Ultra-processed foods (often called “junk foods”) are everywhere. You see them in vending machines, rest stops, stadiums, and hotels. They’re sold at movie theaters, gas stations, and bookstores. And if that wasn’t enough, incessant advertising promotes them on television.
In general, these foods include processed and prepared snack foods with long ingredient lists that are high in calories but low in nutritional value.
Consuming excess sugars and fats found in these foods can contribute to weight gain. This excess weight is associated with diabetes.
One of the top risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes is being overweight. Excess fat around the organs in your belly is linked to insulin resistance, a condition where your body’s cells do not respond well to insulin. Insulin is a hormone that moves sugar out of your blood and into your cells.
When you have insulin resistance, your body signals to your pancreas to release higher amounts of insulin to lower your blood sugar. Eventually, your pancreas is no longer able to produce enough insulin to keep your blood sugars under control. This causes you to develop diabetes, a condition characterized by high blood sugar levels.
Ultra-processed foods tend to be high in calories. They tend to have few vitamins and minerals, and are usually low in fiber.
These foods may also contain added sugar which can cause blood sugar levels to spike. Some contain more saturated fats and sodium which may increase heart disease risk.
According to the American Diabetes Association (ADA), saturated fat can raise your cholesterol level. This puts you at a greater risk for heart disease, heart attack, and stroke.
Trans fat also increases your cholesterol level. It’s more harmful to your health than saturated fat, and it’s important to limit your intake as much as possible.
Trans fats are produced when liquid oils are solidified into products known as partially hydrogenated fats. It can be tricky to spot because food producers can list 0 grams of trans fat on labels if there is less than 0.5 grams in the product.
Partially hydrogenated fats are no longer permitted in food manufacturing in the United States. But it’s still a good idea to read labels carefully to make sure packaged foods do not contain trans fat or partially hydrogenated oils.
For people with diabetes, it’s important to be aware of added sugars, fats, and sodium typically found in ultra-processed foods. Substituting with more fruit, nuts, unsweetened yogurt and veggies can help keep weight and blood sugar levels closer to your goal. These options provide more nutrition, vitamins, minerals and fiber important for maintaining health.
The ADA recommends limiting fried foods, rich desserts, and sweets. You may be able to include these foods in your eating plan occasionally with the help of a registered dietitian or doctor.
People with diabetes may be able to enjoy their favorite snacks in smaller portions, like 100-calorie snack size bags. However, it’s still a good idea to choose these snacks less often.
Tortilla chips, instant noodles, muffins, croissants, and coffee creamers may be high in fat and simple sugars. Sugar also shows up in flavored yogurt and condiments like salad dressings, reduced-fat mayonnaise, and ketchup. It’s also found in high quantities in some fat free foods, as it’s used to substitute for fat.
For a lower-fat snack, consider air-popped popcorn instead of chips, or an english muffin instead of a regular muffin.
If you like sweet flavours but need to limit your sugar intake, no sugar added creamers, yogurt, and ketchup are also available.
Many people with diabetes find that the best way to control their intake of fats and sugars is to become an educated consumer. This includes learning how to read nutrition labels to spot fats and sugars. It also includes cooking more often at home to control ingredients.
You can also help control your blood sugar level and diabetes by eating:
- foods that are low in sodium
- foods that are low in saturated fat and free of trans fats
- more fruits and vegetables, including fresh, canned, and frozen options
- whole grains high in fiber
- healthy fats such as olive oil, nuts, and avocados
- a managed amount of carbohydrates
- an adequate amount of protein from lean meats or plant sources
Your doctor or a registered dietitian can help you develop a diabetes eating plan that fits your health goals, your food preferences and your budget.
Physical activity can also help you manage your blood sugar more effectively. Talk with your doctor about gradually increasing your physical activity. For example, you might start with light walking, and set a goal to gradually increase to 150 minutes of brisk walking per week.
If your job or day-to-day activities mean you spend a lot of time sitting, you might also set a goal to get up and more around every 30 minutes.
You can also consider keeping a food journal to note what you eat and when you eat it. This will help you see:
- if you’re often missing meals, overeating, or eating at irregular times
- if you’re regularly eating foods that don’t meet the needs of your meal plan
- if you eat a particular processed food often
Try to swap out highly processed foods with healthy alternatives. Some quick and easy snack ideas to include in a diabetes eating plan include:
- a cheese stick or small piece of cheese
- peanut butter and apple slices
- unsalted nuts, such as peanuts or almonds
- baby carrots
If you’re in a hurry and picking up fast food, the ADA has these tips for healthier options:
- Choose smaller portions such as a kid’s meal with fruit on the side, or a small single burger with a side salad.
- Limit fried foods and go for grilled or broiled instead. Choose lean meats such as turkey or chicken breast.
- Watch the condiments. Mustard is healthier than mayonnaise, ketchup, or rich sauces.
- In the morning, stick with whole-grain high fiber buns, bread, or English muffins, which are lower in calories and fat.
- Order your burger without cheese, which has additional calories and fat.
- Salad bars are good, but limit toppings such as bacon and cheese. Choose healthier fat options such as nuts, seeds, and avocado. Load up on carrots, peppers, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, and celery as well as greens.
- If eating pizza, choose whole-wheat thin crust and veggie toppings.
Considering how pervasive ultra-processed foods are in the United States, it can be hard to find alternatives. People with diabetes have to pay special attention to their diets to manage their blood sugar level. Your doctor or a registered dietician can help you set up a meal plan that meets your goals.
It’s a good idea to limit highly processed foods. Choose smaller portion sizes when eating these foods, and replace them with healthy alternatives whenever possible. This is ideal not just for diabetes, but also for overall health.