According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 34.2 million adults in the United States (10.5%) had some form of diabetes in 2018. If you have diabetes, your body cannot make or effectively use the hormone insulin, which helps support cells and muscles with energy. This leads to high blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels. Healthy eating is a significant factor in helping manage diabetes, as the foods that you eat can greatly impact your blood sugar levels.
Not all variations of diabetes are the same. Type 1 diabetes, for example, is an autoimmune disease in which a person’s own immune system attacks and destroys the beta cells in the pancreas that make insulin. Without insulin, hyperglycemia develops, so people with type 1 diabetes require insulin injections to compensate for the insulin their bodies cannot produce. Even though Type 1 diabetes is a lifelong condition, control is critically managed with diet and a healthy weight. Unlike type 1 diabetes, prediabetes and type 2 diabetes may actually be reversed through lifestyle changes, highlighting how important both are to long term goals.
Insulin resistance is the primary cause of prediabetes, but other factors play a role as well, including family history, age, excess weight, and a sedentary lifestyle. Prediabetes can be reversed through several factors, including healthy eating, exercise, and weight loss (read more here).
Type 2 diabetes is caused by insulin resistance. Sources share that between 90 percent and 95 percent of all diabetes cases are type 2 and nearly 1 in 5 people that have type 2 diabetes don’t know that they do. There is no cure for type 2 diabetes, but studies do show that it’s possible for people to reverse it. Diet changes and weight loss help those with type 2 diabetes manage and potentially reverse the disease. People may be able to reach and hold normal blood sugar levels without medication, but as there is no cure, this stage is considered remission. With proper guidance and management, it’s possible for some people to go years without trouble controlling their glucose and the health concerns that come with diabetes.
Unmanaged, diabetes of any kind has the potential to wreak havoc on the body. The Mayo Clinic shares that some complications include:
- heart and blood vessel disease
- nerve damage
- kidney disease
- eye damage
- skin conditions
- delayed healing
- sleep apnea
- hearing issues
- diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA)
These health concerns are serious, but the risk can be decreased through lifestyle changes and guidance from your provider.
Food choices impact glucose levels
Eating a healthy diet is important for everyone, regardless of diabetes status. But for people with diabetes, nutritious foods eaten in the right portions can help regulate blood sugar levels and promote a healthy weight. Speak to your provider about what will work best for your specific situation, including current medications, lifestyle, and other health concerns.
The American Diabetes Association shares that the goals of medical nutrition therapy that apply to all persons with diabetes are:
- Attain and maintain optimal metabolic outcomes including
- Blood glucose levels in the normal range or as close to normal as is safely possible to prevent or reduce the risk for complications of diabetes.
- A lipid and lipoprotein profile that reduces the risk for macrovascular disease (Disease of the large blood vessels, including the coronary arteries, the aorta, and the sizable arteries in the brain and in the limbs).
- Blood pressure levels that reduce the risk for vascular disease.
- Prevent and treat the chronic complications of diabetes. Modify nutrient intake and lifestyle as appropriate for the prevention and treatment of obesity, dyslipidemia (lipid abnormalities), cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and nephropathy (renal disease).
- Improve health through healthy food choices and physical activity.
- Address individual nutritional needs taking into consideration personal and cultural preferences and lifestyle while respecting the individual’s wishes and willingness to change.
General guidelines to maintain a healthy diet and glucose levels are shared below- please speak to your provider to help build a diet that best supports your health:
- Limiting foods that are high in sugar. Sugar, from all sources- fruits, milk, added sugars, drinks, etc- should not exceed 6 teaspoons a day.
- Eating smaller portions, spread out over the day. This helps prevent any drastic irregularities in glucose levels.
- Being careful about when and how many carbohydrates you eat. Carbs include starches (corn, potatoes, beans, wheat), sugars (including from fruits, milk, and added sugars), and fiber.
- Eating a variety of whole-grain foods, fruits and vegetables every day- these have a lower glycemic index and will help keep your blood sugar steady.
- Eating less fat. Not all dietary fats are the same, and don’t forget to remember the importance of portions.
- Limiting your use of alcohol. Read this helpful guide about alcohol use and diabetes from Johns Hopkins.
- Using less salt; limit sodium intake to less than. 2,300 mg per day.
If this quick overview looked familiar, that is because it mirrors the same suggestions that are recommended for everybody. Limit processed foods, include a wide variety of whole foods, have lean protein, choose healthy fats, avoid refined sugars and grains.
“There is no ‘diabetic diet,’” says Erin Palinski-Wade, RD, CDCES, the author of 2 Day Diabetes Diet “The guidelines are basically the same for healthy eating for everyone, with or without diabetes,” she says. According to the American Diabetes Association’s Nutrition Consensus Report in 2019, there are several healthful eating patterns you can follow to manage diabetes, including Mediterranean, low-carb, DASH, paleo, and vegetarian. You can read more about those diets, here.
The foods that are recommended in all of these diet guidelines are beneficial because of their ability to help regulate glucose. The glycemic index (GI) is often referenced, as it ranks foods on a scale of 0-100, based on how much they raise your blood glucose levels after consumption. The image below shares an overview of how foods impact glucose:
What you eat has the potential to help your body thrive. A diagnosis of diabetes can be daunting, but with the understanding of how you can positively impact the outcome, manageable. On Wednesday, we’ll share some recipes that incorporate foods that help support our bodies functions.
-Clinical Diabetes Oct 2011, 29 (4) 161; DOI: 10.2337/diaclin.29.4.161