What’s the best diet for diabetes?

People with diabetes have nearly double the risk of heart disease and are at a greater risk of developing mental health disorders such as depression. But most cases of type 2 diabetes are preventable and some can even be reversed. Taking steps to prevent or control diabetes doesn’t mean living in deprivation; it means eating a tasty, balanced diet that will also boost your energy and improve your mood. You don’t have to give up sweets entirely or resign yourself to a lifetime of bland food.

Whether you’re trying to prevent or control diabetes, your nutritional needs are virtually the same as everyone else, so no special foods are necessary. But you do need to pay attention to some of your food choices—most notably the carbohydrates you eat. While following a Mediterranean or other heart-healthy diet can help with this, the most important thing you can do is to lose a little weight.

Losing just 5% to 10% of your total weight can help you lower your blood sugar, blood pressure, and cholesterol levels. Losing weight and eating healthier can also have a profound effect on your mood, energy, and sense of wellbeing. Even if you’ve already developed diabetes, it’s not too late to make a positive change. By eating healthier, being more physically active, and losing weight, you can reduce your symptoms or even reverse diabetes. The bottom line is that you have more control over your health than you may think.

The biggest risk for diabetes: belly fat

Being overweight or obese is the biggest risk factor for type 2 diabetes. However, your risk is higher if you tend to carry your weight around your abdomen as opposed to your hips and thighs. A lot of belly fat surrounds the abdominal organs and liver and is closely linked to insulin resistance. You are at an increased risk of developing diabetes if you are:

  • A woman with a waist circumference of 35 inches or more
  • A man with a waist circumference of 40 inches or more

Calories obtained from fructose (found in sugary beverages such as soda, energy and sports drinks, coffee drinks, and processed foods like doughnuts, muffins, cereal, candy and granola bars) are more likely to add weight around your abdomen. Cutting back on sugary foods can mean a slimmer waistline as well as a lower risk of diabetes.

Planning a diabetes diet

A diabetic diet doesn’t have to be complicated and you don’t have to give up all your favorite foods. The first step to making smarter choices is to separate the myths from the facts about eating to prevent or control diabetes.

Myths and facts about diabetes and diet
Myth: You must avoid sugar at all costs.Fact: You can enjoy your favorite treats as long as you plan properly and limit hidden sugars. Dessert doesn’t have to be off limits, as long as it’s a part of a healthy meal plan.
Myth: You have to cut way down on carbs.Fact: The type of carbohydrates you eat as well as serving size is key. Focus on whole grain carbs instead of starchy carbs since they’re high in fiber and digested slowly, keeping blood sugar levels more even.
Myth: You’ll need special diabetic meals.Fact: The principles of healthy eating are the same—whether or not you’re diabetic. Expensive diabetic foods generally offer no special benefit.
Myth: A high-protein diet is best.Fact: Studies have shown that eating too much protein, especially animal protein, may actually cause insulin resistance, a key factor in diabetes. A healthy diet includes protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Our bodies need all three to function properly. The key is a balanced diet.

As with any healthy eating program, a diabetic diet is more about your overall dietary pattern rather than obsessing over specific foods. Aim to eat more natural, unprocessed food and less packaged and convenience foods.

Eat more

  • Healthy fats from nuts, olive oil, fish oils, flax seeds, or avocados
  • Fruits and vegetables—ideally fresh, the more colorful the better; whole fruit rather than juices
  • High-fiber cereals and breads made from whole grains
  • Fish and shellfish, organic chicken or turkey
  • High-quality protein such as eggs, beans, low-fat dairy, and unsweetened yogurt

Eat less

  • Trans fats from partially hydrogenated or deep-fried foods
  • Packaged and fast foods, especially those high in sugar, baked goods, sweets, chips, desserts
  • White bread, sugary cereals, refined pastas or rice
  • Processed meat and red meat
  • Low-fat products that have replaced fat with added sugar, such as fat-free yogurt

Choose high-fiber, slow-release carbs

Carbohydrates have a big impact on your blood sugar levels—more so than fats and proteins—so you need to be smart about what types of carbs you eat. Limit refined carbohydrates like white bread, pasta, and rice, as well as soda, candy, packaged meals, and snack foods. Focus on high-fiber complex carbohydrates—also known as slow-release carbs. They are digested more slowly, thus preventing your body from producing too much insulin.

What about the glycemic index?

High glycemic index (GI) foods spike your blood sugar rapidly, while low GI foods have the least effect on blood sugar. While the GI has long been promoted as a tool to help manage blood sugar, there are some notable drawbacks.

  • The true health benefits of using the GI remain unclear.
  • Having to refer to GI tables makes eating unnecessarily complicated.
  • The GI is not a measure of a food’s healthfulness.
  • Research suggests that by simply following the guidelines of the Mediterranean or other heart-healthy diets, you’ll not only lower your glycemic load but also improve the quality of your diet.

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