Type 2 Diabetes mellitus, commonly just referred to as diabetes, is a chronic metabolic disease that can severely impact health, longevity, and quality of life. As of 2019, 8.7% of Americans were diagnosed with diabetes, another 38% with prediabetes and researchers estimated that 50% of 20-year-olds would develop diabetes in their lifetime.
While genetics play a minor role, diet and lifestyle are the main factors determining the likelihood of developing diabetes, and they are the only factors within your control. What and how you eat, how much you exercise, weight, and waist circumference all influence your blood sugar levels and your metabolic health over time.
Diabetes disrupts the body’s ability to move glucose (“blood sugar”) from the bloodstream into cells to use as fuel. Over time these blood sugar abnormalities impair cells’ ability to respond to insulin, your primary blood sugar-regulating hormone, and cause damage to blood vessels and nerves. Whether your goal is to prevent diabetes, reverse your pre-diabetes or better manage your existing disease, regulating your blood sugar throughout the day should be the primary goal. The key is to avoid big spikes of blood sugar and the associated big crashes, and the best way to do that is by paying attention to your diet.
Let’s look at some foods that might seem healthy but may cause difficulty regulating blood sugar.
1. Flavored coffee drinks
Flavored syrups and sweetened non-dairy milk are very common in takeout and pre-made coffee beverages and contain more sugar than you likely realize. Additionally, beverages typically don’t satiate as well as food, making it more likely that you’ll over-consume both sugar and calories.
Consider drinking your coffee black or with a splash of milk or ask your barista to reduce the number of pumps of syrup in your drink.
2. Flavored yogurt
If you look at the nutritional information on a package of flavored yogurt, you’ll see that it has a surprising amount of sugar for something that’s marketed as a healthy breakfast food.
Try unsweetened yogurt instead and flavor it yourself by topping it with fruit.
3. Granola bars
Granola bars are a classic “health food” that isn’t that healthy; most granola or cereal bars are made from grains and sweetened with sugar, filled with jam or covered with chocolate.
Consider swapping them for a handful of nuts and a piece of fruit or a bar with a higher protein and lower sugar content.
4. Fruit juice & fruit smoothies
While most fruits are relatively high in natural sugars, they are also high in fiber (the stuff that makes them crunchy), and fiber blunts the blood sugar spike that the fruit sugars would otherwise cause. When you blend, juice or puree fruit, you take out the fiber and just leave the sugar, which allows the sugar to enter your bloodstream quickly and give you a big blood sugar spike.
It’s best to avoid fruit juices altogether and add some protein and fiber to a fruit smoothie if you’re making one. Better yet, enjoy the fruit in its original, crunchy form.
5. Alcoholic drinks & cocktails
Most alcoholic drinks and cocktails are made with syrups or sweeteners, making them both delicious and bad for your blood sugar. Additionally, the alcohol itself increases your blood sugar, so it’s still important to be mindful even if you’re drinking a low-sugar alcoholic drink.
Choose a less sweet cocktail, or choose club soda as your mix instead of tonic or cola. Alternate your alcoholic drinks with water to give your body time to process the sugar and alcohol.
6. “Low-fat” foods
To ensure that low-fat packaged foods (e.g., salad dressing, skim milk, cookies, yogurt, etc.) still taste good, most companies decrease the fat content and replace it with a higher salt and sugar content.
Avoid low-fat packaged foods. Choose the regular version and be mindful of your portion size; your blood sugar and tastebuds will thank you.
7. White rice, pasta or bread products
All grains break down into sugar in your body. White rice, grains and flours are made by removing the naturally existing fiber content from the original whole grain form. Fiber plays a significant role in slowing the entry of sugar into your bloodstream, which reduces the likelihood of a blood sugar spike.
Keep your bread, rice or pasta portions small, and choose whole-grain, fiber-rich options.
8. Breaded foods
These foods (i.e. chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, etc.) are typically deep-fried and coated in white flour, thus providing the double whammy of unhealthy trans fats and carbohydrates that quickly spike your blood sugar.
Choose baked instead of fried, and save these foods for an occasional treat.
9. Natural sweeteners
Companies love to brand things as “natural” or “healthy”, but that doesn’t always mean they are suitable for you. Natural sweeteners like honey, maple syrup or agave are still full of sugar and need to be treated just like regular sugar when used in coffee, cooking or baking.
We all know that candy is full of sugar, but how often do you consider the sugar content in your chocolate bar? It’s usually pretty close to what you’d find in a bag of Skittles!
Try swapping for dark chocolate, which typically has much lower sugar content.
While sugary and sweet foods are the most common blood sugar dysregulation culprits, managing your diabetes doesn’t necessarily have to mean avoiding sugar or delicious things altogether; it might just mean choosing low sugar options, decreasing your portion sizes, or having them as an occasional treat instead of a daily snack. Additionally, balancing your consumption of carbohydrates, grains and sweets with adequate protein and healthy fats can make it easier to regulate your blood sugar and improve insulin sensitivity over time.
Making some simple changes to your diet can have a significant, positive impact on your health in the future. Just pick one and start today!
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