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Choosing A Healthy Diet For Diabetics

Updated on January 20, 2012

What is Diabetes?

Simply put, Diabetes Mellitus is a disease in which your body is no longer capable of metabolizing your food properly. Your blood glucose levels, or blood sugar levels, are too high because your body is either producing too much insulin or is not able to use the insulin you do produce.

Insulin is a hormone produced in the pancreas that allows your body cells to metabolize the glucose - to absorb it and turn it into energy. If the cells cannot metabolize the glucose, it will accumulate in the blood, a condition called hyperglycemia.

The bad news is, complications from untreated diabetes can lead to cardiovascular disease, chronic renal (kidney) failure, blindness, and loss of limbs - even death. The good news is that all forms of diabetes have been treatable since 1921, when Insulin was first introduced. Even better, Type 2 and Gestational Diabetes can sometimes be controlled by diet and life-style changes alone.

Blood Glucose Testing Tool

Testing blood glucose levels - photo credit:
Testing blood glucose levels - photo credit:

The most common and best known forms of Diabetes Mellitus are:

  • Type 1 Diabetes, which results from the body's failure to produce insulin, and requires the person to take in insulin - usually by injection.
  • Type 2 Diabetes, which results from insulin resistance, a condition wherein the cells fail to use insulin properly. This resistance is sometimes combined with an insulin deficiency. Usually insulin taken by mouth is sufficient, but sometimes this form will progress to a point where insulin by injection is needed to control the disease.
  • Gestational diabetes, which results from women developing high blood glucose level during their pregnancy, or hyperglycemia. Gestational Diabetes can develop into Diabetes Mellitus.

Diabetes can be controlled using insulin, but, even more important, changes in lifestyle and diet can have a significant positive impact on controlling the disease. Recent findings have shown that in some cases, diet and lifestyle changes can actually lead to patients with Type 2, or with Gestational Diabetes being able to manage their disease without having to take insulin.

The Importance of Diet

All forms of diabetes require careful control of diet, though there is a lot of controversy about what type of diet is best. The most commonly recommended is usually one that is high in dietary fiber, but low in fats, especially saturated fat, and complex carbohydrates that are metabolized slowly.

Where the most variance comes in to play is in the recommended amount of total calories obtained from carbohydrates. This can range from range from a low of 1/6 of the total diet, to a high of 75%.

There are a myriad of products and diet plans aimed at diabetics, that claim to cater to their needs, and it can be difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Whichever diet is recommended by your physician - a balance of protein and carbohydrates, with a restricted fat and sugar intake - it will most likely be very carefully tailored to you.

This is because foods affect people's blood sugars differently. What's works for one will not work for another, and it will require some experimentation on your part to find out which foods cause problems with your blood sugar and which don't.

Most physicians will also recommend an exercise regime, because they know that the best way to manage this disease is with a combination of diet and exercise.

What Constitutes "Healthy"?

Almost any good dietitian can tell you the type of diet that is best for all of us, diabetics included, is one that includes generous servings of fresh fruits and vegetables, some protein (but not as much as we may think we need), complex carbohydrates including whole grains and legumes, and limited amounts of dairy, eggs, nuts, seeds, and oils. Healthful choices for oils include grape seed oil, extra virgin olive oil, and sesame seed oil.

A good rule of thumb for healthful eating is the half/half/half rule of filling your plate. It's simple - first, fill one half of your plate with vegetables. This can be any lightly steamed, baked, or broiled vegetables of your choice, except for corn, carrots, and peas. These are all high in sugars and should be treated like carbohydrates, rather than vegetables.

Then fill half of the remaining empty half of your plate with complex carbohydrates such as rice, beans, or even pasta or potatoes. The protein with which you fill the remainder of your plate should be roughly the size of the palm of your hand, and certainly no bigger than the remaining space on your plate.

You can load your side plate with a green salad filled with cucumbers, tomatoes, celery, and lettuce, but limit your salad dressing to no more than a couple of teaspoons. You can add a small pat of butter to the potatoes or rice. Be very careful with the condiments - especially salt. Most of us consume far too much salt, and even more of it sneaks into our diets when we use pre-packaged and so-called convenience foods.

The Biggest Change

Probably the greatest change you will need to make is the one to include exercise as a regular part of your life. If you were diagnosed with diabetes as a child, you already know the importance of exercise in regulating your blood sugar and keeping you functioning normally.

Those who are diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes have to learn a new way of eating and living. Unless they wish to progress to using a needle to inject themselves with insulin several times a day, they will need to co-operate with their doctors and nutritionists, and get their eating habits and lifestyle under control.

Learning to eat balanced meals, watching your fat and sugar intake, and taking regular, even modest exercise is a small price to pay for staying needle-free.

Are You At Risk?

Many doctors and health professionals feel that Type 2 Diabetes is fast becoming an epidemic. North Americans consume more fat, salt, and processed foods than almost any other group. The biggest culprit is the proliferation of fast-food outlets, and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle.

Many people walking around right now are at risk for Type 2 Diabetes and are completely unaware of it. If you are overweight, and eat a diet high in fats, sugars, salt and processed foods - the typical fast-food diet of pop, chips, and big Macs - you could be at risk. Add a lack of regular exercise and you have a recipe for disaster.

Eating well takes some time and effort. It is so much easier to just pop something into the microwave, or order in a pizza. Exercising regularly takes a commitment in time and effort, and, quite honestly, even a ten minute walk hurts your muscles when you're first starting out.

Taking care of yourself is worth the extra effort. Adding fresh fruits and vegetables in the place of high-fat, high-sodium, processed foods, and taking with a brisk, twenty minute walk three times a week could help prevent your ever developing Type 2 Diabetes.

© 2010, Text by Imelleda


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    • Imelleda profile image

      Imelleda 7 years ago from East of the Sun, West of the Moon

      GmaGoldie - it runs in my family too, but I have managed to avoid it - so far, so good.

    • GmaGoldie profile image

      Kelly Kline Burnett 7 years ago from Madison, Wisconsin

      Important advise. Avoiding the sodium starts with reading the labels I found out.

      My family has a history of this disease, we love to exercise but oh, boy, do we love to eat - especially sweets.

    • Imelleda profile image

      Imelleda 7 years ago from East of the Sun, West of the Moon

      Nice to meet you, Whidbeywriter! I live with tow Type 2 diabetics, so I had lots of help with this one. Amazing the changes that can eb made with exercise and diet ;)

    • Whidbeywriter profile image

      Mary Gaines 7 years ago from Oak Harbor on Whidbey Island, Washington

      This was a great hub, my husband is a type 2 diabetic and has for the past year been exercising more, eating the right foods at the right times and cutting back on his portions and what amazing results. He has lost weight and his blood sugar numbers are lower now. Thanks for all the tips - this is great!