What is diabetes?
To control diabetes, it helps to understand how the disease works. After eating, food is converted by the body to a sugar called glucose. Glucose is absorbed into the bloodstream and, with the help of a hormone called insulin, enters the cells of the body to provide them with fuel.
People with diabetes either don't produce enough insulin or the insulin they do produce doesn't work right. Without insulin to help get the sugar inside the cells, glucose builds up in the bloodstream causing high blood sugar.
There are two major types of diabetes
- Type I diabetes - Most common in children; the body produces little or no insulin; insulin shots are required.
- Type II diabetes - The most prevalent form of the disease; most common in adults; many people with Type II diabetes are overweight and inactive, and can frequently control their blood sugar with weight loss, exercise, and a healthy diet; others require oral medications or insulin shots.
Information here is for the management of Type II diabetes in adults, although much of the information may also be useful to individuals with Type I diabetes.
Manage Blood Sugar to Avoid Complications
Keeping blood sugar levels under control can help prevent complications of poorly controlled diabetes - eye problems, kidney disease, nerve damage, heart disease and poor wound healing. To keep your blood sugar under control:
- Take Charge - Knowledge is power in managing diabetes. Ask your doctor to refer you to a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) and Registered Dietitian (RD) to learn how to monitor your blood glucose and understand how food, exercise, medications, and illness impact your blood sugar.
- Get Moving - Exercise can help to make your body more sensitive to insulin and reduce blood sugar levels.
- Eat Smart - Eating the right foods at the right times can help with blood sugar, weight, and cholesterol management.
Eat to Control Blood Sugar
Having diabetes doesn't mean you need to buy special foods and give up all your favorite eats. What's healthy for you is the same thing that's healthy for the rest of your family - less fat, fewer sweets, and a variety of fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and dairy products. Managing diabetes, however, does mean you need to pay closer attention to when and how much you eat to keep your blood sugar in check.
Your RD will develop a personalized meal plan to meet your individual goals and health needs. Some individuals with diabetes benefit from a low-fat, high carbohydrate diet, while others need less carbohydrate and a higher fat intake. If you have not had an appointment with an RD, contact your physician for a referral.
- Dump some pounds. Weight management is the biggest risk factor for diabetes that you can change. Losing weight makes your body more receptive to insulin and lowers your blood sugar.
- Graze. The best meal schedule to maintain blood glucose levels as near to normal as possible is three small meals and two to three snacks evenly spaced throughout the day. Try to be consistent with when you eat and take your medications each day, and avoid skipping meals or overtaxing your body with belt-busting meals.
- Count your carbs. Foods rich in carbohydrates (sweets, starchy foods, fruits and milk) cause the biggest increase in blood sugar levels, so carbohydrates need to be spaced throughout the day. Simple carbohydrates (sugars) and complex carbohydrates (starches) both cause blood glucose levels to rise.
- Boost your fiber. High fiber foods help blood sugar levels to rise more slowly than do refined carbohydrates such as cookies, white bread, or white rice. Get a majority of your carbohydrates from whole grains (oatmeal, bran cereal, brown rice and whole-wheat breads); beans and legumes; and whole fruits and vegetables.
- Choose healthy fats. Use monounsaturated fat (olive and canola oils) and cut saturated fat to lower blood cholesterol - individuals with diabetes are at higher risk for heart disease.
- Opt for Lean Proteins - Choose meatless meals, seafood and poultry more often than meat - they're lower in fat and calories - good for weight and cholesterol management.
Keeping Track of Carbohydrates
Your dietitian will recommend a specific amount of carbohydrate for you to consume daily, generally between 45% and 60% of your total calories. You can manage your carbohydrate intake using a few different techniques:
- Keep track of servings from the Food Guide Pyramid or the Exchange System.
- Carbohydrate Counting - Using this method, one serving of carbohydrate rich foods such as grains, fruit or milk provides about 15 grams of carbohydrate and is referred to as 1 carbohydrate choice. For most people, 45-75 grams of carbohydrate (3-5 carbohydrate choices) per meal, and no more than 15-30 grams of carbohydrate (1-2 carbohydrate choices) per snack is a reasonable goal.
Your RD will help you choose the best method to keep track of your diet.