Don’t let the diagnosis mean despair for your diet!
Diabetes dates back 3,000 years when the people of Egypt, India, China and Greece began discovering people with excessive thirst, urination and weight loss. They even learned how to detect it in people and came up with treatments such as eating whole grains to reduce symptoms.
Type 2 diabetes was thought to be relatively rare in those days, but it currently sits as the #7 killer in the United States and contributes to heart disease, which tops the list. So it’s no wonder that there is plenty of information out there about diabetes, how to treat it, and most importantly, what to eat if you have it.
In fact, there may be too much information.
If you are first reading up on a diabetes diet, you’ll read about low sugar, low carb, glycemic index and glycemic load. The words get tossed around a bunch, but which ones should you pay most attention to? And do you really need to regularly eat dinners that are made up of skinless chicken, a cup of steamed broccoli and a handful of almonds?
First, I’m not a doctor. I can only tell you what I learned when researching what I should eat to treat my type 2 diabetes. I am good at researching, though, and what I found out about diabetes diets surprised me. The first thing I realized? That most diabetes diets aren’t created to treat diabetes.
Or, I should say, they aren’t created to just treat diabetes.
That skinless chicken meal? The skinless chicken is to treat heart disease, not diabetes. And like most diabetic meal plans, it is also geared towards weight loss. Weight loss and regular exercise are the two most important lifestyle changes anyone with diabetes should make. But what if you already have your weight under control and are getting enough physical activity? Do you still need a strict adherence to these diets?
While diabetes is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, many diabetics also share other underlying conditions that contribute to heart problems such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, poorly controlled sugars and/or lack of physical activity. Or, in other words, a bunch of other stuff that contributes to heart disease.
Anyone diagnosed with type 2 diabetes should put an emphasis on controlling all of these risk factors. Your doctor should check your blood pressure and cholesterol and adjust your medications as needed. This is pretty standard when diagnosing diabetes.
In coming up with my diet, I concentrated on just fighting diabetes, which means focusing on the glycemic load (GL) of the foods I eat. To understand GL, you first have to understand the glycemic index (GI), which rates how much sugar or soon-to-be-sugar carbs are in a food. GI generally ranges between 1 and 100 with any food 70 or greater being in the high GI range. Glycemic load alters the equation by adding in how much of the food we’ll consume in a serving, so it gives a better picture of how the food will affect blood sugar. Any food with a 20 or above GL is considered high.
The key with understanding glycemic load is that it isn’t telling us how much sugar or how many carbs are in the food. It’s telling us how fast those sugars or carbs will be broken down and flood the blood stream. Insulin is released by the body when blood sugars spike to help deal with the excess sugar, so one goal in fighting diabetes is to prevent these spikes.
A diabetic diet doesn’t have to mean giving up every food you love to eat. It is about altering your meals and understanding what foods will spike your blood sugar and which foods are okay.
A key element of controlling diabetes is portion control.
Some of these meals may contain high sugars and carbs, but that’s okay if they take a while for your body to break down. However, it is important to remember that going overboard with second and third helpings can turn a perfectly fine meal into a disaster. Potion control is a diabetic’s best friend.
So let’s get to the meals already! Remember, even if you are eating heart-healthy and/or watching your weight, these meals can be a diabetic-friendly treat to break up the monotony of a stricter diet, or even made heart-healthy with some simple modifications.
Spaghetti and Meatballs
While they can pack on the calories, pasta cooked al dente is actually a very diabetes-friendly food. There’s something about the process of making pasta that helps lock the carbs into place so that your body doesn’t absorbed them as quickly as other sources. This gives pasta a lower glycemic load than many other foods.
The biggest caution sign with spaghetti is the marina sauce. Many store-bought sauces can be high in sugar. Look for lower-sugar and/or organic options. It is also better to use multi-grain pasta for your spaghetti, which will amp up the fiber content and slow the sugar intake. The addition of a protein — whether it is meatballs, meat sauce, chicken, etc. — also helps lower the glycemic load. A heart-healthy version of spaghetti could use ground turkey for the meatballs or simply grilled chicken.
In fact, the side salad might be more of a danger than the spaghetti itself. Be sure to avoid creamy salad dressings and go for a low sugar choice. Oil and vinegar is perfect, but a light Italian is usually fine as well.
This holds true with other Italian pasta dishes. The sauce is the main thing you want to look at when determining if you should eat it. A creamy white wine sauce may have more sugars than you want, but that lemon-garlic-butter scampi sauce won’t explode your blood sugar. Even pizza can be okay so long as you stick to thin crust. Homemade pizza is best because you can ensure the pizza sauce isn’t loaded with sugars.
Ah. A good old-fashioned burger. The burger gets a bit of a bad rap in the diabetes world based on a study that showed eating a burger leads to a higher chance of becoming diabetic. The thing here is that it creates a higher chance of being something that you already are if you are diabetic. There’s nothing in the study about the burger being bad for those who already have diabetes, and in fact, a burger is rated as an acceptable meal as far as glycemic load is concerned.
The bread is the caution point. Obviously, using a whole grain/who wheat bun is best, but considering the meat-to-bread ratio, even using a standard bun isn’t going to explode your sugars. And using lettuce as a substitute for a bun can be a great way to eat a burger. You’d actually be surprised at how burger-like a bunless burger can taste. It’s definitely worth trying, but not a requirement.
As for that study? Some doctors believe it had more to do with the fries and drink combo people were having with their burgers. If you skip the fries and go for a sensible drink, the burger itself should be fine.
A heart-healthy alternative is grilled chicken or turkey burger.
If you love Mexican food, you are going to love this part. Fajitas are easily among the best things for a person with type 2 diabetes who still wants to eat fun stuff. Both corn and flour tortillas are much better than bread. Contrary to what you might think, flour tortillas are actually better because they have an 8 glycemic load compared to corn’s 12, but both are well under 20.
Whether you like beef or the heart-healthier chicken or shrimp choices, the basics are all good for diabetics. Onions can actually lower blood sugar, sour cream has a low glycemic load, and guacamole contains the super food that is avocado.
The things to look out for with fajitas are limiting the intake of chips and salsa — chips are bad, mmkay? — and avoiding (or at least reducing) the rice. White rice breaks down to almost pure sugar in the body. Brown rice is a great substitute, but a small portion of white rice is fine alongside the protein in the fajitas. Remember, we can eat a little of something that is bad so long as we have foods that will slow the sugars down.
Oh, and by the way, beans have a low glycemic load as well. I know, I know. I thought beans = carbs. But beans are considered a super food for diabetics because of the protein and fiber.
If you are on a heart-healthy diet, stick with shrimp or chicken.
Meat and Veggies
Again, many diabetic recipes avoid red meat and focus on fish or skinless chicken to be heart healthy. And even if you have your cholesterol under control, it is good to keep in mind that most people with type 2 diabetes that are 65+ die because of heart disease.
But if you have your weight under control, you are exercising and you don’t have high cholesterol or other risk factors, the standard meat and veggie meal should be fine. After all, everyone should avoid red meat and processed meats. But we still eat them. The key is moderation.
A danger point of eating steak, ham, chicken or other staples tends to be the sauce or the sides. Turn Steak and Potatoes into Steak and Broccoli. Avoid steak sauce, and if you use salt and pepper, go light on the salt. Barbecue chicken? Fine so long as you get a low sugar barbecue sauce.
ICE CREAM! Yes, ice cream is high in sugars. It is also low in glycemic load. This is because the milk slows down those mean little sugars. The big key here is portion control. If you eat an entire container of ice cream, yes, your blood sugar will go through the roof. But if you eat a small portion just a couple of times a week, your A1C test will be none the wiser.
Just because you have type 2 diabetes doesn’t mean you have to give up dessert forever. So long as you have your weight under control and can practice moderation in how much and how often, ice cream can be a great treat. Also, avoid crazy flavors and stick with vanilla. Most of those extras tend to be much worse for you than the ice cream itself. Remember: portion control!
Feature image by jeffreyww / Flickr.