Diabetes is an increasingly common medical condition, in which the body has an impaired ability to control the quantity of glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream. To remove glucose from the blood the pancreas produces a hormone called insulin, in those with diabetes the body either produces insufficient glucose or the insulin that is produced is ineffective at removing the glucose from the bloodstream, in both cases the end result is blood glucose levels which are abnormally high.
There are many risks associated with high blood glucose levels; these include damage to the small blood vessels and nerves throughout the body and a number of associated medical conditions. In a healthy individual blood glucose levels normally range between 4 and 6 mmol/L in a fasted state (such as upon waking).
Following the consumption of a meal, these levels will rise slightly but are quickly returned to normal by the action of the hormone insulin. To avoid potentially dangerous complications, those with diabetes should aim to maintain normal blood glucose levels, this is usually achieved using diet or medication and in some cases both.
Risks of uncontrolled diabetes
There are many potential risks of uncontrolled diabetes, these include but are not limited to:
• Heart disease;
• Eye problems including blindness;
• Foot problems such as neuropathy and gangrene;
• Kidney disease;
• Circulation problems.
Myths surrounding diabetes and diet
It is important that diabetics seek reliable advice for the management of their condition as unfortunately there are many myths associated with the dietary management of diabetes. For reliable dietary advice diabetics should seek the services of a registered dietitian, as these professionals are nutrition experts and can be relied on to provide accurate advice based on the latest science.
Myths that are false and commonly heard regarding diabetes and diet include:
• Sugar causes diabetes;
• Those with diabetes should eliminate all carbohydrate-containing foods;
• Diabetics should only eat food containing protein and fat.
Current dietary recommendations for diabetes that are supported by reliable evidence
There has been significant medical research into appropriate dietary and lifestyle recommendations for those with diabetes. From this research, we know that diabetics need to pay close attention to eating regularly, consuming appropriate quantities, and types of dietary fat and carbohydrates, obtaining sufficient fibre and engaging in regular physical activity. These factors are discussed in detail below.
• Eating regularly: Skipping meals and snacks can affect your blood glucose control. Be sure to snack regularly and eat a healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner.
• Dietary fat: Just like the general population it is important to ensure that the amount and type of fat consumed is appropriate. Current research suggests that the vast majority of our fat intake should be of the unsaturated variety, with the consumption of saturated and trans fats kept to a minimum. A simple way to achieve this is to cook using olive oil rather than butter and to use an olive or canola oil based margarine on bread in preference to butter or other saturated fats such as coconut oil.
• Fibre: For many diabetics increasing their dietary fibre consumption may assist with managing blood glucose levels and keeping hunger at bay. Simple ways to increase your fibre intake include choosing whole grain bread, cereal products and consuming a wide variety of vegetables each day.
• Carbohydrates: These are found in foods such as rice, pasta, bread, cereals, and vegetables such as corn, potato, legumes, fruit and dairy products. Diabetics should ensure that they consume some carbohydrates with each meal and snack and aim to consume low glycaemic (Low GI) varieties of carbohydrate-containing foods as they are more slowly digested and absorbed into the bloodstream, providing better blood glucose control. How much carbohydrate you should consume with each meal and snack is individual advice and best given by your registered dietitian.
• Physical activity: Try to engage in some physical activity each day. It will help you manage your weight and can assist with managing your diabetes and overall health.
A Plant Diet For Type 2 Diabetes
While meat, chicken fish, and poultry have not direct effect on blood sugars, a plant diet greatly contributes to a diabetic’s health and there are several ways in which plant diets help with management and prevention of the onset of type 2 diabetes.
• Vegetarians tend to have better insulin resistance and lower risks for incidence of type 2 diabetes.
• Plant diets are high in fibre, which as previously mentioned, is key in controlling blood sugars.
• Vegetarian and vegan diets, when followed correctly, are naturally lower in calories than those that include meat and dairy, and obesity is one of the highest risk factors for type 2 diabetes. Weight loss is known to reverse type 2 diabetes. One very large study conducted by Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California found that Seventh Day Adventists (who are primarily vegetarian or vegan) weighed 30 pounds less on average than other Californians.
• Another interesting effect of plant diets for type 2 diabetes is the reduction of heart disease risk. Type 2 diabetics are at a higher risk for heart disease and those who eat a vegetarian or vegan diet reduce their risk by 1/3, mainly because these diets are virtually cholesterol free and eliminating meat also eliminates a major source of unhealthy saturated fat that greatly contributes to heart disease and high cholesterol.
It is important to consult your doctor before starting any diet plan, especially if you have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes.