Top 5 Tips for Managing Diabetes
This week is Diabetes Awareness Week in New Zealand. I have a strong affiliation with diabetes, having worked as a specialist diabetes dietitian for the Auckland District Health Board for a few years before I entered and won MasterChef New Zealand.
I understand that anyone who has recently been diagnosed with diabetes has lots of questions around what changes they need to make to their diet. Or you might have a friend with diabetes and you’re not sure what you can offer them to eat. The first thing I would always tell my newly diagnosed patients is “Don’t worry, you don’t have to go on any special diets or eat boring rabbit food for the rest of your life!” Living with diabetes certainly doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself. To put it simply, the best ‘diet’ for someone with diabetes is just normal healthy eating with lots of vegetables and unprocessed foods. However there are a few extra things to be aware of that will help with your blood sugar/glucose management. Here are my top five tips for managing blood glucose (another term for sugar) levels through diet and lifestyle for people with diabetes. These tips are also useful for people who want to reduce their risk of diabetes.
- If you’re overweight, aim to lose 10 per cent of your body weight. So for example, if you weigh 80kg, aim to lose 8kg. Research shows that just a 10 per cent weight loss in someone who is overweight has a greater effect on blood glucose levels than oral diabetes medication. It will also have a huge impact on your blood pressure and, to an extent, blood cholesterol levels. A weight loss rate of 0.5-1kg per week is ideal – too much more than this usually means you are losing muscle and water (not fat!). Remember, slow and steady wins the race. Doing any kind of exercise helps lower your blood glucose levels, because your muscles use more of the glucose in your blood up when they are working. So after a meal it can be helpful to just do a bit of light exercise (even just going for a short walk) to help lower your blood glucose levels.
- Watch your carbohydrate portion size at each meal. When eaten and digested, carbohydrates get broken down into glucose, which is absorbed into our bloodstream. Thus large carbohydrate portions will put your blood glucose level up higher than you want. To keep tabs on your carb intake, your carbohydrate portion should be no more than the size of your clenched fist at each meal. Fruit is mostly carbohydrate, fibre and water so keep to eating only one piece at a time, and limit to no more than three pieces per day.
- Choose foods that are closer to nature. Avoid highly refined or processed carbohydrates (especially sugary drinks!) and other foods wherever possible. Foods that are as close to their natural state as possible will generally have a lower glycaemic index (see below for more about glycaemic index) and more nutrients; whereas processed foods will generally be higher in calories, saturated fat, sugar and sodium; and low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
- Choose foods with a low glycaemic index, especially your carbohydrates. The glycaemic index (GI) of a food refers to the foods impact on your blood glucose levels after eating it. Foods with a high glycaemic index will shoot your blood glucose level up high and fast, whereas foods with a low GI will give a slower, more steady, and lower rise in blood glucose levels. Here’s an example that hopefully explains this concept: take plain white bread vs a very grainy wholegrain bread. Because the wheat in the white bread has been so processed (until it is a fluffy white powder) before being made into bread, the factory has done a lot of the breaking down/digestion work for you…so when it reaches your stomach your body doesn’t have to spend much time digesting it and the glucose is released into your bloodstream relatively fast. Now take a very grainy bread that has lots of whole intact seeds and grains in it – when that reaches your stomach, your body actually has to spend a bit of time and effort breaking all of that down, to strip the outer layers and get the nutrients inside. Thus it takes longer to digest and absorb, providing a slower, more steady release of glucose. Low GI carbs include kumara/sweet potato, quinoa, lentils, beans, chickpeas, oats and brown rice.
- Eat as many non-starchy vegetables as you can. They are packed full of useful vitamins and minerals and fibre, provide very little calories, and have next to no impact on your blood glucose levels. At least half of your plate at lunch and dinner should be vegetables. You can easily add vegies to your breakfast too – how about a smoothie with some greens added (don’t worry, you don’t taste them), or cooked mushrooms or spinach with your eggs on toast. Same goes with snacking, I have a saying “snack from nature, not the vending machine!” i.e. snack on some raw vegetables with something like guacamole or hummus, or a piece of fruit….not biscuits or chippies (unless they’re kale chips like my recipe here).
Be sure to check out the featured diabetes-friendly recipe above or click here to view more on my recipe pages.
To be doing what I am today is a dream come true. It all started when I was 12 years old. I was watching TV after school one day and Jamie Oliver was cooking up a storm on The Naked Chef.