This article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
Original Author: Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN
November is Diabetes Awareness Month. If you’re not living with diabetes, you may not realize just how many lives this chronic illness impacts. According to the most recent Center for Disease Control and Prevention Report 1 in 4 people with diabetes don’t know they have it and aren’t aware of the health risks they face—which range from increased risk of heart disease, loss of vision, kidney disease, nerve damage, and more. In the face of this growing health endemic, we sought the help of a Registered Dietitian to provide an overview of managing diabetes, with attention to dietary factors, and blood sugar regulation.
What is Diabetes?
Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is an autoimmune illness, in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Though Type 1 diabetes tends to appear during childhood or adolescence, it can develop in adults. Type 2 diabetes (T2D) is a chronic medical condition in which the body doesn’t respond to insulin properly—it is also known as insulin resistance. In some cases, the pancreas may stop producing insulin altogether.
What is Insulin?
The American Diabetes Association defines insulin as “a hormone that helps the body use glucose for energy. The beta cells of the pancreas make insulin. When the body cannot make enough insulin, it is taken by injection or through [the] use of an insulin pump.” Insulin resistance therefore means the cells stop responding to insulin, resulting in a decreased uptake of glucose from the blood into cells for use and therefore high blood glucose levels.
What Impacts Diabetes Risk?
Family history is a risk factor for both Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes. While there is unfortunately nothing that can be done to prevent Type 1 diabetes (at this time), being aware of a hereditary risk for Type 2 can enable adopting helpful lifestyle changes. Studies show that some people are at higher risk, based on ethnicity, weight, age, blood pressure levels and heart health, clinical depression, polycystic ovary syndrome, and inactivity.
Diet can contribute to developing Type 2 Diabetes, and plays a major role in the management of both Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes. Some of the factors include sugar, types of carbohydrates consumed, alcohol consumption, antioxidant intake, fiber content, and overall nutrient balance of meals and snacks. While sugar intake does play a role in the development of diabetes, it is important to understand sugar as a form of energy. Ultimately all forms of carbohydrates convert to glucose—the body’s key energy source.
Whether you’re dealing with Type 1 or Type 2 Diabetes, physical activity is an important aspect of managing your health. In addition to the traditional benefits of regular exercise, like better sleep, and stress management, exercise can lower and counter insulin resistance. It’s important to discuss appropriate frequency and types of exercise with your doctor, as well as appropriate ways to deal with an unexpected drop in blood sugar during exercise.
Blood Sugar Reactions
Whether you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes or not, limiting blood sugar spikes throughout the day benefits your blood sugar control. When sugar or starches are eaten without fiber, protein, and fat, energy is absorbed more rapidly into the bloodstream which can lead to sugar spikes. In these cases, insulin may release in larger amounts at once than desirable, causing blood sugar levels to plummet as energy shuttles into cells too quickly. Frequent spikes are more likely to occur when sugar and refined grain consumption is high. Additionally, sodium increases sugar absorption into the blood, so when consuming refined carbohydrate products that are also rich in sodium, rises in blood sugar may be more noticeable.
The resulting feeling after a sugar spike may be that of a dramatic “energy crash” with compromises to mental clarity and feelings of hunger soon after eating. In the short term, this may impact mood, appetite and productivity. Long term, there is not only an increased risk of developing insulin resistance, but also the risk of blood vessels hardening and narrowing, which can lead to a heart attack, stroke. Other serious complications can include limb loss, vision loss, and kidney failure.
Another consequence of blood sugar plummeting, or remaining low between meals and snacks, is that it may cause sugar cravings. Despite having eaten, and energy entering cells for use and storage, blood sugar levels are low, making the body think it is low on energy.
Sugar occurs naturally in fruits, vegetables, dairy, and even legumes. In these forms, naturally occurring sugar is accompanied by fiber, fat, protein, and many essential micronutrients and antioxidants. In the case of fruit, sugar takes the form of fructose, a sugar that is metabolized slower than glucose.
On average, the American population consumes an excess of added sugars—those which are not naturally present in a particular food. Many convenience foods add sugar where you may least expect it, in items like whole grain breads, pasta sauce, applesauce, crackers, smoothies, and nut butter. Higher amounts than you might imagine can be found in perceived “health foods” such as yogurt, granola bars, instant oatmeal, and breakfast cereals. Individually, the amounts of added sugar in these items may seem small, but they can add up if you live a busy lifestyle in which you consume a volume of convenience foods. Performance Kitchen meals intentionally control the use added sugar (less than 4g per meal), as well as sodium (under 500mg per meal), while still offering convenience.
Balanced Meals and Snacks
To manage blood sugar, sustain energy levels, and reduce cravings, it’s important to get adequate, balanced meals and snacks. Eating enough early in the day may help you feel more energized, productive, and motivated to exercise—while preventing cravings for excess sugar later on.
Whole food carbohydrates such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, also deliver fiber, protein and antioxidants with energy. The addition of proteins and healthy fats aids in feelings of fullness and satisfaction, as well as slower breakdown and absorption of energy. This results in steadier blood sugar levels and energy levels. Performance Kitchen aims not only to control the use of added sugar and sodium, they also include protein, fiber, and healthy fats.
At first, food may taste bland if you start limiting added sugar, so it’s important to choose herbs and spices that add exciting flavors to your meals. Herbs and spices also provide antioxidants that contribute to the slowing of age-related diseases. Using bold flavors in meals such as the Great Karma Coconut Curry, and Chicken Chile Verde, Performance Kitchen helps keep both your body and taste buds satisfied.
We also put together a Diabetes Health meal plan for those looking to adhere to the American Diabetes Association nutritional guidelines.
Here are a few bonus tips to consider about managing your blood sugar, while still getting plenty of enjoyment from eating:
- Instead of a sweetener, add vanilla extract and cinnamon to overnight oats or plain yogurt
- Select convenience foods that include fiber, fat, and protein (while limiting sugar and sodium)
- Eat enough, often enough, to prevent sugar “crashes” and feelings of excess hunger
- Seek alternatives to added sugar like raw honey, pure maple syrup, or coconut sugar
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