Diabetes is on the rise, yet most cases are preventable with healthy lifestyle changes. Some can even be reversed. Taking steps to prevent and control diabetes doesn’t mean living in deprivation; it means eating a tasty, balanced diet that will also boost your energy and improve your mood. You don’t have to give up sweets entirely or resign yourself to a lifetime of bland food. With these tips, you can still take pleasure from your meals without feeling hungry or deprived.
Whether you’re trying to prevent or control diabetes, there is some good news. You can make a big difference with healthy lifestyle changes. The most important thing you can do for your health is to lose weight—but you don’t have to lose all your extra pounds to start reaping the benefits. Experts say that losing just 5% to 10% of your total weight can help you lower your blood sugar considerably, as well as lower your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. Losing weight and eating healthier can also have a profound effect on your mood, energy levels, and sense of wellbeing.
It’s not too late to make a positive change, even if you’ve already developed diabetes. The bottom line is that you have more control over your health than you think.
The biggest risk factor for developing diabetes is being overweight, but not all body fat is created equal. Your risk is higher if you tend to carry your weight around your abdomen—the so-called “spare tire”—as opposed to your hips and thighs. So why are “apple” shaped people more at risk than “pears”?
“Pears” store most of their fat close below the skin. “Apples” store their weight around their middle, much of it deep within the belly surrounding their abdominal organs and liver. This type of deep fat is closely linked to insulin resistance and diabetes. In fact, many studies show that waist size is a better predictor of diabetes risk than BMI (body mass index).
You are at an increased risk of developing diabetes if you are:
- A woman with a waist circumference of 35 inches or more
- A man with a waist circumference of 40 inches or more
To measure your waist circumference, place a tape measure around your bare abdomen just above your hip bone. Be sure that the tape is snug (but does not compress your skin) and that it is parallel to the floor. Relax, exhale, and measure your waist.
What you need to know about diabetes and diet
Eating right is vital if you’re trying to prevent or control diabetes. While exercise is also important, what you eat has the biggest impact when it comes to weight loss. But what does eating right for diabetes mean? You may be surprised to hear that your nutritional needs are virtually the same everyone else: no special foods or complicated diets are necessary.
A diabetes diet is simply a healthy eating plan that is high in nutrients, low in fat and added sugar, and moderate in calories. It is a healthy diet for anyone! The only difference is that you need to pay more attention to some of your food choices—most notably the carbohydrates you eat.
Carbohydrates have a big impact on your blood sugar levels—more so than fats and proteins—but you don’t have to avoid them. You just need to be smart about what types of carbs you eat.
In general, it’s best to limit highly refined carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, and rice, as well as soda, candy, packaged meals, and snack foods. Focus instead on high-fiber complex carbohydrates—also known as slow-release carbs. Slow-release carbs help keep blood sugar levels even because they are digested more slowly, thus preventing your body from producing too much insulin. They also provide lasting energy and help you stay full longe
Diabetes and glycemic index
The glycemic index (GI) and glycemic load offer information about how different foods affect blood sugar and insulin levels. High GI foods spike your blood sugar rapidly, while low GI foods have the least effect on blood sugar. While the GI has long been promoted as a tool to help people with diabetes manage blood sugar and improve their diets, there are some notable drawbacks. Firstly, despite a great deal of research, the true health benefits of using the GI remain unclear. Having to refer to glycemic index tables can make eating unnecessarily complicated. Finally, the GI is not a measure of a food’s healthfulness. Recent research suggests that by simply following the guidelines of the Mediterranean or other heart-healthy diets, you’ll not only lower your glycemic load but also improve the quality of your diet as well.
Take a look at the big picture: your overall eating patterns are more important than obsessing over individual foods. In short, eat more of the good stuff and less of the bad.
Controlling weight with the glycemic index
Researchers believe that the key to weight control lies in reducing the amount of refined carbohydrates (“white” or “fire” foods) in your diet. Instead, focus on low GI or “coal” foods which keep you feeling fuller much longer. Low-glycemic foods take longer to digest so sugar is absorbed more slowly into the bloodstream. As a result you’re less likely to experience a spike in your blood sugar level, you’ll remain sated for longer, and are less likely to overeat.
- Avoid processed foods like baked goods, sugary desserts, and packaged cereal and opt instead for steel cut oats, beans, fat-free low-sugar yogurt, dark green leafy vegetables, and whole grains.
- Eat whole fresh fruit instead of fruit juice—squeezing fruit releases more sugar so a whole orange has a lower GI than a glass of juice.
- Healthy fats from raw nuts, olive oil, fish oils, flax seeds, whole milk dairy, or avocados
- Fruits and vegetables—ideally fresh, the more colorful the better; whole fruit rather than juices
- High-fiber cereals and breads made from whole grains or legumes
- Fish and shellfish, organic, free-range chicken or turkey
- High-quality protein such as eggs, beans, milk, cheese, and unsweetened yogurt
- Trans fats from partially hydrogenated or deep-fried foods; saturated fats from junk food or processed meat
- Packaged and fast foods, especially those high in sugar and sodium, baked goods, sweets, chips, desserts
- White bread, sugary cereals, refined pastas or rice
- Processed meat and red meat from animals fed with antibiotics, growth hormones, and GMO feed
- Low-fat products that have replaced fat with added sugar, such as fat-free yogurt
Diabetes and diet tip 2: Be smart about sweets
Eating a diabetes-friendly diet doesn’t mean eliminating sugar altogether, but like most adults in the west, chances are you consume more sugar than is healthy. If you have diabetes, you can still enjoy a small serving of your favorite dessert now and then. The key is moderation.
How to include sweets in a diabetes-friendly diet
If you have a sweet tooth, the thought of cutting back on sweets may sound almost as bad as cutting them out altogether. The good news is that cravings do go away and preferences change. By slowly reducing the sugar in your diet a little at a time, you’ll give your taste buds time to adjust and you’ll be able to wean yourself off the craving for sweets. And as your eating habits become healthier, the sweet foods that you used to love may seem too rich or too sweet, and you’ll find yourself craving healthier options instead.
- Hold the bread (or rice or pasta) if you want dessert. Eating sweets at a meal adds extra carbohydrates. Because of this it is best to cut back on the other carb-containing foods at the same meal.
- Add some healthy fat to your dessert. It may seem counterintuitive to pass over the low-fat or fat-free desserts in favor of their higher-fat counterparts. But fat slows down the digestive process, meaning blood sugar levels don’t spike as quickly. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should reach for the donuts. Think healthy fats, such as peanut butter, ricotta cheese, yogurt, or some nuts.
- Eat sweets with a meal, rather than as a stand-alone snack. When eaten on their own, sweets and desserts cause your blood sugar to spike. But if you eat them along with other healthy foods as part of your meal, your blood sugar won’t rise as rapidly.
When you eat dessert, truly savor each bite. How many times have you mindlessly eaten your way through a bag of cookies or a huge piece of cake? Can you really say that you enjoyed each bite? Make your indulgence count by eating slowly and paying attention to the flavors and textures. You’ll enjoy it more, plus you’re less likely to overeat.
- Reduce how much soft drinks, soda and juice you drink. A recent study found that for each 12 oz. serving of a sugar-sweetened beverage you drink a day, your risk for diabetes increases by about 15 percent. If you miss your carbonation kick, try sparkling water with a twist of lemon or lime or a splash of fruit juice. Reduce the amount of creamers and sweeteners you add to tea and coffee drinks.
- Don’t replace saturated fat with sugar. Many of us make the mistake of replacing healthy sources of saturated fat, such as whole milk dairy, with refined carbs or sugary foods, thinking we’re making a healthier choice. Low-fat doesn’t necessarily mean healthy, especially when the fat has been replaced by added sugar to make up for loss of taste.
- Sweeten foods yourself. Buy unsweetened iced tea, plain yogurt, or unflavored oatmeal, for example, and add sweetener (or fruit) yourself. You’re likely to add far less sugar than the manufacturer would have.
- Check labels and opt for low sugar products and use fresh or frozen ingredients instead of canned goods. Be especially aware of the sugar content of cereals and sugary drinks.
- Avoid processed or packaged foods like canned soups, frozen dinners, or low-fat meals that often contain hidden sugar. Prepare more meals at home.
- When buying foods such as syrups, jellies, and sauces, opt for products labeled “reduced sugar” or “no added sugar.”
- Reduce the amount of sugar in recipes by ¼ to ⅓. If a recipe calls for 1 cup of sugar, for example, use ⅔ or ¾ cup instead. You can also boost sweetness with mint, cinnamon, nutmeg, or vanilla extract instead of sugar.
- Find healthy ways to satisfy your sweet tooth. Instead of ice cream, blend up frozen bananas for a creamy, frozen treat. Or enjoy a small chunk of dark chocolate, rather than your usual milk chocolate bar.
- Start with half of the dessert you normally eat, and replace the other half with fruit.
Diabetes and your diet tip 3: Choose fats wisely
Fats can be either helpful or harmful in your diet. People with diabetes are at higher risk for heart disease, so it is even more important to be smart about fats. Some fats are unhealthy and others have enormous health benefits. But all fats are high in calories, so you should always watch your portion sizes.
- Unhealthy fats – The most damaging fats are trans fats, also called partially hydrogenated oils, which are created by adding hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid and less likely to spoil—which is very good for food manufacturers, and very bad for you. Avoid commercially-baked goods, packaged snack foods, fried food, and anything with “partially hydrogenated” oil in the ingredients, even if it claims to be trans fat-free.
- Healthy fats – The safest fats are unsaturated fats, which come from plant and fish sources such as olive oil, nuts, and avocados. Also focus on omega-3 fatty acids, which fight inflammation and support brain and heart health. Good sources include salmon, tuna, and flaxseeds.
- Saturated fats – Not all saturated fat is the same. The saturated fat in whole milk dairy, coconut oil, or salmon is different to the unhealthy saturated fat found in pizza, French fries, and processed meat products, which have been linked to coronary disease and cancer. Recent evidence suggests that consuming whole-fat dairy can have beneficial effects, including helping to control weight.