Saturday, May 1, 2010

Blood glucose variations in normal individuals: A chaotic mess

I love statistics. But statistics is the science that will tell you that each person in a group of 20 people ate half a chicken per week over six months, until you realize that 10 died because they ate nothing while the other 10 ate a full chicken every week.

Statistics is the science that will tell you that there is an “association” between these two variables: my weight from 1 to 20 years of age, and the price of gasoline during that period. These two variables are indeed highly correlated, by neither has influenced the other in any way.

This is why I often like to see the underlying numbers when I am told that such and such health measure on average is this or that, or that this or that disease is associated with elevated consumption of whatever. Statistical results must be interpreted carefully. Lying with statistics is very easy.

A case in point is that of blood glucose variations among normal individuals. Try plotting them on graphs. What do you see? A chaotic mess, even when the individuals are pre-screened to exclude anybody with blood glucose abnormalities that would even hint at pre-diabetes. You see wild fluctuations that, while not going up to levels like 200 mg/dl, are much less predictable than many people are told they should be.

Blood glucose levels are influenced by so many factors (Elliott & Elliott, 2009) that I would be surprised if they were as smooth as those in graphs that are frequently used to show how blood glucose is supposed to vary in healthy individuals. Often we see a flat line up until the time of a meal, when the line curves up rapidly and then goes down quickly. It usually peaks at around 140 mg/dl, dropping well below 120 mg/dl after 2 hours.

Those smooth graphs are usually obtained through algorithms that have statistical methods at their core. The algorithms are designed to generate a smooth representations of scattered or disorganized data points. A little bit like the algorithms in software tools that plot best-fit regression curves passing through scattered points (e.g.,

The picture below (click on it to enlarge) is from a 2006 symposium presentation by Prof. J.S. Christiansen, who is a widely cited diabetes researcher. The whole presentation is available from: It shows the blood glucose variations of 21 young and normal individuals, based on data collected over a period of 2 days. Each individual is represented by a different color. The points on each curve are actually averages of two blood glucose measurements; the original measurements themselves vary even more chaotically.

As you can see from the picture above, each individual has a unique set of responses to main meals, which are represented by the three main blood glucose peaks. Overall, blood glucose levels vary from about 50 to 170 mg/dl, and in several cases remain above 120 mg/dl after 2 hours since a large meal. They vary somewhat chaotically during the night as well, often getting up to around 110 mg/dl.

And these are only 21 individuals, not 100 or 1000. Again, these individuals were all normal (i.e., normoglycemic, in medical research parlance), with an average glycated hemoglobin (HbA1c) of 5 percent, and a range of variation of HbA1c of 4.3 to 5.4 percent.

We can safely assume that these individuals were not on a low carbohydrate diet. The spikes in blood glucose after meals suggest that they were eating foods loaded with refined carbohydrates and/or sugars, particularly for breakfast. So, we can also safely assume that they were somewhat "desensitized" (in terms of glucose response) to those types of foods. Someone who had been on a low carbohydrate diet for a while, and who would thus be more sensitive, would have had even wilder blood glucose variations in response to the same meals.

Many people measure their glucose levels throughout the day with portable glucometers, and quite a few are likely to self-diagnose as pre-diabetics when they see something that they think is a “red flag”. Examples are a blood glucose level peaking at 165 mg/dl, or remaining above 120 mg/dl after 2 hours passed since a meal. Another example is a level of 110 mg/dl when they wake up very early to go to work, after several hours of fasting.

As you can see from the picture above, these “red flag” events do occur in young normoglycemic individuals.

If seeing “red flags” helps people remove refined carbohydrates and sugars from their diet, then fine.

But it may also cause them unnecessary chronic stress, and stress can kill.


Elliott, W.H., & Elliott, D.C. (2009). Biochemistry and molecular biology. 4th Edition. New York: NY: Oxford University Press.