nutritionist detailing her own experience of wearing a Continuous Glucose Monitor for a few weeks. (For which a chip was inserted under her skin.) The food that caused her blood sugar to spike the highest was the doctor-recommended meal of oatmeal and strawberries, and my curiosity reached a tipping point. I don’t eat too many foods with added sugar, but I do eat the same thing over and over, and I was curious what those meals were doing to my blood sugar. What if it was weird? So I ordered a (noncontinuous, finger-prick) glucometer kit from Amazon, for $47.

Around this point, my nurse friend, Lola Pellegrino, clarified what she meant by her warning: If I had an unusual reading, which is pretty common when people start testing stuff (even if they’re perfectly fine — the phenomenon is called the “incidentaloma”), I might freak out unnecessarily. She also introduced me to the world of positive and negative predictive values, which is basically the math of how likely a “positive” reading is actually indicative of a problem (and vice versa), and which made me feel even more ridiculous about this whole thing.

But, I was still curious, and so I tried it anyway. Also, the thing was already in the mail.

A couple days later, my four-piece kit arrived — a stopwatch-like blood reader, a packet of blue mini-lancets, a canister of blood-testing strips, and a pen-like gadget to hold the lancets and do the finger-pricking. You can adjust the depth of the lancet’s poke, and it doesn’t really hurt — you aim it into the tip or side of your finger, you squeeze a droplet of blood out, and then you touch that droplet to the strip (which you’ve already inserted into the stopwatch thingy). Once there’s enough blood on the strip, the machine gives a little beep, there’s a five-second countdown, and then it displays your blood sugar level on the screen. You can keep the whole kit in a wallet-sized black pouch, and the whole process takes about 30 seconds.

But what do my meals do to my blood sugar? The answer seems to be: nothing too crazy. Black coffee sometimes drops it a bit. Sweet apples raise it. Sweet apples with peanut or almond butter raise it less (the mitigation of fat and protein?).

I’m glad the numbers have been normal, but it ultimately hasn’t been that useful, and now I have a glucometer that I will probably stop using soon. I’ve been trying to press it on my friends, since all the strips and lancets are sterile — maybe it could be like the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants — but so far no one has been especially eager. Why? How is everyone else not obsessed with this, too? It’s all right there on Amazon, people.

Or maybe the question should be, why are these things so tempting to me?

I Wanted to Know My Blood Sugar