What to Eat if You Have Diabetes

Updated on 20. Jul. 2020
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About one in 10 adults suffers from either type 1 or type 2 diabetes in the U.S., a condition that affects how the body metabolizes sugar and can have adverse side effects if left untreated. However with the right diet and lifestyle in conjunction with proper medication, you can manage you diabetes and, in some cases of type 2 diabetes, even reverse the disorder.  

Table of contents

  1. What is Diabetes?
  2. Types of Diabetes
  3. How Insulin Resistance Develops in the Body
  4. Symptoms of Diabetes
  5. Treatments for Diabetes
  6. Rules for a Diabetic Diet
  7. The Best Foods for Diabetics
  8. The Worst Foods for Diabetics
  9. The Bottom Line

What is Diabetes?

Diabetes is a metabolic disease caused by a lack of insulin or the body’s inability to impaired insulin effectiveness. Diet plays an important role in managing diabetes and, in the case of type 2 diabetes, can even reverse the disease entirely.

Types of Diabetes

There are two types of diabetes:

Type 1

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disease that often first presents in childhood and adolescence. The immune system destroys the insulin-producing cells of the pancreas, causing blood sugar metabolism to no longer function properly, and ultimately leading to an insulin deficiency. Type 1 diabetics are therefore dependent on daily, lifetime insulin injections to properly metabolize blood sugar (glucose).

It’s not yet clear what exactly causes type 1 diabetes, although genetics are known as a major risk factor.

If type 1 diabetes isn’t treated, glucose won’t be properly absorbed by cells, which can result in cell starvation and ultimately death. This can lead to ketosis, the loss of limbs and even death. 

Type 2

About one in 10 adults suffers from type 2 diabetes in the U.S., a condition that affects how the body metabolizes sugar. 

In healthy people, the pancreas produces the hormone insulin, which transports glucose absorbed through food from the blood into the cells. However for type 2 diabetics, the cells react less and less to insulin, resulting in the pancreas producing more and more insulin until reserves are exhausted, and an insulin deficiency occurs. As a result, blood sugar levels increase to unhealthy levels, which causes harm to blood cells and can result in heart attacks, stroke, and damage to the kidneys or eyes.

Type 2 diabetes has historically occurred mostly in older people, however cases among younger people have increased in recent years. Genetics can predispose people to developing type 2 diabetes, however lack of exercise and poor diet can also make you much more susceptible. Being overweight is also a major risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes,as obese people in general tend to have low glucose tolerance and high insulin levels. If the latter is elevated over a long period of time, a resistance to insulin can develop, which reduces the cells' sensitivity insulin. The result is increased insulin secretion, which adds stress to the pancreas and makes it difficult for cells to absorb glucose properly.

The good news about type 2 diabetes is you can greatly reduce your risk of developing it by eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly and maintaining a healthy weight. In some cases, you can even reverse type 2 diabetes after you’ve developed it by integrating a healthy lifestyle. 

How Insulin Resistance Develops in the Body

Insulin resistance develops when the body’s cells no longer react effectively to the hormone insulin. This can result when blood contains too much glucose (blood sugar), which leads the pancreas to produce more insulin, the hormone which transports sugar to cells to use for energy. Over time, heightened levels of insulin result in the cells being less and less able to absorb the glucose. In other words, they become resistant.

Symptoms of Diabetes

Identifying diabetes is not always easy. Depending on the type, symptoms can occur quickly or very gradually, and can be mild to severe.

The following symptoms can indicate the presence of both types of diabetes:

- Increased urination

- Severe thirst (polydipsia)

- Weight loss

- Growth disorders in children

- Poor vision

- Muscle cramps

- Menstruation issues

- Mood changes (aggressiveness)

- Wounds won't heal

Typical Symptoms of Type 1 Diabetes

Symptoms usually appear within days to weeks on onset, because the insulin-producing cells are destroyed by an autoimmune defect. The blood sugar level therefore rises within a short time, which can lead to severe thirst and lethargy. If action isn’t taken at the onset of these symptoms, worse side effects will follow, including the nausea, vomiting, an acetone smell in the breath and even diabetic coma.

Typical Symptoms of Type 2 Diabetes

Symptoms of type 2 diabetes are more difficult to detect, but can include great thirst, frequent urination and fatigue. If there are no symptoms, diabetes type 2 is usually only recognised by complications of the disease, such as vascular damage or circulatory disorders. Left untreated, diabetes can lead to adverse effects such as cardiovascular diseases, kidney failure, blindness and nervous disorders.

Treatments for Diabetes

Treatments for diabetes vary depending on whether you suffer from type 1 or 2, age, health and other mitigating factors. 

There are three forms of therapy that are used to treat diabetes:

- Lifestyle change (basic therapy)

- Lifestyle change and oral antidiabetics (pharmacotherapy)

- Lifestyle change and insulin (pharmacotherapy)

With type 2 diabetes, about 40 percent of newly diagnosed patients can be treated with a lifestyle change, i.e. a change in diet, exercise, and stress management strategies alone. Another 30 percent can be treated with oral antidiabetics, which are relatively rare but have been shown to promote the body's remaining insulin production and can hopefully lead to an improvement in the effect of the body's own insulin. The remaining 30 percent of type 2 diabetes patients end up needing daily insulin injections. 

Treatment for type 1 diabetes, on the other hand, necessitates daily insulin injections for life, in conjunction with a healthy diet and lifestyle. 

Rules for a Diabetic Diet

Nutrition and lifestyle plays an important role in managing both type 1 and type 2 diabetes. While diet should vary among patients depending on their age, advancement of their diabetes and other mitigating factors, and specific diets should be prescribed by a doctor, there are certain dietary guidelines that tend to apply to most diabetics:

- Choose whole wheat over white grains. When it comes to bread, rolls, pasta and rice, whole wheat varieties are much better for diabetics than those made with white flour. This is because whole wheat products contain complex carbohydrates, which causes blood sugar levels to rise and fall more slowly than the simple carbohydrates in white flour. As a result, insulin can better transport the sugar into the body's cells, despite resistance.

- Avoid sugar. Sugary foods will also cause blood sugar levels to rise and fall very quickly, further increasing insulin resistance. 

- Skip the deep fryer. Low-fat cooking techniques like steaming, roasting and baking are much better for diabetics than frying or sauteing, which utilize copious amounts of fatty oils.

- Go skinless. When eating poultry or fish, don’t eat the skin, as it contains high amounts of saturated fatty acids, which are more likely to damage a a diabetic’s metabolism.

- Substitute animal fats for vegetable fats. Whenever possible, use high-quality vegetable oils instead of animal fats like butter or lard when cooking. They provide the body with valuable omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, which, according to new studies, can have a positive effect on blood sugar levels.

- Find a good sugar substitute. When you’re baking, skip the refined sugar and substitute for a little honey or more healthy substitutes such as xylitol, stevia or agave syrup.

Whole grains like whole wheat bread are much better for diabetics than white flour bread.

The Best Foods for Diabetics

1. Mineral Water

Whether still or sparkling, mineral water should be a staple ingredient of the diabetic diet. The magnesium found in mineral water is so necessary in helping the body transport sugar to the cells, and studies show can help lower blood sugar sugar levels in diabetics. Look out for water with at least 100 mg of magnesium per liter. This is especially true for water with a magnesium content of at least 100 mg per litre, or even m

2. Vegetables

Vegetables supply the body with vitamins, bioactive plant substances, minerals and much more but contain hardly any carbohydrates, and therefore do not burden the body’s metabolism of insulin.

3. Nuts and Seeds

Nuts are rich in healthy fatty acids which are particularly good for diabetics. In addition, they provide plenty of magnesium, valuable proteins, B vitamins and fibre. According to studies, nuts can also reduce blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetes by up to 20 percent.

3. Vegetable Oils

Whether from olives, rape, nuts or seeds, most vegetable oils are full of mono- and poly-saturated fatty acids that play an important role for diabetics, as they have been proven to keep blood vessels from developing harmful deposits and maintaining blood pressure at a healthy level. Vegetable oils can therefore help prevent cardiovascular diseases, which are unfortunately not uncommon in diabetes.

5. Fruit

While fruit was long seen as a taboo ingredient for diabetics, recent studies have shown that some fruits can have a positive effect on the blood sugar level in type 2 diabetes. In apples, for example, the soluble fibre pectin delays the absorption of sugar in the blood, and also protects the blood vessels. Bananas are also a good choice for diabetics - provided they are still slightly unripe. In that case they contain less sugar and more starch and can thus help keep the body’s blood sugar levels in balance.  

6. Legumes

Beans, lentils and chickpeas contain complex carbohydrates that body processes slowly, thus keeping blood sugar levels healthy. Legumes are also rich in fiber, which keeps you full for a long time, promotes digestion and can help prevent frequent secondary diseases in diabetes (such as high blood pressure, high blood fat levels and heart problems).

7. Garlic and Onions

If you’re diabetic, you should try to prepare your meals with garlic and onions as often as possible. Not only do they taste great, but onions and garlic can also help lower blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetic, thanks to their rich supply of sulphur substances. These methylsulfonylmethanes, also known as MSMs, can improve the permeability of the cell membrane, relieving stress on the pancreas and ultimately helping keep blood sugar levels low. A U.S. study even showed that MSMs can increase the body’s insulin production.

The Worst Foods for Diabetics

1. Sugar

In order to process sugar, the body needs to produce large amounts of insulin. If you’re diabetic, this can be difficult for your already-overwhelmed pancreas, and as a result only some of the sugar is successfully transported to the cells, while the remainder remains stuck in the blood. This can lead to your blood sugar levels rising enormously very quickly, which can have fatal consequences for the heart and blood vessels. As a result, it’s best to stay away from candies, sodas, baked goods and any other foods with high levels of refined sugar.

2. White Flour

Whether produced from wheat or spelt, the lighter the flour, the less favourable its effect on diabetes. This is because white or very light flour has been ground so much it no longer contains any husk. As a result, the small intestine breaks the starch into sugar quickly, leading the blood sugar levels to rise too drastically in a short period of time. 

3. Alcohol

Experts advise drinking alcohol as rarely as possible and only in very small amounts if you suffer from diabetes. Wine, beer and hard liquor increase the risk of hypoglycaemia because the liver cannot supply the blood with sugar when it has to break down alcohol.  There is also the risk that alcohol can exacerbate nerve damage and promote high blood lipid levels. 

Alcohol should only be consumed in moderation if you suffer from diabetes.

4. Frozen or Prepared Foods

If you have diabetes, it’s best to cook for yourself as often as possible, as store-bought meals can often hide surprisingly high amounts of sodium and sugar that can be incredibly harmful. This doesn’t just apply to the usual culprits. A ready-to-serve individual pizza, for example, contains on average 15 g of sugar, while ready-made pasta dishes usually contain 11-16 g of sugar. In addition, prepared foods tend to be high in fat and loaded with salt, which is especially harmful to the heart and blood vessels if you have diabetes. 

5. Animal Fats

Butter and lard consist almost exclusively of unfavourable saturated fatty acids that put a strain on blood vessels and the heart, which is particularly harmful to diabetics. 

6. Soft Drinks and Juices

Everyone knows that soda and lemonade are not exactly healthy, but for diabetics, these sugary drinks are especially harmful. It’s best to completely avoid sodas and even store-bought fruit juices, which tend to contain tons of sugar and hardly any fruit.  

The Bottom Line

Eating healthfully and maintaining an active lifestyle can help you greatly manage your diabetes, and in some cases of type 2 diabetes, make the disease disappear entirely. While specific diets should be OK’d by a doctor, as a rule of thumb make sure to eat plenty of vegetables, nuts, healthy oils and drink lots of water, while avoiding sugary foods and drinks as well as alcohol. Remember to also check labels: many foods you wouldn’t expect are packed with sugar. 

A healthy lifestyle is also key to managing your diabetes. Make sure to get at least 30 minutes of exercise a day, and more if you struggle with your weight, as obesity can greatly exacerbate the side effects and potential complications from diabetes.

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