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One of the most serious, common health challenges the Latino community faces today is type 2 diabetes, a progressive, chronic disease that affects the body’s ability to use insulin and utilize sugar for energy.

Latinos are facing diabetes at disproportionate rates.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2017–2018, 12.5 percent of Hispanics had diagnosed diabetes, compared to 7.5 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

It’s not just that Latinos are more likely to get diabetes, either. Data shows that among people who have diabetes, Latinos may have a more difficult time managing their condition.

For those Latinos with diagnosed diabetes, 27.9 percent reported poor glycemic control, as compared to 11 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

Glycemic control is important in diabetes to help prevent some of the complications that can arise, such as heart disease, kidney disease, blindness, and nerve damage.

So the fact that Latinos are finding it more difficult to manage their diabetes could mean a host of other health issues later on.

When people first hear about the disproportionate rate at which Latinos experience diabetes and have trouble managing diabetes, a common reaction is to turn to Latin food as the cause.

People will start to blame carbs like tortillas or rice, for instance. But the truth is nutrition is just one factor that contributes to the development of diabetes.

The CDC also notes that the prevalence of diabetes varies by education level, affecting 13.3 percent of adults with less than a high school education versus 7.5 percent of adults with more than a high school education.

In this case, education is used as an estimate of socioeconomic status — meaning that a major risk factor for diabetes is having a lower income.

This can translate into a higher risk for diabetes in a number of ways.

Healthcare access

People with lower incomes are less likely to have health insurance coverage, which means fewer doctor’s visits for preventive care.

This can often be the difference between catching someone still in the prediabetes stage and not diagnosing someone with diabetes until they’re well into the progression of the disease.

Food insecurity

Food insecurity is when a household doesn’t have reliable, consistent access to food, and it’s been associated with higher odds of developing type 2 diabetes.

About 16.2 percent of all Hispanic households are estimated to experience food insecurity. And as research suggests, this has an impact on how people are developing diabetes or struggling to manage it.

Among Latinos who have been diagnosed with diabetes, those who experience food insecurity tend to have a higher A1C level and eat fewer vegetables at meals, showing how food insecurity could be preventing people from properly managing their diabetes.

Other disparities

Of course, while Latinos experience higher rates of food insecurity and are more likely to have a low income, this doesn’t explain all the reasons why we see higher rates of diabetes and poorly-managed diabetes in the Latino community.

Another factor to consider are differences in resources available. Are they offered in multiple languages?

Even if they’re in the language someone feels most comfortable speaking, does the information fit into Latin culture? For instance, nutrition guides for diabetes may neglect to mention popular Latin foods, meaning Latinos have to do extra work to apply the information they receive to their own lives.

While Latin food may not be the main reason why Latinos are at higher risk of developing diabetes, nutrition is still an important piece of managing diabetes.

First, it’s important to note that Latin food has a lot of variety. What all Latin food has in common, though, is that it can be balanced, healthy — and, yes — diabetes-friendly.

This is where a lot of people will get confused and start to name the problems they see with a Latin diet.

Maybe they think it’s too high in carbohydrates, or too low in vegetables. The truth is these are misconceptions both about Latin food and about what’s needed to manage diabetes.

Eating too many, or not enough, carbs

The foundation of a diabetes-friendly diet is balance between the major nutrients: protein, fat, and carbohydrates. A common mistake people will make is eating a diet too high in carbohydrates while neglecting protein and fat, allowing blood sugar to spike.

People may also be too nervous to eat carbohydrates and completely remove them, leading to low blood sugar episodes (and perhaps an eventual spike as your body tries to compensate).

The truth is, the ideal diet for diabetes contains carbohydrates, but eaten at the same time as protein, fat, and fiber to help slow down how quickly the body responds to the carbs.

Skimping on fiber

Another common mistake people will make when managing diabetes is neglecting fiber, which slows down our blood sugar response and keeps us full between meals.

Not recognizing ‘hidden’ carbs

Another mistake people will make is not being fully aware of which foods contain carbohydrates. For example, many Latin diets are high in delicious, healthy fruits, but oftentimes people with diabetes don’t realize fruits contain carbs.

It’s important to eat carbohydrates, but it’s also important to know all the different sources of them so you can balance them with protein and fiber.

To manage diabetes, incorporate the following tips into your diet:

1. Serve carbs at the same time as protein, fat, and fiber

This allows you to get the energy and nutrients from the carbohydrates while also slowing down the body’s blood sugar response.

For example, instead of having a fruit batido with a piece of pan dulce for breakfast, try serving a fruit batido with scrambled eggs and salsa instead.

2. Stick to 1–2 carb servings per meal

This includes fruits and starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn.

The exact number of carbohydrates you need per meal is something you should discuss with your dietitian, but to get started, try learning all the different sources of carbohydrates — including fruits and veggies.

For example, instead of serving carne molida con papas with rice, beans, and tortillas on the side, try serving carne molida with 1 portion of rice and beans mixed together, and tomato and avocado salad on the side.

3. Try the plate method

Carb counting can be difficult. Instead, the plate method asks you to balance your meals by dividing your plate this way:

  • 1/4 starch
  • 1/4 protein
  • 1/2 nonstarchy vegetables

This ensures a good balance of carbs and protein without counting portions.

For example, instead of serving your plate with 1/2 rice and 1/2 ropa vieja with a few extra slices of plantains on top, try serving your plate like this:

  • 1/4 rice and plantains together
  • 1/4 ropa vieja
  • 1/2 green side salad

A Latin diet can be rich in whole grains, fiber, lean proteins, and vegetables — all key parts of a diabetes-friendly diet.

It’s easy to feel like a diagnosis of diabetes means we have to completely overhaul what we eat and give up everything we used to eat before diagnosis.

But the truth is, some simple tweaks, like pairing carbs with protein and managing portion sizes (as discussed with your healthcare provider), can keep you eating your favorite Latin foods while managing diabetes.


Krista Linares is a registered dietitian and the owner of Nutrition con Sabor, where she helps Latinos manage their health by celebrating Latin food culture! Krista specializes in diabetes management, PCOS, and food allergies.