Diabetes and Healthy Eating
Fads abound when it comes to diet and diabetes. But by taking a simple approach and following a few basic steps, you can control your diabetes.
Diabetes currently affects more than 30 million Americans. This chronic disease occurs when the body is unable to make sufficient levels of insulin—a hormone that helps our cells regulate glucose (or sugar) to use as energy. Without insulin, the sugar in a person’s bloodstream can reach dangerously high levels and cause damage to the eyes, kidneys, nerves and heart.
The number of people affected by diabetes is growing, so it’s worth knowing more about this disease. To start, there are two types of diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2. Type 1 diabetes is typically diagnosed during childhood. It’s treated with insulin shots and involves balancing the sugars in the food eaten with the correct amount of insulin. Type 1 diabetes is not associated with obesity.
Type 2 diabetes is generally diagnosed during adulthood and comprises about 95% of all diabetes cases. Type 2 is associated with obesity.
For all people with diabetes, it’s extremely important to make the right choices about what to eat, because what you eat directly affects your blood sugar levels. The good news is that by eating right and being active, people with diabetes can prevent complications of this disease.
Here is some background on diabetes and eating for a healthy diet.
How Can Food Affect Blood Sugar Levels?
Food choices and portion sizes have a big impact on blood sugar control. Too many simple carbohydrates and refined grains—in foods such as desserts, sweets and white bread—can rapidly boost blood sugar levels after meals. Too few carbohydrates can lower blood sugar levels. Both spikes and drops in blood sugar can be dangerous and make us feel unwell.
People with diabetes can achieve optimal health when their blood sugar levels are stable and steady. An effective strategy to stabilize blood sugar levels is to eat complex carbohydrates—such as whole grains, fruits, beans and starchy vegetables—throughout the day.
What Should You Eat?
Everyone benefits from a well-balanced and healthy diet, whether you have diabetes or not. We get different nutrients from all types of foods, so it’s important to eat a wide variety of foods.
Research shows that a diet low in calories and high in fruits and vegetables—such as the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) or Mediterranean diet—supports a healthy weight. Studies have also shown that following a diet high in fruits and vegetables and lower in calories can help promote weight loss and reduce the risk of heart disease as well.
What Does A Healthy Diet Look Like?
The American Diabetes Association does not recommend one specific diet, but the most effective diet is the diet that you can stick to. Generally, healthy diets include lean protein, whole grains, low-fat dairy and whole fruits and vegetables. Healthy diets also are short on refined grains, sweets and processed foods. Water, unsweetened coffee and tea can also be part of a healthy diet. You should be eating your calories, not drinking them in fruit juices, sodas and alcohol.
One easy way to ensure you’re consuming optimal amounts of healthy food is to follow the plate method for planning your meals. Half of your plate should be made up of non-starchy vegetables and fruit; one-quarter of the plate should be comprised of lean protein; and the remaining quarter should be whole grains. This simple image of a dinner plate can help you create a healthy, more balanced meal.
Are Low-Carb Diets Safe for People with Diabetes?
Some research has shown that following a lower-carbohydrate diet can lower blood sugar and reduce the need for medication and insulin.
If you plan to change your diet, be sure to monitor your blood sugar levels frequently to determine the impact of the new diet. Be sure to treat any low sugar levels with fast-acting carbohydrates, such as 4 ounces of fruit juice or a box of raisins that contains about 15 grams of carbohydrates.
And if you find you have a pattern of low blood sugar levels, contact your doctor to determine if you need to make changes to your medications.
Are Portion Sizes Important?
Have you ever heard the old saying “You can have too much of a good thing”? This definitely applies to food quantity.
Eating too much at one time—even of nutritious foods, such as fruits—can cause an after-meal spike in blood sugar. Limit yourself to one serving size, as listed on the food’s nutrition label. A serving size is a good indicator of the ideal portion size to eat at one time.
No label on the food? Most carbohydrate-counting books list ideal serving sizes, which can help you determine the right amount for a serving.
Eating smaller portions also promotes healthy weight loss, which can improve blood sugar levels and reduce the need for diabetes medications.
As you can see, diet has a profound impact on management and control of your diabetes. Fortunately, these simple, small changes can have a dramatic impact and help you achieve optimal health.
Amy Wachter, an endocrinologist with ChristianaCare Endocrinology Specialists, is a clinical leader of Endocrinology at ChristianaCare. She is board certified in Endocrinology, Diabetes and Metabolism.
Julie Garey is a diabetes educator at Christiana- Care for the Metabolic Health Services Department. She’s a Registered Dietitian, Licensed Dietitian/Nutritionist, Certified Diabetes Educator, and is certified in Adult Weight Management and has held positions as a clinical and outpatient dietitian.
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