Four years ago my doctor told me I was borderline diabetic and could be looking at long-term daily medication for type 2 diabetes. I was shocked. It couldn’t be true, could it?
I thought I had my health in control, for the most part – working out with cardio and weights in my condo gym on a regular basis, taking fish oil, eating good food while still indulging my love of chocolate and a night out with friends and “social” drinks.
My blood sugar levels said otherwise.
But one way to get your blood sugar under control is to lose weight. I was never overweight or obese, as many “prediabetics” are, but after that oh-my-god discussion with my doctor, I decided to start exercising more diligently and really eyeballing my food portions. I lost almost 10 pounds over a slow and steady six-month period.
Now my blood sugar levels are in the normal range. My doctor is impressed and says to “keep things that way.” I intend to. Type 2 diabetes comes with the risks of heart disease and damage to your ears, eyes and feet. No one wants any of that.
But because type 2 diabetes is so common there is a lot of information available about what you can do to keep your blood sugar under control without medications.
What it all comes down to is food and lifestyle, things that should come easy but don’t. And as much as we’d all like a pill to magically make us slim and energetic (and free from diseases like diabetes), that’s not the way the human body works.
What exactly should you eat if you’re borderline diabetic or type 2 diabetic?
My concern is all the health claims circulating about food and those made with bold, high-optic positioning on food packaging: “Low-fat, gluten-free, sugar-free” and so on. But what’s right for so many of us that face blood sugar issues?
Diabetes experts say you can enjoy all foods in moderation, just keep portions in check and take a hard look at food labels, watching for carbohydrate counts and hidden sugars. Eating whole foods instead of processed, packaged items is also recommended. No surprise there!
Making your diet diabetic-friendly is not about going to extremes and cutting out all carbohydrates or fats – or chocolate. I’m still eating high-quality chocolate, one or two squares per serving, mind you.
And certain foods have been proven to have a stabilizing effect on blood sugar levels, like tree nuts. New research out of the Clinical Nutrition and Risk Factor Modification Centre of St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto found that type 2 diabetic study participants who ate half a cup of tree nuts a day helped reduce and stabilize blood sugar.
Ready to grab a handful (of the unsalted variety, please)? Tree nuts include almonds, Brazil nuts, cashews, chestnuts, walnuts, pistachios, pecans, macadamia nuts and pine nuts.
Best results were reported by those who also cut back on refined carbohydrates, like white rice, and bread and pasta made from white flour. Carbs that have been refined digest quicker and can lead to surges in your blood sugar level.
While eating more nuts will be good for you, beware the low-fat products! They are everywhere in our fat-conscious marketplace.
Healthy, natural fats are good for everybody, especially people with blood sugar issues. That’s because fat slows your digestion, which slows the absorption of sugar into your bloodstream. Slower absorption means your body’s insulin can work more efficiently. It’s those sudden dumps of sugar into the bloodstream that spike blood sugar levels and make it hard on our bodies to produce enough insulin quick enough to handle that sugar.
So diabetics especially should not be fooled by popular “skinny” foods and claims that they are healthier. Low-fat milk, for example, is not a healthy drink. It’s far worse than whole milk. There’s natural sugar in any milk you buy. But there’s not enough fat in low-fat milk to slow down the absorption of the sugar into the bloodstream, so you’re putting your blood sugar out of whack, thinking you’re doing your body a favor with the reduced calories.
Some people with a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes think they’ll never be able to eat dessert again (and I’m talking the sweet, baked kind like pies, cakes, cookies and, my favorite, Baked Alaska). Again, this isn’t the case, you just need to have a very small portion on occasion and be faithful to monitoring your blood sugar with a glucometer.
There is sugar in many foods, even in vegetables. The body needs natural sugar for energy. And good carbohydrates found in vegetables, grains and beans, for example, are turned into glucose, or sugar, that the body uses as fuel. Some foods contain more natural sugar than you realize, like many fruits. If you’re having a big glass of orange juice with your breakfast, you’ll have to kick the habit. That tasty juice may be “pure” and “not from concentrate” but it is loaded with sugar.
Fruit has its place, of course, with its valuable nutrients, but eat the actual fruit and cut back on quantity. Half a banana at a time is all you need.
Those all-popular smoothies, homemade or not, can be sugar bombs for diabetics. You’ve got the sugar from low-fat dairy and the fruit. Sub in protein-rich Greek yogurt for low-fat dairy for one, or opt for fresh-juiced vegetables with some added fruit for natural sweetness.
Is the supermarket more difficult to navigate when you’re diabetic? It is, putting the onus on you to consult your doctor or a dietitian about the right foods in the right quantities to get you on track as a healthy diabetic.
And if you do slip up and over-indulge – I’ve eaten pie for breakfast myself – don’t beat yourself up. Food is meant to be enjoyed and we’re not going to be perfect all of the time. Just get back on that treadmill and load your plate with greens to make amends.
Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and BelMarraHealth.com. Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.