Diabetes and Dietary Considerations

Renée Naturally Qualified Naturopath, Nutritionist & Western Medical Herbalist

Most of us are aware that diabetes has become a rapidly rising health concern in New Zealand. Diabetes can occur when the pancreas doesn’t secrete enough insulin, or if the cells in the body become resistant to insulin. Our cells need glucose (sugar) to produce energy. Insulin controls the amount of glucose in the blood and the rate at which glucose gets absorbed by cells. In people with diabetes, glucose can build up in the bloodstream instead of being taken into and used by the body’s cells, leading to hyperglycemia (abnormally high levels of glucose in the blood). 

There are two types of diabetes; Type 1 (insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus) and Type 2 (non-insulin-dependent mellitus). Type 1 diabetes is an organ-specific autoimmune disease in which the body’s immune system attacks and destroys the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Type 2 is by the far the most common form of diabetes and affects around 90% of diabetes sufferers. In Type 2 diabetes, the pancreas does produce insulin in small quantities, but the cells don’t respond to it as they should. As a result, the pancreas tries to make more insulin but it cannot keep up with the demand. The cells then become resistant to the effects of the insulin that is in the bloodstream. Often, under the care and guidance of a GP, Type 2 diabetes can be controlled by diet and exercise alone, without the need for drugs. 

To reduce the risk of developing diabetes, it is important to control elevations in blood sugar by careful monitoring and making dietary modifications. It’s especially important to make diabetes prevention a priority if you’re at increased risk of Type 2 diabetes. Risk factors can include (but are not limited to); obesity, a family history of the disease, and consumption of a high-sugar diet with little exercise. Making some of the simple lifestyle changes listed below may help you avoid the serious health complications of diabetes down the road. 

Get more physical activity, to help you:

  • Lose weight if overweight. If you’re overweight, diabetes prevention relies on achieving weight loss goals, ideally set by a medical professional under their guidance. 
  • Lower blood sugar
  • Increase sensitivity to insulin, which helps keep your blood sugar within a normal, healthy range.
  • Diabetes research continuously shows that both aerobic exercise and resistance training can help prevent and control diabetes. However, the greatest benefit comes from a fitness program that includes both resistance and aerobic training, so this should be the aim for diabetes management and prevention. 

Get plenty of fiber in the diet, to help:

  • Reduce blood sugar surges
  • Lower the risk of heart disease
  • Prevent over-eating/Promote weight loss by helping you feel full
  • Studies show diabetes to be one of the diseases most clearly related to inadequate dietary fiber intake. Foods high in fiber include legumes, fruits, vegetables, beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.

Avoid sucrose and ‘simple sugars’ such as cane sugar:

  • These rapidly raise blood sugar levels
  • They provide little nutritional value
  • They contribute to weight gain

Choose whole grains and complex carbohydrates;

  • While the intake of refined sugars should be curtailed, the intake of complex carbohydrate sources that are rich in fiber should be increased. 
  • Frequent consumption of legumes is particularly important as a complex carbohydrate, legume-rich, high fiber diet has been shown to improve all aspects of diabetic control. 
  • While most diabetics cannot tolerate sucrose, most can tolerate moderate amounts of fruits and fructose without loss of blood sugar control. 
  • Opt for a diet that contains low-glycemic foods (such as lean proteins, LSA, and berries), complex carbohydrates (such as brown rice, quinoa) and legumes in the form of lentils and chickpeas. 

If you have diabetes, you should consult with your own medical professional before making any major changes to your diet. If you are concerned about being high-risk for developing diabetes, it is a good idea to book a consultation with your GP to get tests done and then decide on your best course of preventative action. 

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