ONCE a person is diagnosed with diabetes, it can turn their meal times upside down.
Food, and how it is eaten, is a vital part of managing the chronic condition.
Everything you eat, particularly those that contain carbs, raises blood sugar levels – when you're finished eating, your blood sugar will rise and may stay higher even a couple of hours after your meal.
Dr Nicola Guess, a leading registered dietician specialising in diabetes, told The Sun: “Blood sugar needs to be kept within a healthy range for the body to function optimally.
“The body has a number of ways to regulate blood sugar. The body produces insulin from the pancreas to lower blood sugar, primarily by promoting uptake of glucose in the muscles.
“In diabetes this goes wrong. In type 1, the pancreas stops producing insulin.
“This means there is no insulin at all to get blood sugar into muscles, so blood sugar can go very very high and cause coma and even death – this is why insulin therapy is essential in type 1.
“Type 1 diabetes was a death sentence before the discovery of insulin.
“In type 2 it’s a bit more complicated – the pancreas can’t produce as much insulin as before (though it can produce some) and the tissues become resistant to the effects of insulin.”
For some people with the condition, a spike in blood sugar can cause feelings of dizziness, fatigue and thirst.
Extremely high blood sugar can make a person pass out.
And having too low blood sugar – called hypo – is a medical emergency. It can happen when the balance of medication and eating goes off track.
There seems to be tonnes of rules to stick to which can feel overwhelming. But often only a few tweaks are needed here and there.
If you have diabetes – whether type 1 or type 2 diabetes – this checklist will help you remember the basics of meal times:
1. Plan ahead
Since diet can play a large role in managing blood sugar levels whether you have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, many people find it helpful to plan meals ahead.
There are various meal plans that can help you stick to a healthy, balanced diet from groups like Diabetes UK.
Once you’ve got the hang of diet changes, it becomes easier to plan meals yourself.
To avoid going off track too often, it’s a good idea to plan the week’s meals in advance. Write a shopping list and get a food shop done in one go.
Many people find meal prepping – batch cooking on a day off and then portioning meals in tubs for the week ahead – saves time.
But as long as you have the foods you need stocked, you can rustle up quick and easy healthy meals from scratch as you go.
2. Make sure meals are balanced
There are three major nutrients, and of them, carbohydrates change blood sugar levels the most.
Protein and fat within a meal can help slow digestion.
They can prevent blood sugar levels rising too quickly, avoiding any sharp spikes.
“However, it’s important to note that not all carbohydrate foods change blood sugar equally,” said Dr Guess, an associate professor at University of Westminster and head of nutrition at Dasman Diabetes Institute.
“For example, high fibre starches, such as brown rice, can help slow blood sugar increases as the fibre helps slow digestion.
“Some starches are made more resistant to digestion via cooking and preparation methods such as when pasta is cooled and then reheated.
“Most fruits also do not raise blood sugar very much because the type of sugars in them are digested very slowly.
“Meals should be a balance of different kinds of these foods – this will help keep meals interesting and palatable!”
Many people find the plate method helps them to balance meals and portion control.
Not only will this help keep blood sugar levels under control, it will also ensure you don’t consume excess calories.
Fill half a standard sized plate with nonstarchy vegetables, such as salad, green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and carrots.
Fill one quarter with a lean protein, such as chicken, turkey, beans, tofu, or eggs.
Fill one quarter with carb foods, such as grains, starchy vegetables (such as potatoes and peas), rice, pasta, beans, fruit, and yogurt.
3. Know how to eat carbs
Carbs have the biggest impact on blood glucose levels, and so it is the one food group you’ll have to keep the closest eye on.
For people with type 1 diabetes, it’s good to eat some carbs at every meal because otherwise, blood sugar levels can get too low.
Nicola said: “People with type 1 can have however many carbs they like as long as it’s matched with insulin.
“Obviously people with type 1 are as susceptible to weight gain as all of us, so there are limits to how much of anything, including carbs they should eat.”
Generally people with diabetes can get around half their calories from carbohydrates, including those with type 2 diabetes.
But low-carb diets can be an effective way to lose weight and help manage type 2 diabetes too. However, it's best to discuss this with a doctor first.
Nicola said: “In type 2, most studies show that the overall calorie content of the diet is the primary driver of glucose control – if a person reduces their calories, loses weight, their glucose comes down and vice versa.”
4. Make sure you’re eating fibre
Fibre keeps the digestive system healthy and can help to keep blood sugar levels in control.
Aside from this, is it linked to lower odds of heart disease, which people with diabetes are more at risk of, and some cancers.
Fibre is a form of carbohydrate that can’t be digested.
To get it into your mealtimes, use brown rice, wholegrain cereals, wholemeal bread, potatoes, oats, pulses, nuts, and plenty of fruit and veg.
5. Watch your drinks
It’s easy to think drinks have no bearing on our diet. But they do, in fact, need to be watched closely.
Nicola said: “If people with type 1 diabetes are using the carb counting method, the sugar in milk (called lactose) is counted as part of the carb allowance.
“In general, in type 2 diabetes, the lactose in dairy products has a very small effect on blood sugar so milk in general can be enjoyed without worrying about the effect on blood sugar.”
Fizzy, sugary or fruit juice drinks are also carb heavy and can contribute to weight gain.
“Weight gain is a big risk factor for the development of type 2 diabetes,” Nicola said.
“And while type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition – unrelated to lifestyle and weight – weight gain can cause insulin resistance in type 1 diabetes, which can worsen blood sugar control.”
Experts typically recommend having water or low-calorie/diet drinks for people with diabetes.
“Regular soft drinks can contain more than 6 teaspoons of sugar and can make blood sugar control more difficult for both type 1 and type 2 diabetes,” said Nicola.
Herbal tea, vegetable juice and or even water with a squeeze of lemon or lime are other good alternatives.
6. Monitor salt
Salt doesn’t cause blood sugar levels to rise. But it can have a number of other health effects that are unfavourable for people with diabetes.
It contributes to high blood pressure – which increases the risk of things like stroke. This is important because people with both types of diabetes are at higher risk of stroke anyway.
You can try upping the herbs as a substitute for salt, such as paprika, chili powder or ginger.
There are also low salt versions of dozens of products, including ketchup, baked beans, soups, gravy and dressings.
7. Snack savvy
Having diabetes does not mean that you must stop eating snacks, but it does mean that you should know what a snack does to your blood sugar.
You also need to know what healthy snacks are so you can choose a snack that will not raise your blood sugar or make you gain weight.
How you eat snacks will depend on your type, treatment plan, lifestyle and low blood sugar pattern.
Nicola said: “It’s worth mentioning that for most people, snacking (in terms of needing the calories) is unnecessary for healthy people and people with type 2 diabetes.
“However, people with type 1 diabetes may find that snacking can help them keep blood sugar levels within their target range.”
People with type 1 diabetes may need to eat small snacks between meals to help keep blood glucose levels up – but too many can make it hard to manage weight, which is important for diabetes.
People with type 2 diabetes only need to think about regular snacks if they are taking medication.
Healthy snacks include unsweetened yoghurts, nuts, seeds, fruit and veg, rice cakes with nut butter or dark chocolate coating. Try to avoid things like crisps and chocolate bars.
8. Don’t bother with “diabetic” labels
Diabetes UK says people with diabetes don’t need to bother with foods or drinks that say “diabetic” or “suitable for diabetics”.
“These foods contain similar amounts of calories and fat, and they can affect your blood glucose levels,” the charity says.
“They are usually more expensive and can have a laxative effect.
“Stick to your usual foods. If you want to have an occasional treat, go for your normal treats and watch your portion sizes.”
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