What is type 2 diabetes?
Type 2 diabetes is a condition where your body doesn’t use insulin correctly, called insulin resistance, and where the pancreas of the body is not able to produce enough insulin to overcome this resistance. Insulin is a hormone that allows sugar to go from the blood into the cells. Your blood sugar (glucose) levels begin to rise as a result of type 2 diabetes.
Blood glucose levels that are too high can be dangerous. If you have high blood sugar that’s not well-controlled, you could develop eye disease, kidney disease, nerve damage, or heart problems. One of the primary treatments for type 2 diabetes is following a diabetes-friendly diet.
Why is diet so important?
Different kinds of foods affect your blood sugar in different ways. This is why it’s so important to eat a balanced, nutritious diet when you have type 2 diabetes. Foods that contain carbohydrates are the ones that increase blood sugar, while protein and fats do not. Carbohydrate-containing foods that are rich in fiber and less processed help keep your blood glucose at healthy levels, while highly processed, low-fiber carbohydrate foods can cause blood sugar to spike.
Following a heart-healthy diet is also important for people with type 2 diabetes. Being overweight is a risk factor for both diabetes and heart disease. A heart-healthy diet includes:
- managing intake of saturated and trans fats
- watching your sodium intake
- choosing high-fiber whole grains, vegetables, and whole fruits
The glycemic index (GI) is a tool used to rate foods in terms of how quickly they increase your glucose levels. Foods with a high GI rating cause blood sugar to rise quickly after eating. Low GI foods digest more slowly. Generally, the GI index is associated with the amount of fiber a given food contains. High-fiber carbohydrates are usually, but not always, lower on the GI scale than low-fiber carbs.
What you need to know about carbohydrates
Carbohydrates break down into simple sugars during digestion. Starches are sometimes called complex carbohydrates and sugars are sometimes called simple carbohydrates.
Refined carbohydrates are generally not as healthy. They are found in “white” foods such as:
- white rice
- white pasta
- white bread
- sweets and sugared drinks
Complex carbs are less refined and processed, and they contain more fiber than simple carbs. Complex carbs include:
- brown rice
- legumes and beans
- whole vegetables and fruits
- whole grains such as whole-wheat pastas and bread, and higher fiber grains such as millet and whole-grains oats
Simple carbs break down more quickly during digestion than complex carbs, causing a more rapid and higher increase in blood sugar levels, at least when eaten alone. Fiber-rich complex carbs digest more slowly. This keeps you feeling full for a longer period of time and may not cause high blood sugar to the same extent as simple carbs.
People with type 2 diabetes need to plan carefully when eating carbohydrates to make sure they keep their blood sugar in a safe target zone. The American Diabetes Association (ADA) recommends including carbohydrates that come from natural sources, such as:
- low-fat dairy products
- whole grains and legumes
Reading food labels
Food packaging labels clearly mark carbohydrates in grams (g) so you know how many there are in each serving. However, fresh produce often does not include a nutrition label. A dietitian can work with you to help you know how many carbs you should eat each day. Most people with type 2 diabetes eat 45 to 60 g per meal. The amount will depend on your individual health, as well as what your target glucose levels are.
Your dietitian can also help you learn to estimate how many carbs are in whole fruits and vegetables. You may have heard that people with diabetes can’t eat a lot of fruit because of the sugar content. However, whole fruits are often a good option when eaten as part of the total carb allowed. Studies found that long-term glucose control and weight loss did not increase when fruit consumption was restricted. Ask your doctor or dietitian what’s right for you.
How to plan healthy meals
Several factors come into play when planning diabetes-friendly meals. The goal is to balance your carbohydrate intake with healthy protein and fat choices, which can help stabilize blood sugar levels.
As with managing your carb intake, determining the number of calories you need each day will depend on your specific situation. If you’re overweight, your doctor may recommend cutting calories to help you lose weight.
Snacks eaten as needed throughout the day can help minimize hunger and manage portions at meals. Stocking the house with healthy carb-controlled snacks (for example, carrot sticks and hummus or Greek yogurt) can help you feel satisfied without causing your blood sugar to rise.
Snacking on nuts might be a good option. Nuts can be a healthy addition to a diabetes-friendly diet. Unsalted almonds are a good source of protein, and research from The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggests that eating nuts and peanut butter may improve blood glucose levels and reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes in some women. It’s important to remember, however, that nuts are high in calories. To avoid increasing your daily calorie intake, nuts should be used as a replacement for one of your other snacks instead of an addition.
You’ll want to fill your grocery cart with foods that contain a variety of nutrients to help you plan healthy and tasty meals, including:
- healthy fats, such as olives or avocados
- lean proteins, such as beans, fish, poultry, or pork
- fiber-rich foods, including legumes, sweet potatoes, and whole grains
- low-fat milk and yogurt
- fresh fruits and vegetables
Stick to the outer perimeters of the grocery store to stock up on fresh produce, meats, and dairy products. The middle aisles of most supermarkets are laden with temptations that are generally processed and high in unhealthy fats, calories, and salt, and should be chosen less often when you have type 2 diabetes. Check out the spice aisle and fresh herb section too — there are plenty of options for flavoring your favorite meals without using salt.
Deciphering tricky food labels
“Nutrition Facts” labels on food packaging list the amount of nutrients the item contains and for the most part, it’s easy to understand. People with diabetes learn how to look for key nutrients on the labels, including carbs, sugar, fiber, protein, and fat. The sugar listing is where it gets a little tricky.
The “sugars” listing on a food label includes both natural and added sugars that the food contains. For example, cow’s or soy milk and yogurt contain carbohydrates naturally, but can also contain added sugar to increase sweetness. You may see a number of different terms on your food label, such as:
- raw sugar
- cane sugar
- beet sugar
- maple syrup
- agave nectar
- high fructose corn syrup, or corn sugar
These words may refer to different types of sugar, but their effect on raising blood sugar levels is the same. Try to choose foods that contain less added sugar, such as plain or unsweetened yogurts and milks.
Sugar alcohols such as malitol and sorbitol are other forms of carbohydrate that are often found in products made specifically for diabetes. They contain half of the carbs and calories as other carbohydrates.
The ADA suggests looking at the “total carbohydrate” listing on food labels instead of “sugars” to account for all of the carbohydrate you are getting at each meal. All sugars, sugar alcohols, starches, and fibers are taken into consideration for the carbohydrate count.
Putting it to work for you
If you’ve just been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, you might not be in the habit of counting calories, limiting your carbs, or reading food labels. It may seem like a lot of extra work at first, but soon preparing healthy meals and learning more about food and how it affects your body will become second nature. Eating for diabetes doesn’t have to be bland and boring. Experiment with new spices and seasonings to make it work for you!