Foods to help you prevent and manage diabetes

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November is Diabetes Awareness Month, where communities all over the world do important work to draw attention to the prevalence of diabetes, especially type 2.

Type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle related disease that is on the rise in South Africa and throughout the world. High calorie intake and sedentary lifestyles (ie: overeating and lack of exercise) are the main factors linked to the development of diabetes.

Here are some sobering facts about diabetes in South Africa:

  • In South Africa, 7% of adults between the ages of 21 and 79 (that’s 3.85 million people) are living with diabetes.
  • A significant proportion of these cases remain undiagnosed.
  • According to the last diabetes country profile the World Health Organisation released in 2016, diabetes accounted for up to 6% of deaths in our population, though this number has likely increased since then.
  • Higher rates of diabetes occur in women who are therefore at greater risk.
  • Up to 95% of diabetes cases are type 2.
  • Diabetes disproportionately affects people of colour.

The good news is that type 2 diabetes can be avoided with the help of a healthy lifestyle. Preventing diabetes is all about controlling your blood sugar, and there is a lot that you can do, even if you are genetically predisposed to the disease.

Types of diabetes:

  • Type 1 diabetes: This is an autoimmune disorder that usually occurs before adulthood. The body’s immune system destroys the cells that produce insulin, the hormone that regulates blood sugar levels.
  • Type 2 diabetes: This is a disease that occurs in middle age, if the body is unable to make use of insulin properly to regulate blood sugar levels. It is often lifestyle related and can be prevented.
  • Gestational diabetes: A condition that develops during pregnancy, and is similar to type 2 diabetes, in that the body is unable to make use of insulin correctly to manage blood sugar levels. It usually disappears after birth.

Sucrose vs Fructose

It’s important to distinguish the difference between sucrose and fructose:

Fructose is a simple sugar that makes up 50% of table sugar (sucrose). Table sugar is also made up of glucose, the body’s main energy source for cells. Fructose must be converted into glucose by the liver before it can be processed by the body. Fructose results in a low increase in blood sugar levels, unlike glucose. Therefore, fructose is often recommended as a better source of sugar for those with type 2 diabetes, but in very small amounts.

It’s important to note that the fructose found in added sugars is bad for you, fruit is not. It is difficult to overeat whole fruit, and you’d need to consume great amounts of fruit to consume dangerous levels of fructose.

So what does this mean for those living with diabetes? You can eat fructose when you live with diabetes, but fresh fruits and vegetables should be your main sources. Dried fruit and freshly squeezed juices can be enjoyed in small portions.

5 foods to eat when living with diabetes

The main motivations behind your food choices when living with diabetes will be:
  • Reducing and controlling your blood sugar
  • Maintaining a healthy weight

With that in mind, here are five foods that support a diabetic diet:

1. Nuts
Nuts are fantastic for diabetes management. Studies have shown that eating nuts daily can have great benefits for blood glucose levels, improved heart health, and reduced inflammation due to their excellent fibre content.

A 2019 study of over 16,000 participants living with type 2 diabetes found that eating tree nuts regularly (specifically walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, and pistachios) significantly lowered their risk of heart disease and death. Another study found that participants who consumed walnut oil daily saw improvements in their blood glucose levels.

2. Seeds
We knew seeds were incredibly nutritious, but it seems they’re particularly good for those living with diabetes. Chia seeds are very high in fibre and low in digestible carbohydrates. The type of fibre in chia seeds has been known to lower blood sugar levels by reducing the rate at which food makes its way through the gut and gets absorbed by the body. Chia seeds are also helpful for weight management, as they are low GI and keep you full for longer.

Flaxseeds are an excellent source of fibre for gut health, but they’re also high in omega-3 fats to support normal blood sugar levels. The insoluble fibre in flaxseeds is also linked to reduced risk for heart disease, blood sugar management, improved insulin sensitivity and lowered blood pressure.

3. Fatty fish
Studies have indicated that fatty fish may help regulate blood sugar and reduce inflammation. Salmon, sardines, herring, anchovies, and mackerel all have high levels of the omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA. Since those with diabetes have increased risk for heart disease and stroke, foods high in good fats are needed to support their heart health.

Fish is also an amazing source of protein which stabilises blood sugar and helps you feel full, ensuring you don’t overindulge.

4. Fruit and vegetables
Getting your ‘five a day’ in is important for all of us. But there are specific fruits and veggies that can help those with diabetes manage their blood sugar.

Strawberries and cranberries contain high levels of antioxidants that have been known to improve insulin sensitivity in participants, based on a recent study. One serving of strawberries also provides more than 100% of the RDA for vitamin C, which has benefits for heart health. High fibre fruits like apples and pears are great for the gut and therefore your blood sugar levels.

Non-starchy veggies like broccoli, sprouts and leafy greens are low in calories and carbs, with nutrients like magnesium, vitamin K and vitamin C. A study found that diabetic participants who ate broccoli regularly had reduced blood sugar levels. Squash, like butternut and pumpkin, is another amazing food group. Squash is dense, filling, low in calories, high in antioxidants and has a low GI.

5. Wholegrains
Wholegrains are a source of complex carbs that lead to better blood sugar management compared to refined grains, which cause spikes and crashes in blood sugar. Wholegrains are digested far more slowly, and therefore release glucose gradually into the blood. Their fibre content helps slow down the absorption of glucose and gives you more control of your blood sugar levels during the day. Grains also support weight management as well as heart health.

Great grain choices include whole rolled oats, brown rice, quinoa, barley, buckwheat, and bulgar wheat.

5 lifestyle habits for diabetes prevention

According to Mayo Clinic, it is never too late to start taking control of your blood sugar and your overall lifestyle. Even if you are diagnosed as prediabetic, there are important steps you can take to delay or prevent the onset of diabetes.

1. Lose weight
If you are overweight, losing extra weight will significantly reduce your risk of developing diabetes. According to a recent study, participants who were able to lose between 7 - 10% of their body weight through diet and exercise alone were able to reduce their risk of diabetes by up to 60%! Losing weight can be difficult but it’s worth it. Set realistic personal goals for yourself and be sure to talk to your doctor about your plans for weight loss.

2. Eat a healthy plant-based diet
Eating plant-based foods that are whole, unprocessed, unrefined, rich in nutrients, with little to no additives, is a great way to prevent diabetes and equally good if you are trying to manage it. Plant-based foods are high in plant-based fibre and protein, which as we discussed above, are nutritious, filling and help support good blood sugar levels and gut health. A balanced diet with plenty of fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, legumes, nuts and seeds are ideal to help you prevent diabetes.

3. Get regular exercise
Moving your body on a regular basis is essential to reducing your risk for diabetes. Exercise has been shown to reduce that risk through weight loss, lowered blood sugar levels and increased insulin sensitivity to keep your blood sugar within normal levels. Brisk walks, home workouts, cardio and weight training, dancing, pilates, yoga, swimming and hiking are all good options for exercise. Try out a few options and see what works for you.

4. Eat healthy fats
Good fats are key to preventing diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, getting in enough good fats is a key part of a balanced diet. The right fats play a key role in some vital functions in the body, including insulation, cell growth, energy storage and more. A healthy diet should include more monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats as opposed to saturated or trans fats.
Sources of good fats include nuts like almonds, cashews, pecans and peanuts, fatty fish, avocado, extra virgin olive oil, olives, and canola oil. Keep your portions small, as these foods are high in calories.

5. Live a healthy lifestyle
A healthy overall lifestyle, not just diet alone, is very important. Avoid crash diets and rather focus on making healthier choices. That goes for your diet, exercise, mental health, drinking enough water, and getting enough sleep and rest. Living a healthier lifestyle doesn’t just happen overnight. It starts with small daily habits that, over time, eventually become a way of life.

Vegan-friendly snacks to support a plant-based diet

Living with and managing diabetes is doable when you have the right foods and snacks available. With the help of some great products that contain no added sugar, we’ve been able to support our diabetic customers for many years as they manage their condition:
  • Montagu Low GI Mix: This blend is high in energy, dietary fibre, is naturally cholesterol-free and a source of monounsaturated fat. With its low Glycaemic Index, it is supported by the GI Foundation of South Africa.
  • Pitted dates: Dates are deliciously sweet, low GI, and high in fibre to keep you full for longer.
  • Dried mango: Dried mango is low GI and high in fibre to support your gut health and blood sugar levels.
  • Raw and roasted nuts: Delicious, nutritious and loaded with protein, fibre and vitamins.
  • Seeds: With no sugar or additives, seeds are an excellent addition to regular and diabetic diets.
  • Sugar-free dark chocolate covered snacks: Our new range includes chocolate covered almonds, peanuts and raisins, sweetened with Maltitol, a natural sweetener.

*Always consult your doctor before making significant dietary changes, especially if you have any chronic conditions or health issues.
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