We’re breaking down everything you need to know about diabetes – what it is, how to prevent it, and how to manage it with nutrition!
Happy National Diabetes Month! It’s an unfortunate reality that diabetes rates are extremely high in the United States. About 1 in 10 Americans have diabetes, and 1 in 3 Americans have prediabetes. But we’re here to give you the good news – diabetes is in part preventable and manageable with nutrition!
Ok, lets start with the basics…
Diabetes is a condition in which people have trouble metabolizing or processing carbohydrates. Carbohydrates are found in a variety of foods, including fruit, vegetables (especially starchy vegetables like potatoes), grains, and even unsuspecting foods like milk and yogurt. Sugar and refined grains like white bread and rice have the highest concentration of carbohydrates.
When we eat carbohydrates, we eventually break them down into a simple sugar called glucose, which we release into our bloodstream so our cells can eventually use it for fuel.
Once glucose enters our bloodstream, our body releases a hormone called insulin which helps our cells take up glucose from the bloodstream and get it into our cells where we can use it for energy.
You with us so far? Essentially, this is how a healthy cell gets energy from carbohydrates in the foods we eat. People who have prediabetes, type 1 and type 2 diabetes are not able to perform this process adequately for a number of reasons.
Let’s break it down a little further for you.
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 DM occurs when the body does not produce insulin. The immune system, for a variety of reasons that we don’t yet understand, destroys the beta cells of the pancreas that produce insulin. This can occur at any age – but is often diagnosed at a young age. Type 1 diabetes can be genetically linked, and/or triggered by environmental factors or a virus.
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 diabetes is also highly influenced by genetics. However, diet and lifestyle factors also play a very important role. One of the top contributors to type 2 diabetes is obesity. Remember, when we talked about insulin earlier? Well, obesity often leads to insulin resistance – a precursor of type 2 diabetes.
Insulin resistance is a condition in which your liver, muscle, and fat cells do not utilize insulin well. This causes glucose to accumulate in the blood, leading to high blood sugar. At the same time, your pancreas produces more and more insulin to help get that glucose into your cells. At the same time, our cells are starved of glucose because it’s hanging out in the bloodstream, instead of traveling to the cell where we can burn it for fuel.
Together, these scenarios contribute to the symptoms we see with people who have prediabetes and type 2 diabetes – difficulty losing weight, low energy, cravings for carbs and sweets, insatiable appetite, and eventually nerve damage in the limbs and eyes and kidney damage if not managed.
Remember when we mentioned prediabetes? Listen up, because this is important. Before being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, an individual will often be diagnosed with prediabetes. Prediabetes is essentially elevated blood sugar. At this point, if you make a few lifestyle changes to bring your blood sugar down, you can reverse the course, and prevent a future diagnosis of type 2 diabetes.
We’re going to repeat that one more time. Even if you have prediabetes, you can prevent type 2 diabetes with diet and lifestyle. You have the power to do that! How awesome is that? Our nutrition nerdiness is coming out, but this is what gets us going. If you’re in this boat, we suggest working with a registered dietitian on creating a healthy diet to manage blood sugar.
You can book a session with a Culina Health dietitian here!
Now, we said diet and lifestyle changes are necessary, right? Let’s talk about it. First and foremost, one’s diet must be addressed in order to manage blood sugar. There are a couple of key things we encourage our clients to work on.
Let us start by saying this – carbs are not off limits for diabetics. We repeat, they are NOT off limits! Rather, it’s important to be conscious of the type of carbs you choose, the amount, the timing in which you eat them, and what you pair them with. We know – that sounds like a lot. We’ll explain it further.
We know from earlier that carbs contain glucose – the scientific word for the sugar that enters your blood. Eating too many carbs at once will cause this glucose to spike. It’s important that you work with a registered dietitian to determine what the appropriate carbohydrate portions are for you to be having throughout the day.
Secondly, the type of carbs are super important. Choosing fruits, vegetables and whole grains is the way to do it. These carbs have the magical f word – fiber! Fiber works to slow the absorption of sugar from food. Therefore, it prevents spikes in blood glucose after eating. And it can also prevent the absorption of fat and cholesterol. In doing so, it lowers blood triglyceride and cholesterol levels as well, helping support heart health. We love fiber around here.
To further slow down the digestion of carbs, we always suggest something we like to call food pairing. By this, we mean pair a carbohydrate food with a fat and or protein food. You’ll get a more nutritiously dense meal or snack, which will slow digestion, and stabilize blood sugar. Our favorite combos are grapes with cheddar cheese or a pear with walnuts.
Meal and Snack Timing
This is another big one. The times at which you eat throughout the day play an important role in the status of your blood sugar. This goes for everyone – not just diabetics – but it’s especially important for diabetics to eat every 3 to 4 hours. If you go long periods without eating, your blood sugar is going to drop way too low. Then, when you finally do eat, chances are you will overeat, take in too much glucose, and that blood sugar is going to shoot up.
These dips and spikes in blood sugar are exactly what we want to avoid. They can further exacerbate insulin resistance, and make blood sugar even harder to stabilize. In order to avoid this, we suggest eating every 3-4 hours. Eating according to a schedule like this will ensure that your blood sugar remains steady and stable as the day goes on.
Okay, we’ve covered diet. Now let’s get to physical activity. We’re just going to be frank with you – you have to move your body. There’s really no way around it. Research shows that physical activity can further assist in managing blood sugar and diabetes. It increases the body’s insulin sensitivity, lowers blood sugar, positively impacts cholesterol levels, and helps maintain a healthy body weight.
Here’s the best part – you can move your body in any way you want. Whether you like walking, jogging, dancing, skiing, swimming, roller blading, playing tennis or biking, consistent exercise of any form is excellent. We suggest 30 minutes 4 to 5 days per week. Just get that heart rate up, break a little sweat, and you’re good to go!
The biggest takeaway here – you can actively work to prevent the onset of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes with diet and nutrition. If you do have type 2 diabetes, there are achievable strategies you can work on to manage it. There within lies a great deal of power. YOU have the power to take control and handle your diabetes – how cool is that?!