Diabetes is one of the most prominent diseases affecting the United States. According to the American Diabetes Association, about 30.3 Americans (about 9.4 percent of the total population) had diabetes in 2015. Of those, 23.1 million were diagnosed, while 7.2 million were left undiagnosed. Diabetes was also found to be the seventh leading cause of death in the United States in 2015, which is based on 79,535 death certificates that listed diabetes as the underlying cause of death.1
Diabetes remains a complex disease that researchers are still trying to figure out. However, we do know that diet can have a significant impact on managing diabetes and supporting your overall health to reduce symptoms of the disease. Let’s take a closer look at diabetes and the best and worst foods you can eat as someone with diabetes.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes (sometimes called diabetes mellitus) is a metabolic disorder characterized by high levels of blood glucose, or blood sugar. Glucose is your body’s main and easiest source of energy. Insulin is a hormone produced in your pancreas. It normally helps to regulate your blood sugar levels and helps your cells use glucose from food for energy. Unfortunately, some people either don’t produce enough or any insulin, while others simply don’t use insulin well. This causes glucose to stay in your blood without ever reaching your cells, which increases your overall blood sugar levels and causes severe problems to your health.2
Diabetes occurs in three common types.
Type 1 Diabetes
Those with type 1 diabetes are unable to produce any insulin. Instead, your body’s immune system attacks the cells in your pancreas responsible for creating insulin. Type 1 diabetes is more common in children and young adults, though anyone can potentially be diagnosed with it.
People with type 1 diabetes have to take insulin injections every day. They must also follow a special diet and perform regular blood tests.3
Type 2 Diabetes
Type 2 is the most common form of diabetes. About 90 percent of all cases of diabetes in the world are type 2. With type 2 diabetes, your cells either don’t react to insulin properly (known as insulin resistance) or the body doesn’t create enough insulin to properly regulate glucose levels. Type 2 diabetes is generally a progressive disease. This means that, although you may be able to manage it through diet and lifestyle changes, most patients will have to start taking medications that increase insulin sensitivity or increase the release of insulin. If those medications do not work in getting blood sugar levels under control insulin will be required.
Gestational diabetes affects some women who are pregnant. During pregnancy, women may have high levels of glucose in their blood and are unable to produce enough insulin to move that glucose from the blood to the cells. In most cases, gestational diabetes will go away once the woman has given birth. If you are diagnosed with gestational diabetes, you may have a higher chance of developing type 2 diabetes later on.
Symptoms of Diabetes
Some people with diabetes experience mild symptoms, while others have no symptoms at all. However, most people do experience symptoms related to hyperglycemia (high levels of blood sugar). Diabetes can affect just about every aspect of your health, but the most common symptoms include:
- Frequent urination – If you don’t have enough insulin or if your body doesn’t respond to insulin properly, your kidneys are unable to filter out excess glucose back into your blood. To try to dilute the glucose, your kidneys will instead take extra water from your blood, which fills your bladder and forces you to go to the bathroom more often. Your body will also respond by making you more thirsty than normal.
- Hunger – Without insulin, your cells, tissues, and organs are not getting the energy they would normally get from glucose. To try to compensate, your cells will signal that you are not getting enough energy, leading to you getting more hungry more often. This can ultimately result in greater weight gain.
- Weight loss – At the opposite end of the spectrum, as your body is not getting enough energy from food and glucose stores, it will begin to break down other energy sources within the body. This includes fat stores and muscle tissue. Weight loss is generally more common in those with type 1 diabetes.
- Fatigue – As your cells fail to get the energy that they need, you will feel more tired, listless, and fatigued more easily.
- Blurry vision – Diabetes may cause tissue to pull away from your eye lenses, which can hurt their ability to focus. In severe cases, you may experience prolonger vision problems or even blindness.
- Improper healing – Too much glucose can inhibit your body’s ability to heal properly. You may notice cuts and bruises taking longer to heal than usual.
- Numbness or tingling – The buildup of glucose in your blood can cause damage to your nerves and the blood vessels that provide those nerves with oxygen and nutrients. This can result in tingling or numbness in your extremities. 4
Foods to Avoid for Diabetics
If you have diabetes, food requires a careful balance. You need the right foods to provide you with energy without causing spikes in your blood sugar, which can cause further damage to your cells.
You mainly need to keep your carbohydrate intake in check. Carbohydrates, which include starches, sugars, and dietary fiber, have the greatest effect on your blood sugar. When digested, carbs get broken down into glucose and absorbed into the bloodstream, which can lead to dangerously high blood sugar levels.
While you shouldn’t subtract carbs from your diet entirely, you should look for good sources of carbs that are high in fiber. Unlike other forms of carbohydrates, fiber doesn’t get digested or absorbed, so it won’t increase your blood sugar levels.5
The main foods to avoid include:
Sugary beverages - Soda, energy drinks, and other sugary beverages are packed with unhealthy carbs and a sugar known as fructose. Studies have linked fructose to increased insulin resistance.6 Another study found that fructose contributed to certain diabetes-related complications, like fatty liver disease.7
Trans fats - Trans fats are made by adding hydrogen to unsaturated fatty acids, making for a more stable fat. However, trans fats have been found to contribute to a variety of problems. In terms of diabetes, trans fats can contribute to obesity and insulin resistance.8 Trans fats have also been found to lower HDL cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol).9 Furthermore, studies suggest that trans fats can increase systemic inflammation.10 All of these can contribute to cardiovascular disease, a big problem considering those with diabetes are already at a high risk for cardiovascular disease. Thankfully, trans fats have been banned in most countries, and the FDA called for their removal from all foods in 2015.11
Unnecessary fats - Although trans fats have mostly been removed from the food system, you should avoid consuming unnecessary fats and calories. Fried foods are the worst because they are often battered with processed carbohydrates and then fried in oil, causing them to retain fat and excess calories. Avoid putting butter on bread as it makes it harder to resist eating.
Processed grains - White bread, pasta, rice, and other processed grains have been shown to increase blood sugar levels in people with diabetes.12 These foods tend to be high in sugars and low in dietary fiber.
Low fiber fruits and vegetables - While bananas and potatoes seem healthy, they are loaded with easily digested carbohydrates and not enough fiber.
“Natural” sugars (honey, agave, maple syrup) - Many people with diabetes use natural sugar substitutes to try to avoid white table sugar. While it’s a good idea to minimize your sugar intake, consuming honey, agave, syrup, and other natural alternatives can still potentially cause sudden spikes in your blood sugar. One study found that participants with prediabetes experienced similar increases in blood glucose, insulin, and inflammatory markers whether they consumed white sugar, honey, or high-fructose corn syrup.13
Worst Foods for Diabetes
Something to note is that all the foods in the above list of foods to avoid are processed. Processing is the act of breaking down foods which makes them easier to absorb by the body. Clinicians often harp on the importance of calories but do not emphasize the importance of eating foods that are less processed. Here is a specific example:
If you take a look at the back of a bottle of soda, you will notice that it contains approximately 200 Calories, all of which are from high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). High fructose corn syrup is made from corn, a delicious, wholesome, and filling food if eaten off of the cob. When it is converted to HFCS, all the filling fiber is removed and all the starch locked up inside the corn kernels have been enzymatically processed into glucose and fructose. Glucose and fructose are dissolvable in water which is absorbed by the body rapidly.
Your body handles 200 calories of corn eaten off of the cob completely differently than 200 calories from high fructose corn syrup. To eat the corn off of the cob requires effort and mechanical digestion from your mouth and stomach, and the rest of your GI tract. It requires your body to release digestive enzymes to chip away at the starch molecules inside the corn kernel. Sometimes your body doesn’t even digest it completely and passes the corn out the other end.
Unprocessed corn is a whole grain and is filling because of the fiber it contains, helping you to eat less. 200 calories of corn is more filling than 200 calories of fried corn chips or 200 calories of soda. Eating any of those other foods will leave you feeling less satisfied and still hungry. The fiber in corn helps you feel full and helps to clean out the gastrointestinal tract as it passes through. Moreover, as corn passes through your body it feeds the probiotic gut flora reside, providing the probiotic bacteria living inside your gut with a food source.
Foods to Eat for Diabetics
Therefore, foods for diabetes should be processed very little. If it has been bleached, refined, extracted, milled, etc. you should avoid it. There are still plenty of healthy foods for diabetes.
Good Foods for Diabetes
Good foods and practices for diabetics include:
Eat healthier fats - Replace all the cooking oils in your kitchen with olive oil. It is more expensive and will help you use less. Deep frying with olive oil gets quite expensive and will deter you from deep frying your food. Substitute mayo with avocado spread made from fresh avocadoes.
- Eat more lean meats - Lean meats include chicken and seafood. Salmon, sardines, anchovies, mackerel, and other fatty fish offer excellent sources of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Protein helps you feel full and satisfied without causing wide swings in your blood sugar levels. Omega-3s are integral to your overall health. Studies show that they can help to reduce inflammation markers.14 Other studies also show that fish oil helps to improve your arterial health and heart function.15
Eat more whole grains - As a diabetic you should always opt for whole grains as they are harder to digest and do not cause drastic blood sugar spikes. They also contain fiber which helps you feel fuller. For example, cooked corn is great! Avoid corn chips that are made of processed corn flour and fried.
Eat more fiber - Good sources of fiber are green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach, and broccoli. These veggies are packed with a variety of vitamins and nutrients as well as dietary fiber. They also tend to be high in antioxidants, which can help to reduce inflammation and promote your cardiovascular health.16 Choose a dressing that is not sweetened such as balsamic vinegar or olive oil.
Eat more unsweetened plain yogurt - Unlike regular yogurt, plain unsweetened yogurt is low in carbs and high in protein, making it an easy go-to snack that can help you feel satisfied while managing your blood sugar levels.18 Avoid milk as it is less filling and has less protein.
Eat more nuts - Nuts have gotten a bad rap because they are high in fats. However, they are excellent at increasing satiety and helping you to eat less at meal time when eaten as a snack. Nut eaters tend to eat less calories and have a lower BMI compared to non nut eaters.20
Cinnamon - Cinnamon has been shown to lower blood sugar levels while increasing insulin sensitivity by imitating insulin functions. It is also packed with antioxidants that can help to reduce oxidative stress and inflammation.17
Turmeric - The main active component in turmeric is curcumin, a compound that may help you control your blood sugar levels. Studies suggest that curcumin may help to improve insulin sensitivity while promoting liver health and reducing potential complication from diabetes.19
Generally, don’t overthink it. Eating well with diabetes often comes down to eating a healthy, diverse diet that focuses on eating more unprocessed fresh fruits, grains, vegetables, instead of highly processed foods containing hidden carbohydrates and sugars.
Diabetes supplements like DrFormulas Diabetes Support include cinnamon and turmeric and can help support blood sugar levels and healthier inflammation levels as diabetics often have chronic low-grade inflammation.