If you're one of the 30.3 million Americans dealing with diabetes, chances are you've gotten the lecture from your doctor more times than not that you need to clean up your diet and seriously watch what you eat. But for any diabetic, knowing which foods you can enjoy, and which to avoid, can be a daunting task.
Fortunately, following a diabetic eating plan doesn't have to be complicated. But first, let me clear up some misconceptions about what can a diabetic eat, and give you the skinny on which foods to avoid.
Foods that Prevent Diabetes (and Foods Diabetics Should Eat)
The top foods that prevent diabetes—and foods diabetics should eat on a regular basis—are all part of the Mediterranean-style diet. They include:
- High-fiber vegetables, such as spinach, asparagus, cabbage, and broccoli
- Lean proteins like poultry, fish, eggs, and legumes
- Healthy fats, including olive oil, nuts, and seeds
- Certain fruits: one serving per day
- Modest amounts of whole grains, such as quinoa, barley, and farro
Here are some foods and beverages you should focus on (some of them may surprise you!):
Apples and Berries
Both apples and blueberries are particularly beneficial if you have diabetes, and also if you want to prevent it.
In a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, researchers followed approximately 200,000 participants, who tracked how often they ate certain fruits and beverages in standard portion sizes. None of the participants had type 2 diabetes at the onset of the study, yet 12,600 were diagnosed during the research period.
Researchers found that those who ate the most blueberries (two or more servings per week) had a 23 percent lower risk of developing diabetes compared with those who didn’t. Additionally, those who ate five or more apples a week had a 23 percent reduced risk of diabetes than those who didn’t.
The researchers speculate that the protection comes from the fact that apples and blueberries are rich in specific types of flavonoids.
You might be surprised that coffee is also something you should include in your diet if you have diabetes or want to prevent it. In fact, research shows that people who drink three or more cups a day are less likely to develop diabetes. (Just make sure you're putting stevia in your coffee instead of sugar.)
Chocoholics, rejoice! Chocolate can be enjoyed in moderation, even if you have diabetes. While you want to avoid the sugar-laden variety of milk chocolate, dark chocolate provides numerous health benefits, so a square or two every day can be part of a healthy diabetic eating plan. But bear in mind you don't want to add extra calories to your diet, so make sure it's in place of, rather than in addition to, other foods or snacks.
The Surprising Truth about Starches
If you have diabetes, you've probably been told that one of the foods you should avoid is starches because they can cause your blood sugar levels to spike. That's a very common misconception.
But there's a group of starches called "resistant starches" which are found naturally in legumes, lentils, unprocessed whole grains, bananas, and plantains, and they are foods diabetics can eat. Unlike other starches (such as pasta and bread), resistant starches are broken down slowly in the body over time. And rather than being digested in the small intestine, resistant starches are fermented in the colon by intestinal bacteria.
Another benefit of resistant starches is they actually behave more like fiber, slowing the blood sugar/insulin response, promoting the growth of beneficial gut bacteria, improving intestinal health, and increasing satiety (the feeling of fullness).
Another surprising trick is you can actually change traditional starches like pasta, rice, and potatoes into resistant starches. You can do that by cooking them and then cooling them (preferably for at least 12 hours) before eating them. You can also add one teaspoon of coconut oil to dry rice before cooking it because the oil binds to the starch and makes it behave more like a resistant starch.
Foods to Avoid With Diabetes
There are certain foods that diabetics should not eat, and I'm sure you're familiar with the one at the top of the list: sugar. But while it would be great if we could all cut out sugar from our diets, I know it's just not reasonable, or fun, to never eat sweets.
That's why I advise to focus on, first and foremost, avoiding soda (regular as well as diet), sweetened drinks of any kind, and fruit juice. If you cut out these unhealthy drinks and opt for unsweetened iced tea, sparkling water, or just plain water, you can allow yourself to indulge on a square or two of dark chocolate, a slice of cake for a birthday, or even an occasional dessert after dinner. But keep in mind, sugary treats should be reserved for special occasions.
Other foods to avoid with diabetes include refined carbohydrates, such as bagels and bread of any kind. These cause major blood sugar fluctuations because of their high glycemic load (more on that in a moment). So, if you're going out to eat, make sure to send the bread basket back before it ends up on your table.
Here's a Secret Tool for Your Diabetic Eating Plan
The key to a good diabetic diet plan is becoming aware of how quickly your body breaks down foods into glucose (sugar). But how do you know? There are two ways to evaluate:
- Glycemic index (GI) is a numerical rating of how quickly foods are metabolized into glucose. Refined carbohydrates and sugars, which we discussed before, have a high glycemic index, because they are rapidly converted into glucose and therefore increase blood sugar levels. Vegetables, legumes and most fruits, however, are better food choices for diabetics because they cause a slow, sustained release of glucose into the bloodstream. They'll keep your blood sugar (and your insulin level) from spiking and provide a sustained source of energy.
- Glycemic load index (GL) is based on the same concept as the GI, but it takes into account the quality and quantity of a food. It's determined by the GI of a food plus the amount of available, or net, carbohydrates (fiber excluded) in a standard serving.
Which is a better tool? I prefer glycemic load because it takes into account the quality and quantity of the food you're eating. If you want to look up the glycemic index and glycemic load for virtually any food, visit www.mendosa.com.
The bottom line is that you have to be careful about your food choices when you have diabetes, you can still enjoy plenty of good foods while managing your blood sugar effectively.