People who live with diabetes know the utmost importance of a proper diet. While watching what you eat may seem challenging at first, it can quickly become a healthy habit.
Sticking to a balanced diet allows you to control blood sugar levels. Meanwhile, certain foods can be dangerous and should be eliminated from your diet as much as possible. That's why watching what you eat is imperative to avoiding problems and enjoying a healthy life with diabetes.
Let's take a closer look at what food is good for diabetes.
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Diabetes is a chronic health condition that interferes with glucose-to-energy conversion in your body cells. There are two main types of diabetes:
Type 1 - your immune system attacks cells that produce insulin
Type 2 – your cells don't respond to insulin appropriately
Insulin, which is produced by the pancreas, regulates sugar levels in the blood and helps convert glucose into energy. In both diabetes types, your body tries using other resources for energy. This can eventually lead to undesirable consequences.
Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of this condition. In the United States, 37.3 million people live¹ with this type, whereas only about 1.6 million² have type 1 diabetes, representing about 5% of the total diabetic population.
The causes of type 2 diabetes involve lifestyle and genetic factors. People who are overweight or obese and lead a sedentary lifestyle are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than those who stay active and have a normal BMI (Body Mass Index). If diabetes runs in your family, your chances of developing it also increase.
The key symptoms of diabetes are:
Increased thirst and hunger
Sores that don't heal for a long time
Numbness and/or tingling in hands and feet
If you are experiencing these symptoms, you need to contact your doctor immediately. While adjusting your diet is an important part of keeping your symptoms under control, it's not the only diabetes treatment.
No matter what diabetes type you have, diet plays a relevant role in keeping your blood sugar levels under control.
After a meal, your blood glucose levels rise, especially if the meal is high in sugars (a condition known as hyperglycemia). For people who do not produce enough insulin or suffer from insulin resistance, this increase can be dangerous, even if they take insulin.
If you don't control blood glucose levels, you can develop chronic hyperglycemia, which, in turn, can damage many organs, including the kidneys and heart. This can also result in nerve damage.
A healthy diet can lead to weight loss, which is important for people who live with type 2 diabetes. Studies show³ that when people with diabetes lose excess weight, they reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular problems.
In some cases, weight loss can even promote remission in type 2 diabetes. However, once you start putting weight back on, your diabetes may return.
One of the first things your doctor will talk to you about is a healthy diet. Keep in mind that a healthy diet doesn't mean that you need to say "no" to your favorite treats forever. You just need to reduce portions and make responsible food choices. The key to a diabetes diet is balance.
Leafy greens (kale, cabbage, spinach, and broccoli) are an excellent source of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. Still, they don't impact your blood glucose levels significantly.
A study⁴ showed that eating leafy greens can decrease the risk of developing diabetes by 14%. So, if you have prediabetes or diabetes in remission, adding more leafy greens to your diet can be an excellent preventive measure.
Avocados have high fiber and low carbohydrate content. In general, fruits high in fiber tend to be beneficial to diabetes management.
A study⁵ published in the Nutrition Journal showed that these fruits don't raise blood sugar levels, making them a great addition to a diabetic's diet. Meanwhile, avocados increase meal satisfaction, preventing overeating and encouraging weight loss.
Carbohydrates usually spike blood sugar levels, but it's impossible to eliminate them from your diet completely. People who live with diabetes need to take a careful approach when adding carbohydrates to their meals.
Whole grains (rice, oatmeal, millet) contain complex carbohydrates which your body digests slowly. These carbohydrates release glucose gradually, which allows your system to keep blood sugar levels in check.
Besides whole grains, other sources of complex carbohydrates are legumes and starchy vegetables.
According to a recent study⁶, high whole-grain intake can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 7%-11%.
Since protein is essential to your health, it's important to include it in your diet. People who have diabetes should focus on lean meat choices. Lean meats have less saturated fat, calorie content, and bad cholesterol. They are:
White and dark chicken and turkey meat (preferably without skin)
Cod, haddock, lox, tuna, and flounder
Goose and rabbit without skin
Overall, you can eat most meats as long as it's not processed or smoked. You should avoid high-fat meat such as spareribs, ground pork, and pork sausage.
Diabetes often lowers good cholesterol levels and raises bad cholesterol levels along with triglycerides. This can increase the risk of heart conditions and stroke.
High levels of polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil can help reduce cholesterol absorption and decrease the risk of heart disease for people with diabetes.
Currently, studies⁷ are being conducted to verify the effect of olive oil on people with diabetes. Existing research shows⁸ that including olive oil and nuts in your diet can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 52%.
Experts list citrus fruit as a superfood for people with diabetes. Limes, lemons, grapefruits, and oranges contain vitamin C, folate, fiber, and potassium. They are also rich in antioxidants that can help battle diabetes-related inflammation.
Citrus fruit has a low glycemic index (how quickly foods raise blood sugar levels after a meal). Some clinical trials have shown⁹ that foods with low glycemic index can reduce blood sugar levels.
Studies show¹⁰ that eating citrus fruit is also beneficial for people with a high risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
Flaxseeds are high in fiber and omega-3 fats. They can reduce the risk of heart disease and help with blood sugar level management.
Flaxseeds may improve insulin sensitivity for people with insulin resistance. A study showed¹¹ that flaxseeds reduce fasting blood glucose by 19.7%.
Even though flaxseeds are high in calories, you don't need too much to achieve a positive effect. A tablespoon a day could be beneficial for your blood sugar management.
While none of the listed foods are strictly prohibited for people with diabetes, some of them should be avoided whenever possible. These include:
Sugary drinks and fruit juice
White bread, rice, and pasta
Flavored yogurt and coffee
Honey and maple syrup
Trans fats (fried foods, commercial baked goods, refrigerated dough, non-dairy coffee creamer)
These foods can increase your blood sugar levels and strengthen insulin resistance. If you have terrible cravings for one of these restricted foods, you can allow yourself a small portion every once in a while. Just don't make it a habit.
It’s also important to avoid a high-fat diet. While many people with diabetes know that excessive fat consumption can lead to weight gain, some may not realize that it’s as harmful as excessive sugar in promoting insulin resistance.
While the types of food matter for people with diabetes, the amount consumed is also important. If you are overweight or obese, you need to speak to your doctor or dietitian to determine your proper daily calorie consumption.
As you design your diet, you can take advantage of meal plan methods. They can help you lose weight and avoid excessive carb and fat consumption. The most popular meal plan methods are:
Plate method – For every meal, use a 9-inch plate and fill one half of it with non-starchy veggies, one quarter with lean protein, and one quarter with carb foods.
Carb counting method – This method involves counting the number of carbohydrates you consume daily. Your doctor can help you come up with a limit. It's up to you to read Nutrition Facts labels to ensure you don't exceed it.
Both of these methods can be hard to implement when you eat out. If you are in a restaurant, try to monitor the size of your meals. Consult reputable online guides that can help you evaluate proper portion sizes when you are away from home.
A healthy diet is a relevant part of keeping your diabetes in check. It can help you control blood sugar levels and prevent complications. Speak to your doctor about your diet to ensure you are on the right track.
Learning what foods are good for diabetes can help you design a comprehensive and tasty meal plan without any severe restrictions.
National diabetes statistics report | Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Type 1 diabetes facts | JDRF
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