Here in the US, we have two epidemics in our midst—diabetes and obesity. When you look at the studies, they show almost a third of us here in the US are dealing with obesity. Plus, nearly 90% of people with diabetes are overweight or obese. These two conditions are so closely connected that experts coined a phrase called “diabesity.”
The good news is that while you can’t change your heredity, you can change your environment—and weight is one of the most controllable diabetes risk factors. Even small improvements can head off diabetes at the pass. More about that in a minute. First, let’s look at why being overweight can affect your blood sugar.
Understanding the Fat-Blood Sugar Connection
Your blood sugar is managed by your pancreas. When you eat, your body breaks down carbohydrates into glucose (sugar). As your glucose levels rise, your pancreas secretes insulin, a hormone that shuttles glucose into your cells where it’s used to make ATP, the fuel your body runs on.
When your cells unlock to let glucose in, you’re insulin sensitive, which is exactly what we want. When they don’t, we call it insulin resistance, which is a huge problem. One of the biggest causes of insulin resistance is excess body fat, especially belly fat, which is metabolically active and leads to inflammation that hinders the ability of insulin to do its job.
Your pancreas responds to insulin resistance by making even more insulin to try and get your blood sugar numbers down. Eventually, your pancreas poops out and can’t keep up, which leaves you with chronically high blood sugar and eventually type 2 diabetes. Plus, it’s going to leave you tired since your cells aren’t getting the glucose they need to energize your body.
The good news is that we can turn this trend around…
The Redcross Nutrition Method
When we're thinking about the best way to eat and feed this beautiful body that we've all been given, you want to look at how you’re fueling it. Do you want to put bad fuel into your machine? Not really. So, what is the right fuel?
I believe the key to eating well and maintaining a healthy weight is about balance—and the way we achieve that balance is by looking at our macros: carbohydrates, protein, and fats. The best macro balance I’ve found for myself is 60 grams of carbohydrates, 40 grams of lean protein, and 20 grams of healthy fats.
I know there are a lot of popular diets out there that suggest avoiding carbohydrates—but your body needs those carbs; they’re your fuel! Carbs feed your muscles while you exercise, and supply needed energy to your blood cells and brain. The key here isn’t avoiding carbs, but rather swapping out the simple carbs and replacing them with complex carbs—which are the “slow burners” that help keep your blood sugar levels even.
My two favorite carbs, which are almost exclusively my “go-to’s,” include all types of beans (black, white, red, lima, etc.) and brown rice. Other good sources of complex carbohydrates include whole grain bread, whole wheat pasta, lentils, fruit, sweet potatoes, steel-cut oats, barley, and farro. Plus, I eat up to five cups of vegetables a day!
Your body needs protein to repair your muscles and build new ones. Plus, protein supplies vitamins and minerals needed for healthy, efficient metabolism. I recommend eating about 4-5 ounces of lean protein (at a maximum) at each meal.
Some good protein choices include cold-water fish (wild-caught salmon, sardines, and mackerel), oysters, lentils, beans, eggs, tofu, nuts, and seeds (like chia, flax, and pumpkin). Chicken, lean beef, and turkey are also good, but I eat them on a more limited basis.
Healthy fats are your friend. They take longer to metabolize than other foods, leaving you feeling fuller longer, so you’re less likely to overeat. Plus, they help to blunt the body’s insulin response, which helps your pancreas from becoming overworked. Plus, fats help to aid the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins, including A, D, E, and K. Some good sources of fats include olive oil, avocadoes, walnuts, almonds, ground flax seeds, chia seeds, tahini, and nut butter.
Skip the White Stuff
Simple carbs like bread, rice, and pasta—all of which are white foods—are rapidly converted into glucose. If you think about what you ate last night, you probably had one of the three, so this is a good place to start. Look at your plate and say, "Gosh, do I have those white foods that Dr. Redcross mentions? And what does that do to my blood sugar long term?"
You also want to avoid disguised “sugar bombs,” including pasta sauce, processed deli meat, Chinese take-out, dried fruit, granola bars, energy drinks, ketchup, barbeque sauce, low-fat snacks, canned baked beans, and flavored iced tea.
The two types of sweeteners that I eat almost exclusively are honey, and on occasion maple syrup—as these are the only two types of natural sugars. I also include cinnamon in my diet, which helps to control blood sugar by increasing glucose metabolism, so you’re burning calories at a faster rate.
Exercise Is Also Extremely Important
Your muscles use glucose when you exercise, which helps to lower the amount of glucose in your bloodstream. Plus, it helps to rev up your metabolism and burn fat.
Exercise also helps to improve insulin sensitivity, so your body can more efficiently move glucose into your cells where it’s used to generate energy. In fact, when you exercise regularly, you’ll notice that your A1C, which is the average measure of your blood sugar over the past three months, is lower. Plus, efficient glucose metabolism makes you feel more energized!
What type of exercise should you do? A brisk walk, especially after a meal, is a perfect start. Personally, I enjoy bike riding and going to the gym. Finding what you like to do, gets your heart rate up, and is something you’ll keep doing on a regular basis, is the name of the game here.
Finally, Perfection Should Never Be Your Goal
The good news is that small improvements add up quickly when it comes to maintaining healthy blood sugar. Losing even 5% to 10% of your weight can significantly improve your blood sugar levels.
Remember that eating should be enjoyable. I have a lot of fun putting together my own plate and always think in terms of getting my colors, including plenty of leafy greens and other veggies. Of course, always eat what fuels your body best and do your best with what you have.
Finally, remember that “self-love” is really important here. Celebrate even small successes and fill your mind with positive thoughts—that is so important for staying motivated!