Nutrition for Diabetes
Diabetes is not just a single disease. Rather, it includes an entire group of autoimmune diseases that result in the same disorder: too much sugar in the blood. While the human body does need sugar (glucose) for energy, serious health damage can occur when there is too much sugar in the blood.
An important key to proper diabetic control is nutrition. A healthy diet will increase the opportunity for better metabolic rates that help maintain good glucose levels. In some instances, particularly in Type II Diabetes, an appropriate diet can help eliminate the need for oral medications altogether.
How Can Changing Diet Help Prevent and Treat Diabetes?
The benefits of a healthy diet in maintaining optimal health cannot be overstated. The body’s immune system relies on the nutrients derived from a variety of foods in order to function properly. Fresh fruits and vegetables especially have been shown to add benefits such as cholesterol-lowering fiber. These foods also help provide energy and are metabolized in diabetic individuals in such a way that helps maintain better and more balanced blood sugar levels. Black beans, for instance, have a high fiber content that has been shown to keep the blood sugar levels from rising too rapidly following a meal, making them an excellent food for diabetic individuals. When black beans are combined with a whole grain such as brown rice, a high quality protein is produced, without the undesirable fat that can be introduced from meat and dairy products.
Proper nutrition that helps balance blood sugar to the optimum levels results in better health. With better health comes the possibility of lower health care costs, fewer doctor visits and hospitalizations, and decreased use of medications whose side effects might increase risks of other complications. A healthy diet can also help prevent diabetes by helping to maintain a healthy weight.
How Can Nutrition Help Diabetes?
Good nutrition can keep blood sugar levels in check, control weight, and improve metabolic function. Thus, the necessity for oral medication especially is decreased. Those with Type I diabetes who do not have a healthy diet and use insulin injections alone as blood sugar control put themselves at risk for serious diabetic complications. These individuals lose out on the nutrients provided by a healthy diet and their immune system is less able to offset the deterioration of the body’s vital organs.
What is Good Nutrition?
A healthy diet that includes proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, minerals, and water constitutes what health care professionals determine to be good nutrition. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) introduced the Food Guide Pyramid (since 2005 known as My Pyramid) to assist people in determining a healthy diet for themselves and their families. Other groups have since expanded the guidelines, introducing various pyramids to include other diets such as, Asian, Mediterranean, Latin American, and Vegetarian and Vegan menus.
The basic premise of offering the guideline of the food pyramid is to place food in categories—meat, dairy products, beans, produce, grains, etc.—and offer suggestions of how much of each category is desirable in a day. Though some foods might be touted as “miracle foods” and are certainly excellent food choices, no single food offers the human body everything it needs to maintain optimum health.
Taking these guidelines into consideration, people should include these principles when planning healthy eating:
- Consume more fruits, vegetables, whole grains
- Reduction of saturated fat, trans fats, and cholesterol
- Limiting sweets and salt
- Moderation in alcoholic beverages, if any
- Portion control to limit calorie intake
Dieticians and other health care professionals do not always agree on the benefits of organic foods, especially produce and meats. A consensus however regarding warnings about the disadvantages of processed foods and the use of various chemicals continues to expand. A good and healthy diet, whether for losing weight, maintaining weight, or gaining weight, will include as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible. Many diseases, such as diabetes, are directly influenced by the food we eat. Processed foods indicate additives that might interfere with crucial metabolic processes in the human body, possibly creating or promoting disease.
Dietary supplements are another aspect of nutrition that can help diabetic individuals to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Such supplements include:
- Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA)—used as an antioxidant to protect against cell damage. Caution is urged because ALA can lower blood sugar too much.
- Omega-3 fatty acids
Before taking any supplement, individuals should always check with their health care professionals, such as a Nutritionist, to determine the best supplements for their health.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes indicates that the human body is in a condition of not being able to either make insulin, a hormone, or to use insulin effectively. Without insulin, sugar (glucose) is not transported into the body’s cells to provide them with the energy necessary to maintain proper organ function.
The three types of diabetes are:
- Type I—the body does not make insulin
- Type II (also known as Adult Onset Diabetes, though increasingly found in children)—in which the body does not produce enough insulin, or use it correctly
- Gestational—diabetes that occurs during a woman’s pregnancy.
Type I Diabetes
Type I diabetes, once known as juvenile or insulin-dependent diabetes, is most often diagnosed in children, teenagers, or young adults. Incidents do occur in the older population though this is not as common. In this disorder, the beta cells of the pancreas do not produce insulin due to a malfunction of the body’s immune system. About 5 to 10 percent of those with diabetes are Type I diabetic individuals. Type I diabetes requires daily or more insulin injections in order to maintain health.
Type II Diabetes
Type II diabetes, once known as adult-onset or non-insulin dependent diabetes, comprises the most common form of diabetes. Approximately 90-95 percent of diabetic individuals have Type II diabetes. Oral medication provides assistance to Type II diabetic individuals in maintaining proper insulin use—but diet and exercise have also proven to be useful in maintaining healthy blood sugar levels and possibly eliminating the need for oral medication altogether.
Gestational diabetes is most likely to develop in the mother during the late stages of pregnancy and will disappear once a baby is born. Women who suffer from gestational diabetes are more likely to develop Type II diabetes in later life, especially in overweight individuals.
Diabetes comes with a high cost to individuals who do not properly maintain control. The risks include:
- heart disease—individuals with diabetes have a higher risk of congestive heart failure than the rest of the population
- blindness and eye diseases
- kidney problems and failure
- poor circulation in legs and feet that can lead to neuropathy—because oxygen does not circulate properly with high blood sugar levels, healing of wounds will be delayed since the body needs oxygen to heal. Also, with numbed sensation (as in neuropathy) a diabetic individual might not notice injury to a limb, and consequently be at greater risk for infection.
What causes Diabetes?
The underlying causes of Type I diabetes and gestational diabetes remain uncertain, though research is ongoing. Links have been made with Type II diabetes to excess weight accompanied by a lack of exercise. By the early 21st century, some research was establishing concern that the extensive use of ingredients such as high fructose corn syrup, especially in soda pop and baked goods, was increasing metabolic disorders that lead to obesity. Obesity leads to an increased risk of developing diabetes, even among children and teenagers.
Finding a Specialist
Diabetes is a serious disease. Consulting your primary physician is the first line of defense in managing good control of blood sugar levels. Seeking the advice of a nutritionist is also part of a healthy plan for action. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health offers guidelines that will help individuals choose a specialist carefully and wisely.
Complementary and Alternative Medicine and Diabetes: A Focus on Dietary Supplements, found at the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.