Last week was National Diabetes Week, and given that I have spent some time at an outpatient diabetes centre on clinical placements and will be researching type 1 diabetes for the next few months. I thought I could share what I’ve learned about food and how it can help to manage diabetes.
A quick physiology lesson to get us started!
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a serious and complex chronic condition which doesn’t just affect the pancreas but the entire body. Type 1 diabetes is caused by an insufficiency of insulin, an important hormone that helps get the glucose from all of our food (no, not just carbs) and gets it from the blood into our muscles, liver and brain. The exact mechanism of type 1 diabetes is not very well understood, however it has autoimmune origins and often presents itself in childhood. A common misconception is that this form of diabetes can be prevented by diet or lifestyle, however this is NOT true. On the other hand, Type 2 diabetes is caused by a increasing resistance to insulin action on each of the body’s cells, the pancreas then produces bucket loads in an effort to get glucose into the cells and eventually the pancreas becomes “exhausted”. Without enough insulin, or without effective insulin action blood sugars rise which can have numerous complications which can affect the eyes, nerves, heart and kidneys. Nutrition is a cornerstone of good diabetes management and the prevention of these life-shortening complications.
Here are some good foods to incorporate into your diet to manage any type of diabetes, and also to help prevent the onset of type 2 as well! There is no “special” diabetes diet, it is simply healthy eating and healthy living!
(1) Low GI Fruit
Fruit with a lower glycaemic index (GI) spike blood sugars more slowly compared to fruit higher glycaemic index. Lower GI foods cannot be eaten in unlimited amounts but should be preferred over other higher GI carbohydrate sources. Examples of low GI fruits include berries, apples, citrus, nectarines, peaches, plums, cherries, mangoes and grapes.
You may be thinking, these are all sweet! I thought sugar is bad for diabetes! Fruit is more than just fruit sugar (fructose), it also contains fibre, and essential vitamins and minerals and two handful size pieces of fruit should be part of everybody’s diet! Foods such as dried fruit and fruit juice should be avoided as they contain concentrated amounts of sugar and often lack fibre meaning a more rapid blood glucose rise and can be easily over-consumed.
(2) Low GI Grains
Grains and carbohydrate foods provide a lot of nutrition in the form of fibre and B vitamins important for energy metabolism. Lower GI grains, cereals and breads should be consumed (particularly if someone with diabetes takes insulin as carbohydrate raises blood sugars the most compared to protein and fat), insufficient carbohydrate in a meal matched to the insulin can result in low blood sugars (hypoglycaemia) which can be dangerous.
Examples of low GI grain foods include oats or porridge, multi-grain bread (not wholemeal!), sourdough and rye bread, basmati rice (it’s even better than brown rice), pasta (choose wholegrain), barley, quinoa and amaranth. Avoid overly refined cereal and grain products such as many breakfast cereals including toasted muesli, muesli bars, biscuits and crackers – again they are easy to over-eat and can be easily under-estimated when dosing insulin.
(3) Non-starchy vegetables
As the name suggests, these vegetables exclude potatoes, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and parsnip as well as beans, peas and corn. Non-starchy vegetables are high in fibre and water meaning they will keep you full with few calories to help with weight management. A healthy body weight makes you more insulin sensitive, meaning the insulin becomes more effective in the body (either injected or self-produced).
So, get some green leafy veg and salads on your plate, and new research has suggested the impressive benefits of broccoli in people with type 2 diabetes and it certainly doesn’t hurt to include some in your day!
Legumes include all types of beans, peas and lentils. All of them are low GI and count towards your daily veg intake too. Legumes contain protein and low GI carbohydrate which help keep you full, satisfied and blood sugars steady.
They are the perfect plant food for everyone! Start the day with some homemade or tinned baked beans on toast (just watch out for the sugar content!) or whip up a lentil and veg soup for dinner. Or try my versatile plant-based Mexican feast featuring kidney beans!
More information about diabetes