By: Dr. Heather Tick
Using both the data of modern science and the time-proven traditions of complementary medicine, Dr. Heather Tick M.D. has helped tens of thousands of patients reach their peak levels of health over the past 30 years. She is the first holder of the prestigious Gunn-Loke Endowed Professorship of Integrative Pain Medicine at the University of Washington and serves at the forefront of research and teaching as a Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Washington in the departments of Family Medicine and Anesthesia & Pain Medicine.
A balanced diet is one of the most powerful tools you can use in caring for your loved one. A balanced diet helps your loved one maintain a healthy blood glucose level and a healthy weight, two essential factors in managing diabetes. It is also one of the most effective ways to strengthen the immune system.
What is 'blood glucose' and why does it matter?
Let's dig into some biochemistry.
Your body is made of millions of cells. All of those cells require energy to function and most cells are powered by a simple sugar called glucose. Your body breaks down most food, namely carbohydrates such as bread and pasta, into glucose.
Each time you eat, the amount of glucose in your bloodstream increases as food is broken down. The amount of glucose in your blood is called your 'blood glucose level'. Keeping your blood glucose at a healthy level is crucial for managing diabetes.
Your body has natural mechanisms to regulate your blood glucose level. For example, you've likely heard of insulin. Your pancreas, an organ behind your stomach, produces the insulin hormone which helps glucose enter cells and power your body for daily activities. Insulin also helps your body store any excess glucose in the liver. As your blood glucose level rises after each meal, the increase triggers your pancreas to release insulin.
Why is insulin important for your health?
If your loved one has diabetes, one of three scenarios is occurring:
- the pancreas doesn't produce insulin, or
- the pancreas doesn't produce enough insulin, or
- the body doesn't respond to insulin, known as 'insulin resistance'
With type 2 diabetes, the body either doesn't produce enough insulin or doesn't respond appropriately to insulin. Glucose then builds up in the bloodstream and raises your blood glucose level. Excess glucose causes damage to multiple parts of the body.
If we don't pay attention to our diets, we are likely to have high blood sugar.
The optimal diet for diabetics
All food is not equal. Some food raises our blood glucose level more than others, making the body work extra hard to produce insulin. If the body cannot produce enough insulin, your blood glucose level spikes.
Here's what an optimal diet contains:
Eat whole-grain breads, cereals, rice, and pasta. Refined or white flour products break down into glucose more quickly than whole-grain products and spike your blood glucose level. Check the ingredient level each time you buy bread or pasta. Some products use a very small percentage of whole-grain ingredients and use white flour for the bulk of the product. Make sure it says “100% whole wheat” or “100% whole grain”. If the product doesn't have a 100% whole grain guarantee, don't buy it.
Whole grains also contain fiber, a key part of your loved one's diet. Fiber is not digested and broken down in the same manner as starches and helps the body flush out toxins. Research shows that consuming twenty grams or more of fiber per 1000 calories daily may lower blood glucose level and the risk of heart disease.
Some diabetics have difficulty controlling their blood sugar even when following a reasonable diet. If this is the case for our loved one, try eliminating gluten, dairy products, or all grains for a week or two and check if that makes blood sugar easier to control.
Fruits and vegetables
Produce is really nature's superfood. Fruits and vegetables contain fiber and a multitude of vitamins, nutrients, and antioxidants that strengthen the immune system.
The optimal diet contains more veggies than most people think. Two thirds of your loved one's plate should be covered in vegetables. Potatoes and corn don't count as veggies – those are grouped under carbohydrates.
Most protein sources also contain fat, which adds calories and makes controlling body weight difficult. Try eating more plant-based protein sources such as beans, lentils, and nuts. White meat such as chicken and turkey are preferable to beef and pork. Fish, full of omega-3 fats, is also a good choice.
Talk to your care provider about the optimal level of protein for your loved one. If there is kidney damage from the diabetes, protein intake may have to be reduced.
Chew on this
There is no easier, proven, and more cost-effective tool to help your loved one manage diabetes than a balanced diet. Good nutrition has been proven by our best research to manage and even reduce theseverity of diabetes.
The easiest way to transition into healthier diet is to surround yourself and your loved one with friends who eat healthily. Ask them for their easy and tasty recipes. Check out healthy eating websites with good food photography. Make a berry smoothie. Eat well and live well.