29 million people in the U.S. are currently living with diabetes, but you don’t need to have it to benefit from a diabetic-friendly diet or an understanding of how sugars and insulin interact in our bodies. Here’s some background, with food-specific guidance.
What is Diabetes?
Very simply stated, diabetes is a disease that affects the regulation of sugar (i.e. energy) in the body. There are two common types of diabetes—type 1 and type 2—but before I get into the difference, it’s important we address how food is typically metabolized in the average healthy person:
- Food is consumed and broken down through physical and chemical processes. Sugar (i.e., glucose) is the end result of these processes.
- After food has been broken down into glucose, sugar circulates through the blood stream, ultimately looking for a place to live.
- The pancreas senses when there’s an elevated level of sugar in the blood stream. That’s not where it belongs! So the pancreas excretes a hormone called insulin, which seeks out glucose, binds to it, and carries it into the cells to be used as energy. I personally like to think of insulin molecules as the Sherpas of energy maintenance.
- Once glucose has left the bloodstream, the pancreas takes note and stops producing insulin.
What’s the difference between Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes?
- When a person has type 1 diabetes, their pancreas simply doesn’t produce enough insulin.
- People with type 2 diabetes produce plenty of insulin—their cells just aren’t receptive to it.
The result is similar in both instances—glucose isn’t taken up into the cells and instead continues to float around the bloodstream like it was the Lazy River. The problem with that is, a prolonged presence of high blood sugar can wreak havoc on your body. Very serious problems like organ failure, blindness, nerve damage, heart attacks, amputation, and death can occur.
Manage Diabetes with Proper Nutrition
While diabetes can’t be cured, it is very manageable in most cases. Energy (sugar) consumption is directly related to diabetes management, so a healthy diet is integral to living a healthy life with the disease.
The overall target of a diabetes-friendly diet is to manage blood sugar and thusly, sugar consumption in general. Excess body fat can exacerbate issues caused by diabetes and ultimately contributes to the perpetuation of its effects. Not surprisingly, eating a balanced healthy diet filled with unprocessed foods is key to managing weight and blood sugar. The “diabetic diet” is beneficial to not only those with diabetes—everyone can benefit from the right combination of:
Carbohydrate consumption is the leading determining factor for those who seek to manage diabetes and blood sugar! Many of these carbs, like beans, fruits, and vegetables, have a lot of fiber, which work to slow digestion and stabilize blood sugar.
- Whole grains, whole wheat pasta, bread, and tortillas, barley, quinoa
- Legumes, beans, peas, lentils
- High-fiber fruits and vegetables, like berries, apples, pears, asparagus, broccoli, carrots
Protein as a standalone macronutrient does not highly impact blood glucose management. It does, however, contribute to a feeling of fullness, which can prevent the overconsumption of food (i.e. energy, sugar).
- Lean meats like chicken, fish, and pork
- Lean dairy products like Greek yogurt, skim milk, and cottage cheese
- Nuts and nut butters, like peanut butter and almond butter
Fats are valuable in slowing digestion and providing a feeling of satiety. They also play a large part in hormone regulation (read: insulin). While it’s important to get enough of these, it’s important to be mindful not to over-consume them due to their high calorie content. Aim for:
- Fatty fish, like tuna, salmon, and rainbow trout
- Nuts and seeds
- Olives and olive oil
- Vegetable oils (canola, sesame seed, flax seed)
In conclusion, the Diabetic-friendly diet really just parallels that of a healthy, balanced diet. Incorporate this diet into a lifestyle of overall health and wellness and you’ll be on a fast-track to Diabetes prevention or maintenance.