Roughly ninety per cent of people in the UK who have diabetes are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes – and it is becoming more common in young adults and children. However, the good news is that we now know that diabetes can be fully controlled, and in some cases reversed, by making healthy lifestyle choices. Here, Dr George Farah, leading consultant physician and specialist in endocrinology and diabetes explains how adopting certain eating habits can help in the management of type 2 diabetes.
1. Cut out sugar
A high sugar intake, particularly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages has been shown significantly to increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. All sugars directly increase the blood glucose level. Fruit, vegetables and dairy products all contain natural sugars, but other sugars should be avoided as much as possible. Try low-sugar fruit such as berries, a small apple, tangerine, peach or plum. Beware that almost all processed foods include added sugar.
Instead of buying foods which are pre-sweetened, buy the natural or unsweetened version. You will be surprised how quickly your taste buds can be retrained so that you can enjoy foods without added sugar. If you have a sweet tooth, find ways to add sweetness to recipes without adding sugar. Vanilla extract, for example, can add a boost of sweetness, along with spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon.
2. Reduce starchy foods
For many years, people with diabetes have been advised to base all their meals on starchy carbohydrates. This is now being challenged, as all sugars and starches are turned into glucose in the body, causing blood glucose levels to increase. Many people therefore are turning to a low carbohydrate diet, reducing starchy foods such as bread, potatoes, pasta, rice and cereals as much as possible, in order to control their diabetes.
3. Get ‘healthy fats’ in your diet
The word ‘fat’ doesn’t mean that a food is to be avoided. The body uses fat to give our cells energy, protect our vital organs, and generate essential fatty acids – so fat is an important component of a healthy diet.
However, it is important to eat the right kind of fat. Artificial trans-fats increase the risk of heart disease and should be avoided. Saturated fat, as found in meat and dairy products, can be eaten in moderation, although it is important to recognise that high saturated fat intake has been implicated in increasing the risk of heart disease and other conditions such as multiple sclerosis.
The healthiest fats are unsaturated fats, from which omega 3 & 6 fatty acids are derived. These essential fatty acids are needed for repair and growth. Unsaturated fats help to maintain good levels of cholesterol in the body They can be found in foods such as avocado and olives (and their oils), nuts and seeds and oily fish such as sardines, anchovies and mackerel.
4. Eat high protein foods
As you are eating less carbohydrate, it is important to eat high protein foods to maintain your calorie intake and energy levels. Protein is found in eggs, meat, fish, and dairy products. Vegetable sources of proteins include pulses, nuts and seeds.
Try natural (full fat) Greek yogurt as the basis for a low-carb breakfast. Its high protein content will keep you feeling full with minimal effect on your blood glucose levels. You can add some berries or seeds to give it flavour and texture. A large salad with a good portion of oily fish or chicken makes for a healthy lunch, and a handful of nuts, a piece of cheese or a hard-boiled egg are good options for snacks when you get peckish between meals.
5. Check the label
Sugar is hidden in all sorts of processed and packaged food, meaning you might be consuming it without even being aware. Even bread, soup, pasta sauce, and especially meals labelled as ‘low-fat’ can be high in sugar content. Check the label, as manufacturers must state how much sugar is naturally found in the ingredients, and how much has been added.
Don’t be fooled by labels which indicate the food is ‘low fat’, or ‘heart healthy’; many of these have added sugar to make up for the lack of taste resulting from the removal of fat. Remember too that starchy foods are all turned into sugar, so start to look at the amount of carbohydrates in the food, rather than just the sugar alone – as to your body they are all the same.
Traditional advice has been that people with diabetes should eat regularly and should not miss meals. This can result in people eating more than they need, even if they are not hungry. Therefore, only eat when you are hungry. After all, our prehistoric ancestors certainly didn’t eat several times every day.
There is increasing evidence that intermittent fasting can help reduce insulin resistance, and get the body burning fat. This can be as simple as missing breakfast on two or more days a week, so that you have a 16-hour overnight fast; alternatively, the 5:2 diet is where you ‘fast’ for two days a week. On these days, consume as little food as you can, maybe 600 calories a day. If you take insulin or a sulfonyurea to control your diabetes, you should discuss with your doctor or nurse, whether these will need to be changed, before missing meals in this way.
If you have type 2 diabetes, it is important to get the right advice, and of course – follow it. I am happy to guide you on the changes to your diet that will help you achieve your goals, whether it be to lose weight, improve your blood glucose levels or to reverse your diabetes completely. Whether you have been recently diagnosed, or whether you have lived with diabetes for a while, eating the right food is essential in helping to keep your diabetes in check.
To schedule a consultation with Dr Farah, visit his Top Doctors profile today.