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By Bonnie Brost, licensed and registered dietitian at Essentia Health.
What we eat affects our bodies and our health. For people with diabetes, what we eat can help us manage the condition or put us at risk for serious health issues.
Diabetes is a chronic disease that affects almost 30 million adults in the United States. Another 86 million adults have pre-diabetes, which means they are at high risk for developing the disease.
Diabetes means your body either doesn’t make enough insulin or cannot use its own insulin as well as it should. In reality, diabetes is much more complicated. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define it well: “Diabetes is the condition in which the body does not properly process food for use as energy.”
A classic symptom of diabetes is high blood sugar, which rises in all of us after we eat but can reach dangerous levels in people with the disease. Blood sugar levels are how the disease is diagnosed and monitored using blood tests.
High blood sugar can increase your risk of blindness, kidney damage, heart attack or stroke. It can cause loss of feeling in your feet and legs, which can lead to amputation. The damage does not happen quickly, and by the time you have a hint that there is damage, it may be too late to avoid it.
Living with too high blood sugar is like having a car with a little oil leak. You may not even notice it for a long time until your car engine overheats and becomes too damaged to run. That’s why we need to pay attention to our blood sugar patterns, understand what is happening and develop lifestyle habits that delay or avoid destroying our body.
Diet is critical to managing diabetes. We can divide foods into three categories: protein, fat and carbohydrates. Carbohydrates have the biggest effect on blood sugar.
Many people believe that eating very little carbohydrates is what is needed. However, there is no conclusive evidence of an ideal amount of carbohydrate intake for people with diabetes. Recommendations need to be based on an individualized assessment of each person’s current eating patterns, food preferences and metabolic goals.
Too few carbohydrates can actually cause blood sugar to run high for some people with diabetes. Their liver can become overactive and dump sugar if they don’t eat enough carbohydrates. Limiting all carbohydrates may also decrease important vitamins and minerals that our bodies need, such as magnesium and potassium. This also can affect blood sugar control, blood pressure and heart beat.
Still, carbohydrates do need to be limited for people with diabetes. It is best to spread carbs out throughout the day so the pancreas only has to handle a little carbohydrate at a time, not a big load. Skipping breakfast or lunch sets you up to overdose for the evening meal and your pancreas will protest for all the extra work late in the day.
Most adults with diabetes should aim for 30-60 grams of carbohydrates per meal and 15-30 grams for a snack. Choose carbohydrates that are higher in fiber, such as whole fruits or vegetables or whole grains instead of those high in sugar or highly processed such as regular soda, cookies, sweet rolls, candy, baked goods, juices and many cereals. Instead, try high-fiber tortilla wraps, fresh apples, fresh berries, beans, Triscuits or Beanito chips.
Protein may help stabilize blood sugars. Protein doesn’t spike blood sugars and when eaten with some carbohydrates can slow the digestion of carbohydrates. Choose protein low in saturated fat, such eggs, poultry, fish, tuna, reduced-fat cheese, very lean pork and very lean beef. Make a breakfast wrap with a high-fiber tortilla, scrambled eggs, mushrooms and tomatoes. Try a chicken chili with chicken breast, black beans, tomatoes, corn and peppers. Pair a grilled pork tenderloin with sweet potato and roasted cauliflower and broccoli.
Saturated fat may block insulin from working and cause blood sugars to stay high. Saturated fat is very high in butter, cheese, marbled cuts of beef, most sausages, chocolate candy, ice cream and many desserts. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, such as those found in nuts and olive oil, have little effect on blood sugar.
Exercise is amazing for diabetes. The more you move the less medication you need to manage your blood sugar. Exercise helps muscle cells take in blood sugar more efficiently. It also helps to quiet the liver from dumping too much sugar. Exercised muscles store more sugar so they don’t have to call to the liver for extra fuel.
If you have diabetes or pre-diabetes, be sure to do your part with eating well throughout the day, limiting simple carbohydrates, exercising, taking your medications and getting good sleep. This will help your body stay well and avoid complications.
Any concerns about your diabetes management or believe you may be at risk, please contact your physician or the Diabetes Resource Program at Essentia Health at 218-828-7100 for more information.