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How Does a Healthy Diabetic Diet Help in Blood Sugar Control?

Written by Rama Manikumar on Thu, 22 December 2022 — Fact checked by Jillian Lai Mei Siew

Key Highlights

  • Diabetes develops due to glucose accumulation brought on by consuming fatty, processed, sugar-rich foods. 
  • Saturated fats, trans fats, and sugars give instant energy and satisfaction but also cause a rise in blood glucose levels and increase the risk of heart disease.
  • Fiber-rich whole grains, lean meat, eggs, plant proteins, fruits, nuts, and fish oils rich in omega-3 fats are ideal for a healthy diet.
  • Healthy food choices can help people with prediabetes and diabetes live a good quality of life.   
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Diabetes is a chronic, progressive disease affecting millions of people worldwide and rapidly spreading to become a pandemic. Our quick-paced lifestyle has transformed our food options and consumption pattern, which are the leading causes of the high prevalence of diabetes worldwide. 

Can you cure yourself of diabetes? While this isn’t possible, you can manage diabetes to lead a better life. Let’s learn how following a nutritious diabetic diet can significantly help in diabetes management. 

What are the essential nutrients for managing diabetes

Diet can be ‘scary’ as people mistakenly equate it to not being able to eat foods they love. Instead, diet means being consciously aware of what food items as a diabetic you should make sure to get enough of and ensuring to choose healthy foods rich in vitamins, minerals, and fiber.

Our food comprises three major nutrients: fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. Studies show that the amount and the type of nutrients play an important role in increasing or decreasing the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

1. Fats

The fats that we consume daily are a mix of the following: 

  • Saturated fats (SFA): Red meat, coconut oil, butter, ghee, palm oil, beef fat, lard, and cream
  • Trans fats (TFA): Cakes, cookies, biscuits, margarine, fried foods    
    Monounsaturated fats (MUFA): Olive oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, corn, soybean, nuts, avocado, and seeds
  • Polyunsaturated fats (PUFA): Fish (salmon, tuna, mackerel, sturgeon, anchovy), nuts (walnut, flaxseed), seed oils, omega-3 fats (fish oil)

Saturated and trans fats increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases and should be consumed in very low quantities or avoided completely.

Studies in diabetic patients show that consuming monounsaturated fats, omega-3 fats, and polyunsaturated fats reduces blood glucose levels, blood pressure, and heart disease risk and increase good cholesterol levels.

How to minimize intake of saturated and trans fats?

  • Replace fatty red meat with skinless poultry, fish, beans, and nuts.
  • Switch from frying to steaming, boiling, grilling, or air frying.
  • Replace whole milk and other full-fat dairy products with lower fat versions.
  • Use vegetable oils and foods rich in PUFA and MUFA for cooking and general consumption.
  • Include fatty fish, flax seeds, walnuts, and green leafy vegetables rich in omega-3 fatty acids.

2. Carbohydrates

The carbohydrates we consume are broken down by the body into glucose to provide instant energy. Sugar, bread, potatoes, pasta, corn, soft drinks, fruits, vegetables, brownies, bananas, chips, rice, and nuts are some carbohydrates we consume daily.

Diabetic foods to keep blood sugar in check

Are carbs bad for diabetics? Of course not! The type and quantity of carbohydrates we eat are essential in managing diabetes. 

Our food is made of three main types of carbohydrates:

  • Starch: Potatoes, yam, bread, rice, pasta, flour, oats, barley
  • Sugar: Refined sugar, fruit, milk, soft drinks, sweets, liqueurs, bottled fruit and vegetable juices, liquid and powder concentrates, energy drinks, flavored milk, flavored breakfast cereal 
  • Fiber: Oatmeal, nuts, beans, fruits with edible skin like apples, pears, green leafy vegetables, quinoa, brown rice, walnuts, seeds, wheat bran, legumes
  • Starch and sugar are significant energy sources, while fiber helps digestion, regulates blood glucose levels, and reduces cholesterol levels in the body.

Which are the best carbohydrates to eat for diabetics, and what quantity should one eat? 

Following foods should form a significant portion of the diet:

  • Whole, unprocessed foods such as whole-grain pasta, steel-cut oats, millets, quinoa, and brown rice
  • Fiber-rich vegetables such as cucumbers, broccoli, tomatoes, lettuce, and green beans 

Foods that need to be a medium portion of your diet may include: 

  • Starchy foods such as corn, green peas, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, plantains, black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, green lentils 
  • Fruits like apples, blueberries, strawberries, and cantaloupe 

Foods to avoid or take in minimal quantities include:

  • Refined, highly processed foods, soft drinks, packaged juice, white bread, white rice, cereal, and sweets and snacks like cake, cookies, candy, chips, and sugar.
  • Sugar and processed fructose are used to sweeten our foods and drinks, add calories, and cause weight gain. Artificial sweeteners or sugar-free supplements are safe to be consumed by diabetics as they give a sweet sensation without increasing blood glucose levels or calories. 

Some of the sugar-free supplements as listed here: 

  • Sucralose 
  • Saccharine 
  • Acesulfame K 
  • Neotame
  • Aspartame 
  • Stevia 
  • Luo Han Guo (Monk fruit extract)

1. Proteins

A good amount of protein intake reduces hunger, gives the feeling of fullness, and controls lean muscle mass loss as we age. 

For a person with diabetes looking to maintain their body muscle mass, blood glucose levels, and blood pressure, they should consume a high protein diet consisting of lean protein or plant protein at a rate of 220-350 g per day, or as prescribed by their doctor. 

Proteins that can be included in our diet are:

  • Beans and lentils
  • Nuts or seeds
  • Fish and seafood
  • Unprocessed cheese 
  • Chicken, duck, turkey without the skin
  • Lean cuts of beef, lamb, pork
  • Hummus
  • Tofu, tempeh
  • Low-fat milk
  • Peanut butter
  • Low-fat yogurt

The proteins that should be avoided as they increase the risk of cardiovascular diseases in diabetic persons are:

  • Red meat
  • Processed meat: Hot dogs, bacon, ham, sausages 

Eggs are a good source of vitamins, minerals, proteins, carotenoids, and saturated, polyunsaturated, and monounsaturated fatty acids and are also one of the primary sources of dietary cholesterol.

Can you eat eggs if you have diabetes? And how many? Your doctor is the best person to answer this question. Consult and follow your doctor’s advice on whether or not you can eat eggs. 

2. Minerals

Magnesium, zinc, and chromium are the three minerals vital for managing diabetes. These minerals are abundant in whole grains, nuts, fruits, vegetables, and eggs9 and should be included in the diet daily. 

3. Sodium

The recommended sodium (salt) intake for a person with diabetes is 2300 g per day. Eating salty foods, preserved foods (like pickles), and pre-cooked or pre-packaged foods increase the risk of hypertension, water retention, and weight gain.

4.Chocolate

Chocolate is a favorite among the young and old. People with diabetes need to prefer dark chocolate over white chocolate because dark chocolate is majorly made up of cocoa and is beneficial for health. White chocolate and candies have added sugar and fat and, therefore, should be avoided altogether. 

5. Coffee

Coffee and its disease-fighting beneficial effects have been scientifically proven. Studies have shown that drinking at least 6 cups of caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee decreases blood glucose levels and reduces the risk of developing diabetes.

6. Alcohol

Moderate intake of alcohol reduces the risk of heart disease and death in people with diabetes. Studies recommend one drink for women and two for men per day alongside food consumption. Care needs to be taken as higher amounts of alcohol consumption significantly affect the blood glucose levels.

What foods should borderline diabetics avoid?

When you have prediabetes, also known as borderline diabetes, your blood sugar levels are higher than usual but not high enough to be classified as type II diabetes. However, you have a very high risk of type 2 diabetes and a higher chance of developing diabetes if your parent or sibling has the disease.   

Following healthy changes in diet and lifestyle can help slow down the progression of prediabetes to type II diabetes and delay or prevent heart disease:  

Diabetic foods to keep blood sugar in check

1. Weight management

If you are overweight, losing some weight will help reduce your blood glucose level. Try to lose weight by cutting down fatty foods and exercising daily. 

2. Eat healthily

  • Reduce or avoid intake of sweetened beverages and sugary foods
  • Increase intake of whole-grain and high-fiber foods
  • Reduce fat intake, especially saturated fat and trans fats
  • Reduce salt intake
  • Eat regular meals with a small portion of carbohydrates in each meal
  • Eat five portions of fruit and vegetables per day
  • Avoid skipping meals, as this helps control appetite and blood glucose levels
  • Reduce red and processed meats

3. Include starchy carbohydrates at each meal

Carbohydrates are our primary source of energy, vitamins, and fiber. All the carbohydrates we eat and drink are converted into glucose in the body, some very quickly (sugary foods) and some relatively slowly (starchy foods), resulting in a rise in blood glucose levels. 

Replace sugary foods with slowly absorbed starchy carbohydrates as these do not affect your blood glucose levels much. These include:

  • Pasta
  • Basmati or easy-to-cook rice
  • Grainy bread such as rye
  • Sweet potato and yam
  • All-Bran and natural muesli
  • Pulses, kidney beans, and baked beans

The high-fiber starchy foods also help maintain the health of your digestive system and prevent constipation. However, limiting the portion size of each meal is crucial.

4. Cut down on saturated fat

To cut down on the fat, you can:

  • Choose low-fat versions of milk, cheese, and diet yogurt
  • Grill, steam, or oven bake rather than frying or roasting in oil
  • Replace butter with low-fat margarine and cooking oils like olive oil
  • Avoid foods with hidden fats, e.g., pastries, pies, cakes, and biscuits

5. Keep physically active

Regular physical activity will help manage your weight, reduce your blood glucose levels, and lower your cholesterol levels. A 30-minute moderate to vigorous exercise at least five times per week will help you in the long run.

Conclusion

Diabetes, although a lifelong disease, is manageable and can be controlled by following a healthy diabetic diet and making healthier lifestyle choices. Foods rich in sugars, starches, and fats are tasty and instantly perk your mood, but they come with risks. 

Processed foods and meats replaced by whole foods, nuts, nut oils, and green leafy vegetables will help lower blood sugar fast and naturally. Fresh fruit with edible peels, and nuts are good sources of protein and fiber and are good to snack on for people with diabetes. 

It all, however, comes down to our choices. So, let’s make some healthy ones!

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Rama Manikumar

Rama is a nutritionist and a lifestyle consultant. Having worked in the health industry for more than 20 years, her expertise in health and well-being brings a fresh and healthy approach to everyday habits- food and lifestyle. She walks the talk and delivers excellent quality nutrition, and helps develop habits that peak health & Well- being. Rama Holds a Batchelor’s degree in Biology; Extended/Specialized degree in Nutrition & Dietetics (Pennsylvania State Univ. USA).

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