Nutrition and diabetes: control your blood sugar with healthy eating
When we eat, our bodies convert food into glucose (sugar) and release it into the bloodstream. This process signals the pancreas to release insulin, which helps convert blood glucose into energy. If you are living with diabetes, either your body doesn't produce enough insulin or your cells don't respond to insulin properly.
There's also a very strong connection between nutrition and diabetes, so knowing how to plan your meals is an important part of good diabetes management.
Diabetes mellitus is a group of chronic health conditions affecting how a person's body uses blood glucose, or blood sugar. There are three main types:
- Type 1 diabetes: Type 1 can develop at any age, but it's often diagnosed in children and teens. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Patients living with Type 1 need to take insulin every day.
- Type 2 diabetes: Type 2 happens when your body develops insulin resistance, which causes sugar to build up in your blood. Lifestyle factors may play a role in Type 2 — being overweight and not exercising can increase your risk. Without proper management, Type 2 can lead to other health problems, such as heart and kidney disease.
- Gestational diabetes: Pregnancy hormones influence how cells use blood sugar, causing some women to develop diabetes while they're pregnant. Gestational diabetes can increase the risk of preeclampsia and other pregnancy complications. It often goes away after a woman gives birth, but she may face a higher likelihood of developing Type 2 diabetes later in life.
Caution ahead: prediabetes
Sometimes, your body gives you a heads-up that diabetes is on its way. You can develop a condition called prediabetes, which can lead to high blood pressure. Prediabetes causes elevated blood sugar levels but they're not high enough to warrant a diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 1 in 3 adults have prediabetes, about 80% of whom are unaware they have it. That's because prediabetes usually doesn't cause clear symptoms.
The link between nutrition and diabetes
Many people think eating lots of sugar causes diabetes. Although sugar has a lot of calories, the combination of all the foods you eat has a bigger impact. Eating foods high in saturated and trans fats and refined carbohydrates increases your risk of developing prediabetes and Type 2 diabetes. Fortunately, you can control both conditions by eating a healthy diet.
There is no one-size-fits-all diet when it comes to managing diabetes. Your healthcare provider can refer you to a registered dietitian who can help you design a healthy eating plan to manage high blood sugar. A dietitian will also review lifestyle habits, such as exercising, underlying health conditions, and medicines you take, all of which can influence blood sugar levels.
In general, people living with diabetes should strive to eat a balanced diet of nutrient-dense foods, including:
- Colorful, non-starchy vegetables
- Fruits, such as apples, berries, and pears
- Lean sources of protein, such as chicken, eggs, fish, beans, legumes, and nuts
- Low-fat dairy products, such as cottage cheese, milk, and yogurt
- Whole grains, such as barley, brown rice, oats, and whole wheat
When you grocery shop, check the food labels and steer clear of items with saturated fat, high sodium levels, and added sugar.
What to make of the glycemic index
People living with diabetes should limit foods with a high glycemic index. This is a measurement on a scale of 0 to 100 that indicates how quickly a food causes a spike in your blood sugar. High-glycemic foods include:
- Sodas, sweet tea, and other drinks with added sugars
- White bread, white rice, and pasta
- Starchy vegetables, such as mashed potatoes and French fries
- Sugary snacks, including candy and cookies
You don't need to eliminate these foods from your diet entirely, but you should eat them in moderation. When possible, eat them alongside foods with a low glycemic index. For example, if you like to eat white rice, top it with a low-glycemic food like broccoli. The American Diabetes Association has a wide range of recipe ideas.
Your dietitian may recommend using the plate method to help you choose nutritious foods and healthy portions:
- Fill half your plate with colorful vegetables.
- Dedicate a quarter of your plate to protein.
- Reserve the remaining quarter of your plate for complex carbohydrates, such as grains and beans.
This meal plan strategy is a simple way to ensure you're eating a diabetes-friendly diet.
If you have risk factors for Type 2 diabetes, join Reid Health's Diabetes and Nutrition Education program. You'll learn healthy strategies for shopping, cooking, and eating to reduce your risk. You can also register for our diabetes prevention classes.