Not only are 86 million Americans prediabetic, but 90% of them don't even know they have it, the Centers for Disease Control reports. What's more, doctors diagnose as many as 1.5 million new cases of diabetes each year, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Whether you're at risk, prediabetic or following a diabetic diet as suggested by your doctor, a few simple strategies can help control blood sugar and potentially reverse the disease entirely. Plus, implementing just a few of these dietary changes can have other beneficial effects like weight loss, all without sacrificing flavor or feeling deprived.
First, let's start with the basics.
What is diabetes?
There are two main forms of diabetes: type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is an autoimmune disease that's usually diagnosed during childhood. Environmental and genetic factors can lead to the destruction of the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. That's the hormone responsible for delivering glucose (sugar) to your cells for metabolism and storage.
In contrast, type 2 diabetes is often diagnosed in adulthood and caused by a variety of lifestyle factors like obesity, physical inactivity and high cholesterol. Typically, type 2 diabetics still have functioning beta cells, meaning that they're still producing insulin. However, the peripheral tissues become less sensitive to the hormone, and the liver produces more glucose, causing high blood sugar. When left unmanaged, type 2 diabetics may stop producing insulin altogether.
While you may have some symptoms of high blood sugar (nausea, lethargy, frequent thirst and/or urination), a clinical diagnosis of diabetes or prediabetes requires a repeat test of your blood sugar levels.
How does a diabetic diet help?
Unlike many other health conditions, the incredible thing about type 2 diabetes is that it can be controlled and reversed with lifestyle changes. Ultimately, diabetes management is all about monitoring your blood sugar and keeping it as stable as possible. While everything we eat eventually breaks down into glucose, some foods raise blood sugar faster than others.
Do I have to cut out carbs?
One major misconception about diabetic diets: They're not necessarily carb-restricted, they're carb-controlled. In fact, if you're taking certain medication for diabetes management, you'll have to eat some carbs to offset potentially dangerous side effects like low blood sugar.
By starting a diabetic diet, you're not necessarily cutting back on carbs. You're changing the type of carbs you eat. Refined carbs like grains, desserts and sugary beverages get replaced by whole, complex carbs. Controlling the amount that you have at one sitting also keeps blood glucose levels as stable as possible.
What do I need to do?
The number one evidence-based method for blood sugar management is carbohydrate counting, or planning meals using carb "exchanges." Every 15 grams of carbs are equal to 1 exchange, and you have a certain number of exchanges per meal. For example, if you're aiming to eat 45 grams of carbs at lunch, you'll budget out three exchanges. Carb counting was designed specifically for anyone taking insulin for diabetes management because it correlates directly with units of short-acting insulin.
Carb-controlled diets are also great for anyone looking to make healthier choices because you're filling up on more nutritious foods and keeping track of portions. Here are five things you need to do to start this eating plan right away:
1. Eat consistently.
While it may sound intimidating for someone who's just been diagnosed, the simplest thing you can do right away is to stop skipping meals. Going for long periods without eating isn't the best idea for anyone. It can slow your metabolism over time, make it easier to overindulge later and mess with your energy levels. But for anyone with diabetes or prediabetes, it's even more significant. Meal skipping can lead to dips and spikes in blood sugar, so eating once every three to four hours is a good goal to set.
2. Load up on veggies.
Instead of thinking about what you can't have, focus on what you can eat more of. Wholesome carbohydrates filled with satisfying fiber are foods you can eat with abandon. Those include leafy greens, tomatoes, carrots, celery, cucumber, zucchini, mushrooms, onions, garlic, beets, snap peas, 100% whole grains, beans, lentils, chickpeas and peas.
Fill up on fruit, low-fat (unsweetened) dairy products and starchy veggies (potatoes, pumpkin, parsnip, squash and corn) in more moderate amounts.
3. Snack smartly.
Make snacks a combo of filling fiber and lean protein: an apple with low-fat cheese, peanut butter on a slice of 100% whole-grain toast, 1/4 cup hummus with carrots ... even some packaged snacks with the right combo of nutrients can work too. Eating fiber and protein together will slow down the rate at which you digest and absorb carbs, creating a more gradual rise in blood sugar afterwards. While prediabetics and type 2 diabetics are less likely to experience dramatic spikes or crashes, it's still a good idea to keep snacks on hand for any potential highs or lows.
4. Choose lean protein at every meal.
Two major players in a diabetic diet are lean animal protein (fish, chicken, lean cuts of beef and turkey) and plant-based protein (pulses, nuts, seeds and tofu). Since cardiovascular disease is linked to type 2 diabetes, cutting back on red meat, fried foods and dairy-based dishes can help lower your risk of heart disease and contribute towards weight loss as well. Plus, it'll limit sodium intake, a key component of diabetes management and heart health.
5. Skip sugary beverages.
The sneakiest source of simple carbs are sugary beverages: sodas, juices (fresh squeezed and from concentrate), sweetened tea and coffee beverages, drink mixers and the ilk. That's why it's crucial to cut these out as much as possible when you've been diagnosed with prediabetes or type 2 diabetes. Since they're quickly digested and absorbed, they rapidly raise blood sugar - as soon as 15 minutes after drinking 'em.
Plus, cutting back on added sugar can help you control blood sugar, lose weight and lower your risk of chronic disease overall. My favorite thing about nixing added sugar? It allows you to save room for a real indulgence instead (aim for about 200 calories a pop).
The Bottom Line
The key to blood sugar management is choosing whole foods over processed ones, eating the right portions and limiting added sugars, sodium and saturated fat. But it doesn't have to mean sacrificing the delicious foods you love! Check out GH's SuperCarb Diet for meal, snack and recipe ideas. It's a carb-controlled eating plan of about 12 to 14 exchanges daily (45 grams at breakfast, 45 grams at lunch, 60 grams at dinner and two 15- to 30-gram snacks) that can help you lose weight deliciously and nutritiously.
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