By Andrea Holwegner BSc., RD
Worldwide, diabetes is on the rise at an astounding rate. If you are overweight and have not been getting as much exercise or eating as well as you could, this article is for you. If you have a family history of diabetes, have Type 2 diabetes or your doctor has mentioned that your blood sugars are starting to rise, this article could be critical for you.
Type 1 diabetes, which occurs most often in children and adolescents, occurs when the body is unable to make insulin. Insulin is a hormone that ensures your body can deal with blood sugar properly. By far the most common type of diabetes is Type 2 diabetes, in which the body does not make enough insulin or does not use the insulin properly. As a result, sugar builds up in the blood instead of being used by the body for energy.
If diabetes is not diagnosed or treated properly, it puts a tremendous amount of strain on the body and can cause serious complications, including heart disease, kidney failure, eye disease, erectile dysfunction and damage to the nervous system.
By managing a healthy weight, eating healthy foods and doing enough physical activity, you can significantly reduce your chances of developing diabetes and even delay the onset of Type 2 diabetes.
Understanding how different foods influence your blood sugars
Carbohydrates are the single most important component in your diet that determines your blood sugar level. A carbohydrate is simply a cluster of sugar units. When you consume foods that contain carbohydrates, such as breads, cereals, pasta, rice, fruits and sweets, these sugar clusters are broken down into individual sugar units during digestion and released into your blood.
This means that the more carbohydrate-containing foods you eat, the higher your blood sugar can get. However, this does not mean that you have to limit your intake of carbohydrates; you just need to be aware of the type and amount of carbohydrates you ingest at one time.
Fibre does not raise blood sugar levels. High-fibre foods, such as whole grain breads, some cereals, legumes and many fruits and vegetables, help to slow the rise in blood sugar after a meal and thus are beneficial for blood sugar control. Fibre-rich foods also lower blood cholesterol levels, reduce the risk of heart disease and are useful for weight control since they contribute to you feeling full.
Fat is found in foods such as oils, butter, margarine, nuts and seeds as well as in meats, some milk products and some snack foods. Dietary fat does not raise blood sugar levels. But that doesn’t mean a high-fat diet would be appropriate for diabetes management and overall health. In fact, a high-fat diet can increase your cholesterol levels and raise your risk of heart disease, which is already higher if you have diabetes. Eating a high-fat diet often contributes to extra calories and might also make it more difficult to lose weight and maintain a healthy body weight.
Protein does not raise blood sugar levels. In fact, protein has an important role in blood sugar management. Protein-rich foods, such as meat, seafood, poultry, cheese, eggs, peanut butter and nuts, help to slow down the release of carbohydrate-rich foods into the blood stream, thereby preventing fast surges in blood sugar. Protein is also helpful in weight control since protein-rich foods are slow to digest and contribute to the feeling of fullness.
Top 3 nutrition strategies for managing healthy blood sugars
1. Get triple charged!
Build balanced meals from three categories To have the best blood sugar control, it is important to plan meals that include both carbohydrate-rich foods and protein-rich foods. This helps to ensure you have adequate carbohydrates for your brain and muscles but also enough protein to keep full and stabilize your blood sugars. To help you do this, think about choosing three types of food at breakfast, lunch and supper:
- Vegetable and/or fruit.
- Sample breakfast: Whole grain toast, eggs or peanut butter and fresh fruit.
- Sample lunch: Tossed green salad with grilled chicken breast, vinaigrette and a whole wheat bun.
- Sample supper: Stir-fry with fresh/frozen mixed veggies, beef, shrimp or tofu and brown rice or pasta.
2. Eat on time Eat every three to five hours
It is important to avoid skipping meals and going longer than five hours without eating. This is so you can manage healthy blood sugars by providing your body with small amounts of food at times that it can handle. Eating regularly also reduces the likelihood of getting too hungry and eating a large volume of food at once.
Ideally, aim to eat your first meal within one hour of waking and then count three to five hours later and plan to have a meal or snack at that time. Repeat this process throughout the day and establish a plan that will work for you. This meal timing strategy works well even for people who work afternoon or night shifts.
Eating every three to five hours means you will need to eat three, four, five or six times per day. The choice is up to you based on preference and how your blood sugars respond. One of the best ways to determine if you are eating frequently enough is to test your blood sugars throughout the day.
3. Get picky about portions
Understand how much to eat at one time
Even if you are eating regularly throughout the day and making healthy food choices, you still need to manage how much you have at one time, or your blood sugars can end up being high.
To help you with portion-size management, divide your dinner plate into three: once down the middle and once dividing one of the halves in two. From there, fill the largest section of the plate with vegetables, preferably at least two kinds. One of the two quarters should be filled with protein-rich food while the other quarter with starches and grains. A small piece of fruit and 250 ml (1 cup) of milk can round out the meal if desired.
Also consider the following serving-size suggestions:
- Fruits and grains/starches, such as cereal, pasta, rice and potatoes: choose an amount up to the size of your fist.
- Protein, such as meat, chicken and poultry: choose an amount up to the size of the palm of your hand and the thickness of your little finger.
- Vegetables: choose as much as you can hold in two hands.
- Fats: limit fat to an amount the size of the tip of your thumb.
Everyone needs a different amount of food and overall nutrition plan depending on his or her medical situation, age, weight, height, genetics and physical activity patterns. Working with a dietitian one-on-one is the best way to assess what is ideal for you. A dietitian can also help you ensure you are consuming the right amount and type of food for the day that will provide you with the nutrients you need for health and the best blood sugar control.