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Whether you’ve recently been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes or have been living with it for a while, one thing’s for sure – diet plays a crucial role in managing the condition.
Of the two types of diabetes – type 1 and type 2 – it’s the latter that is most prominent, affecting around 90% of those with diabetes, and can be successfully managed with the right food.
Diabetes is all about the pancreas, an organ in the abdomen that has two main functions – to convert what we eat into fuel and to regulate blood sugar. To do that, it produces a hormone called insulin, but for some that doesn’t happen as it should.
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Natasha Marsland from Diabetes UK explains, ‘Type 2 diabetes means either that not enough insulin is produced in the pancreas, or that the pancreas isn’t working effectively. Essentially, it’s too much sugar in the blood, and diet is key.”
Eating the right food for type 2 diabetes is not as simple as just following a set diet plan, although the Diabetic Diet plan does help you stay on the right track and could even help those who are suffering from the symptoms of diabetes. After all, everyone is different and some people also need medication to manage diabetes.
Here’s a handy guide on what types of food you can eat to help with type 2 diabetes.
Foods to avoid
Make these simple swaps to reduce your risk, without feeling like you’re making huge sacrifices.
Ditching refined carbs such as white bread, pasta and rice for wholegrain, fibre-rich alternatives will keep you feeling fuller for longer and less likely to experience that “crash” that comes with eating high sugar foods such as cereals. ‘Fibre is super important as it helps prevent blood sugar spikes, lowering the risk of chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease by 20 to 30%,’ says nutritionist Mays Al-Ali (healthymays.com). ‘Replace white rice with whole grains such as brown rice, buckwheat or quinoa, and choose bread with a whole grain listed as the first ingredient or better still have blood sugar balancing oats for breakfast instead of toast.’
Research published in the American Journal of Epidemiology shows that a diet high in red meat increases the risk of developing diabetes. In the study, those with the highest intake of red meat had a 23% increase in risk, whilst those with a high intake of fish had no risk. Eating too much saturated fat can cause high levels of ‘bad cholesterol’, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease. According Diabetes UK, diabetics are already at an increased risk of developing this, making it more important they make healthier choices. ‘Healthy fat can be found in oily fishes such as sardines, anchovies and salmon,’ says nutritionist Dr Laure Hyvernat (thenaturalconsultation.com).
‘Juices have all of the sugar of the fruit, but not the skins and pulp — so they lack the fibre that slows down sugar absorption and controls insulin levels,’says Mays. Wholefruit such as blueberries, raspberry, pineapple, grapefruit, strawberries, apples, orange, and peaches have a low GI value. ‘Try making your own smoothies with one or two maximum of these fruits combined with fibre-rich veg such as cucumber, spinach or celery is amazingly healthy breakfast option to boost your insulin sensitivity and keep diabetes at bay,’ says Dr Hyvernat.
‘Unlike nutrient-poor iceberg lettuce, dark leafy greens, such as spinach, arugula, kale and Swiss chard are packed with vitamins and nutrients such as vitamins A and C, as well as magnesium and potassium,’says Mays. Together, these help boost your immune function, reduce the risk of chronic disease and help regulate both blood pressure and blood sugar levels. ‘Toss a couple of handfuls of dark greens into your next salad, or add them to a smoothie,’ says Mays.
Best for diabetics
High fibre foods
“The journey to improved health, whether medication is being used or not, involves increasing the amount of dietary fibre and removing refined carbohydrates from your diet,” says nutritional therapist Jenny Tschiesche. “Fibre slows the absorption of sugar, helping to stabilise blood sugar levels. At least 30g should be consumed daily – by consuming lots of vegetables, such as Brussels sprouts, peas and artichokes, lower-sugar fruit such as avocados, and berries, nuts and seeds, especially chia seeds and flaxseeds.”
That includes brown bread, pasta and rice, as well as oats, says Natasha. “These foods take longer to be digested as they release the sugar more slowly into the bloodstream, so you don’t get a sugar spike,” she explains. “They’re also good for gut health and aiding constipation.”
No, not the ready-made mash! “Try to eat two or three portions of oily fish – pick from the acronym SMASH – sardines, mackerel, anchovies, salmon and herring – to reduce the chances of diseases associated with diabetes,” says Jenny.’
“Avoid eating any vegetable that grows in the ground, as these are more likely to spike your blood sugar,” says Stuart. That’s root veg such as potatoes, carrots, beetroot and parsnips. “With veg, try to eat leafy greens and brassicas such as broccoli and cauliflower. As a general rule, you can eat vegetables that grow above ground freely. These provide good sources of soluble and insoluble fibre, which is excellent at helping to regulate blood sugar.”
“Healthy sources of protein (fish, lean meat, beans, lentils, eggs) and fats (avocado, coconut, eggs) help to control blood sugar and insulin metabolism. Defective insulin metabolism means that insulin can no longer regulate blood sugar effectively,” says Stuart. “Think of insulin as a key, and a receptor as the lock. If it is overused, eventually the key and lock become worn and do not work very well. This is essentially what happens with insulin resistance, and in more severe cases it develops into type 2 diabetes.”
Foods that lower blood sugar
‘Dark chocolate, unsweetened cocoa, and spices such as cinnamon, ginger, fenugreek and turmeric are often recommended for their beneficial effects on glucose control,’ says Dr Sarah Brewer, medical director of Healthspan. Research published in the journal, Metabolism, found that almonds can help regulate blood sugar and prevent a spike after meals. Those who ate 60g of almonds per day had lower levels of fasting glucose and insulin. Try snacking on these, as well as whole fruits, instead of crisps and chocolate.
While everyone’s diabetes can be very different and you should always consult a doctor before making diet and/or lifestyle changes, these are just some of the ways you can help to manage diabetes with your diet.
GI and GL explained
“Consider following a low GL (glycaemic load) diet or a ketogenic diet,” says Stuart. “Both of these have been found to be highly beneficial to type 2 diabetes sufferers.”
The glycaemic index (GI) of a food is a measure of how quickly carbohydrates in that food will be absorbed into the bloodstream and spike your blood sugar. It runs from 0 to 100 – 100 being pure glucose, with sweets and cakes being in the 80s or 90s.
GI measures the quality of carbohydrates found in a food, but it does not measure the quantity! This is why glycaemic load (GL) is often preferred, because it measures both the quality of carbs in a food but also the quantity – that is, what percentage of the food is made up of the carbs.
This makes GL a far better indicator of which foods are good to help to control type 2 diabetes and which are not. Any food with a GL less than 10 is OK, but the lower the better. For example, an egg has a GL of 1!