Eat the Shelf

I Googled the phrase “eat the shelf” yesterday and the search didn’t turn up any references. I couldn’t find people using it in the way that I’ve been using it, which is to describe the desire, when experiencing a low blood glucose, to eat everything on the shelf in the pantry or the fridge.


I don’t know its origin. I do know that my colleague Aaron, who’s had Type 1 diabetes since infancy, introduced me to the phrase many months ago. It’s the quickest and best way to say what I want—and oh how much I really want—to fix a hypoglycemic episode with any and all the food I can find.

I don’t often eat the shelf. And I know it’s not a healthy approach to correcting blood glucose levels. In fact, I’ve done it maybe three times.

But two nights ago, I wanted desperately to eat the shelf.

I was outside weeding the garden, in the heat, in the humidity, still in jeans and a long-sleeved shirt from work, and I wasn’t paying attention to my blood glucose. While kneeling near the tomatoes and some daisies, I felt the woozy warmth of an oncoming low blood glucose. Or was it from the heat and humidity? So I ignored it. My monitoring kit was in my backpack in my car, but my mind stopped doing the rational stuff. So I didn’t check. I pulled weeds for 10 more minutes.

Woozy and warm became really sweaty and shaky, so I went inside to see what was available. There wasn’t much.

We’ve been lax in our grocery shopping this past week, so what to eat? There was yogurt, some milk. And nothing tastes so good to me during a low blood glucose as orange juice or the berries part on the bottom of a cup of yogurt before mixing it up.

And those first few sips of orange juice? Nothing else quite like it during a low.

Before diabetes, I never appreciated how rejuvenating food could actually be, and I’m not sure how to describe it, but the juice or the berries…these things just taste as if it they’re putting life back into my body. The immediacy of the effect is difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t have diabetes.

But sometimes I just want to eat the shelf, and this evening was one of those times. So I sat there, post-yogurt, unsatisfied. I didn’t test. Should I test? Go back outside and get the kit? My mind wasn’t working correctly. Test? I didn’t care. I was home alone, the fan on high two feet in front of me, and all I wanted was more food. Ketones? I didn’t give a crap about ketones. Just give me carbs.

I continued to eat. A little Dove dark chocolate, a tablespoon of peanut butter. Then I realized I hadn’t had much for breakfast, or lunch, so I thought I’d just eat one of the Boca chicken patties in the freezer, with a bun. And then another. And then another tablespoon of peanut butter. Another chocolate. A glass of milk.

Within about 20 minutes I got my wits back about me and bolused for everything I’d just consumed—except for the glass of milk and the yogurt.

Eat the shelf? I came close.

There aren’t too many other words or phrases for the ravenousness that strikes during these moments. There have to be some great euphemisms or acronyms or household words lurking out there, so pass them along if you get a chance. I’m still relatively new to the world of diabetes, and I don’t spend too much time searching forums and looking online for all of the nifty ways to refer to aspects of the condition.

I’ll leave you with another word we use in our household: “Barry.” It’s my wife’s way of asking about or talking about my blood glucose (and the credit is entirely hers).

Barry? you ask. Yes, Barry. Because blood glucose is, of course, “bg,” which is, of course, “bee gee,” and so, you see, from Bee Gees to Barry Gibb to, simply, “Barry.”

And now we’ve got this new person in our house who wears horrible 70s jumpsuits and sings “Night Fever” and “Stayin’ Alive”…with a different meaning entirely.

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  • AuntChar

    I was so glad to see that other people get extremly hungry during a “low”..I’ve actually had them wake me up in the middle of the night!…And I lovingly refer to it as “bottoming out”…and then I proceed to the kitchen take a reading, which is usually around 65 and make myself a bowl of cheerios and milk, while my hands are shaking and I feel woozy!…and of course I have a second bowl to make sure I’m o.k….I do this without even checking my BS a second time….why? because I’m scared to death to go back to bed until I feel better, once that happens, I know I’ll be o.k….It scares me that it wakes me up..I’m always nervous that if I didn’t wake up with the shakes and the “almost pass out feeling” what would happen, which is why I guess that I tend to
    “eat the shelf”…and it’s always cheerios !….

  • Aaron

    Aaron here. . .
    The phrase “eat the shelf” is shortened version of from something that one of the nurses (A type 1 herself) from the Briarwood clinic once said when talking about hypo symptoms during my pump intro class a few years ago. It was something to the effect of “Sometimes when you’re really low you go into the kitchen and open up the refridgerator and you just want to eat the whole first shelf” which induced a great amount of laughter among the Type 1s in the class. “eat the whole first shelf” is the kernal of it, though. I know that part is verbatim. I’m nearly positive I’ve heard the expression used by other nurses or endos at that clinic, and it’s something my wife and I have picked up. In fact, I used to hang a sign on the front of my fridge that said “Don’t eat the whole first shelf!” because it’s something that I’ve been known to engage in from time to time.

    Another idiosyncratic diabetes word: “tippy” known only to my nuclear family and my wife, which I made up to refer to low blood sugar symptoms when I was about 2 years old (FYI to outside readers, I was diagnosed T1 at 13 months old). It’s funny, because I didn’t learn the real English word “tipsy” until much later, but both come from similar symptoms.

  • Connie.

    I’ve never heard “eat the shelf” before, but I do know the experience. I really hate it when I wake up in the middle of the night or more likely can’t go to sleep in the first place because of low blood sugar. I get up knowing I really want to “eat the shelf” and “tippy” my way to the kitchen, hoping all the way that I don’t get carried away this time. I can’t do orange juice because it’s too acidic and go for whatever is handy on any shelf trying not to overdo it – that almost never happens. Thank goodness l.b.s. doesn’t happen very often

  • Antfan

    I have Type 1 diabetes since age 11 and am 40 now. Long time. Anyways, last night, I don’t even know what time it was, I had a severely low blood sugar. No, I didn’t bother testing. I couldn’t fall asleep and that should have been a tip. I grabbed like 20 glucose tablets, which I always keep on my bedstand table. I fell asleep with the open bottle in my bed. A while later, I broke out in a horrible sweat, I mean, I was dripping. I fell trying to get to the toilet,but did manage to make it to the fridge and grab the peanut butter and a spoon. I dragged myself to the couch where the fan is always on high, and had about 6 tablespoons. Haha. Then it still didn’t seem to be working fast enough for me so I grabbed a pack of M&M’s. After the peanut butter and 2 packs of the candy, it went up and I eventually went back to sleep. It (my sugar) must have probably read ‘low’ on the meter.
    I always feel like raiding the refridgerator and I also call the low’s “Bottoming out”.

  • Char

    I always say I want to eat everything in sight. I used to have low readings about ll:00 every morning. Now I eat one tablespoon of peanut butter on an English muffin every morning and rarely get hypo at that time. If for some reason I forget to fix that to go with my cereal then I will feel that funny feeling around 11:00.

  • Don

    When i get Hypo It usually happens about 3AM even if i had a snack. I get a glass of Orange juice and a small (mini) chocaolate ]bar or two. I would like to know if any other item of food is better. I take Avandia (8mg) and Gliburide (5mg) Am and only Gliburide in PM after meal my readings range from 50 to 68 but recently I have been having problems with the OJ (diarrhea) Would Toast work better? I am type 2.

  • acampbell

    Hi Don,

    It’s best to try and treat a low blood glucose with something that is pure carb, such as juice, glucose gel, glucose tablets, or skim milk. If you use something that has fat in it, such as a chocolate bar or peanut butter, your glucose levels won’t rise as quickly as they should (fat slows down glucose absorption from the intestine into the blood). You might try glucose tablets or gel if you can’t tolerate OJ – they work pretty fast. Unbuttered toast might work, too. But it sounds like your glyburide does might be too high, since you keep having lows. I’d suggest you call your provider and see if your evening dose could be cut in half.

  • KT

    Never heard “eat the shelf” — instead in my region of the country always heard “. . . could eat the wallpaper off the walls” — sounds really tasty, right?! Explains that feeling though.

    Please define “bolused” — THANKS

  • Eric


    By “bolused” I simply mean that in my insulin pump (because I’m Type 1 and insulin-dependant) I entered the amount of carbohydrates that I’d eaten and the pump performed the calculations necessary based on my units-of-insulin to grams/carbohydrates ratio and infused the needed amount of insulin into my body to cover the carbohydrates I’d eaten.

    Thanks to everyone who has posted thus far on this thread. It’s great to read the comments. I love “eat the wallpaper off the walls.” We have only paint, but sometimes that new-paint smell, during a low, might indeed be enticing.

    Oh, and one other thing I didn’t mention as far as a term we use in our household: BLING. That’s what I call my medical-alert necklace. My “diabetes bling,” or, simply, “bling.” My wife will often say, “You didn’t wear your bling today.” I often take it off and twirl it, accidentally flinging it across the room. Aside from my wedding ring bling, my diabetes bling is the only jewelry I own.


  • idocmadden

    I have the most unuaual experience…I tend to go low in the early morning hours. However, I have found that if I start DREAMING about food, I am always low. I have now learned to wake my self. And yes, I want to eat the shelf. I have a new problem now…I have started on dialysis and am totally confined to my bedroom for 8 1/2 hours each night. Therefore, I have to plan ahead and have my snack in my bedroom. I does help keep my “Katie bar the door” feeling at the refrigerator at bay.

  • marcie

    Boy, can I relate! Once when I was experiencing a low my hubby was at the sink in our tiny kitchen. I told him to get out of my way — I wanted into the pantry — or I’d eat his arm!! LOL

    The way I’ve learned that I can usually control the “eat the shelf” thing is to sit on my hands. Literally.

    After I have my 15 G of carbs — 30, if I get to the point where my vision is affected — I sit down and tuck my hands under my thighs. And I silently chant “You’ve had the carbs. It’ll be better soon.” And it always does get better. Sometimes not quite better enough, and I’ll have a bit more, but by then, I’m in better control of myself and eating the shelf isn’t so tempting.

    It took me about a year to discover this method, and it’s come in handy several times.

  • Juanita

    Well, I have learned a lot today here. Now I know why I can’t get to sleep sometimes at night and get up and start off with a sensible bite to eat and end up eating “enough for a working”. That’s what they called it when all the neighboring men would go to someone’s farm to help build a barn, clear a field, or whatever needed doing at the time. Neighbors helped neighbors back when I was a child in the rural areas of my Ky. The wives of the working men would come and help the lady of the house cook “enough for a working,” enough to feed all the men who were there working.
    Since I now know about the night time lows, I’ll do a check and eat accordingly, instead of letting myself eat “enough for a working.”