Although there is no exact cure for diabetes, the chronic condition that affects how the body turns food into energy, there are ways to help manage it and prevent a diagnosis.
Rebecca Warren, a dietitian and clinical nutrition manager at UCHealth Highlands Ranch Hospital, said that a well rounded diet and healthy lifestyle plays a huge role in a person’s overall health.
Diabetes is the eighth leading cause of death in the U.S. with more than 37 million U.S. adults having the condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and one in five of those adults don’t know they have it.
In Colorado, a 2021 American Diabetes Association report indicates more than 310,000 people have been diagnosed with diabetes and it’s estimated that nearly 40,000 are diagnosed every year.
Types of diabetes
The body breaks down most of the food eaten into sugars and goes into the bloodstream. When a person’s blood pressure goes up, it signals the pancreas to release insulin, which releases the blood sugar in the body for cells to use as energy.
For someone with diabetes, the body doesn’t make enough insulin, or doesn’t have the ability to use the insulin as well as it should. As a result, too much blood sugar stays in the bloodstream.
“When we think about nutrition in terms of preventing diabetes, we’re really looking at preventing prediabetes and type 2 diabetes,” said Warren.
Prediabetes, in which an estimated 96 million adults have, occurs when blood sugar levels are higher than normal but are not high enough to reach the level of an official type 2 diagnosis as it can be reversible through exercise and diet.
Oftentimes people who are diagnosed with type 2 diabetes later in life are commonly due to poor dietary habits, obesity and lack of adequate physical activity, Warren said.
In this case, the pancreas might be able to produce insulin, therefore, exogenous insulin may or may not be required and oral medications are often prescribed.
However, oral medications are not used for type 1 diabetes.
Type 1 diabetes is thought to be autoimmune and occurs when the cells of the pancreas are unable to produce insulin on its own, therefore, insulin from an outside source such as an injection is used.
Diabetes can be managed through maintaining a healthy weight, being physically active, choosing healthier meals and limiting processed food intake.
The five food groups
When it comes to preventing diabetes and having a well rounded lifestyle, dieticians tend to consult the U.S. Department of Agriculture MyPlate Method.
However, it is important to contact a registered dietitian and physician for recommendations based on your individual health needs and specific health conditions, said Warren.
The five food groups are fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy.
Ideally, for the average healthy adult, half the plate should be fruits and vegetables.
Warren said it’s beneficial to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables (especially different colors) as they each contain different vitamins and minerals, this includes edible peels.
While vegetables contain potassium, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium, fruits contain vitamin C, which is essential for tissue growth, repair and healing.
Warren said people should avoid canned fruits and vegetables because they contain added sugars and sodium.
With grains, at least half should be whole grains. These include foods like brown rice and whole wheat bread.
In addition to magnesium and B vitamins being important for the nervous system and metabolism, whole grains are less refined and contain additional protein that helps manage blood sugar.
“Typically the way our blood sugar works,” said Warren. “When we have a refined grain, such as white bread, our blood sugar shoots up and then it shoots down fast.”
When a whole grain is added, it has the additional protein and fiber content that allows the blood sugar to slowly rise, plateau and lower. This gives the body a bit more control.
Among the many benefits of proteins, they also include B vitamins, which helps build tissue and blood cells.
Vegetarian proteins include beans, nuts, seeds and soy.
“When we look at these plant based sources of protein,” said Warren. “They’re high in fat soluble fiber, which can help manage cholesterol but also help with blood sugar control.”
Blood sugar control can also be managed by ensuring you are not eating one component of food at a time.
This includes snacking. By adding a protein source to a snack, such as a low fat cheese or peanut butter, the protein source can pair with the carbohydrate and gently release blood sugar through the bloodstream.
If lactose intolerant, Warren said people can choose lactose free products or fortified dairy alternatives as well as low fat or fat free options for reduced intake of saturated fats.
Additionally, some foods such as fruits contain natural sugar and fiber, which helps the body absorb sugar at a slower and desirable rate, said Warren. Many processed foods that contain added sugars are absorbed faster and can result in blood pressure spikes.
What to look for
According to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, portion sizes have grown over the past 20 years. Many foods that serve as a single portion contain multiple servings.
While the USDA MyPlate is a helpful guide in knowing how many servings to have in each food group, Warren suggested the use of Berkeley, the University of California’s handy guide to “How big is one serving?” This can be found at https://rb.gy/wqbsfa.
The number one thing to look at on a nutrition facts label is the serving size, said Warren as it indicates an appropriate amount to eat at once and everything listed in subsequent rows is reflective of that specific amount.
“What you need to look for on a nutrition label is specific to your personal health and nutrition goals,” said Warren.
Therefore, common things to be aware of are calorie intake when being mindful of weight, saturated fat content in regards to heart disease, sodium levels in terms of high blood pressure or heart failure and added sugar for preventing diabetes.