Diabetes has steadily been on the increase in the few past decades. Globally about 451 million people have diabetes. Of those affected it is estimated that about a 13.4million people with the disease do not know they had been affected by the disease. In 2019, WHO estimated that 1.5 million deaths were directly caused by diabetes and the number of new cases is climbing yearly.
So, what is diabetes? Diabetes is a condition that occurs when the body is unable to regulate the amount of glucose in the blood.
Glucose is the main source of energy for the body’s cells and it comes from the food we eat(especially carbohydrates). Under normal circumstances, a small amount of insulin is released by the pancreas as soon as a person starts to eat. Once the amount of dietary glucose entering the bloodstream begins to increase, the pancreas releases enough insulin to keep the blood glucose in control- some amounts of glucose are escorted to the cells while some are stored in the liver. But where there is diabetes, the pancreas has lost its capacity to secrete insulin(i.e type 1 diabetes) or the body does not use insulin properly (I.e type 2 diabetes). This causes glucose to build up in the bloodstream leading to symptoms like frequent urination, extreme thirst, and extreme hunger.
When high blood glucose level is poorly managed it leads to health issues like blindness, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, nerve deterioration in the arm, hands, and feet, and amputation. Studies say that among all the different types of diabetes – type 1, type 2, prediabetes, and gestational diabetes. Type 2 diabetes is the most common type of diabetes, accounting for about 90-95% of the cases of diabetes. This is attributable to the populace’s unhealthy lifestyles – poor eating habits, physical inactivity, and sedentary lifestyles. Recently there has been a substantial increase in type 2 diabetes in children due to childhood obesity coupled with limited physical activity.
The best way to manage type 2 diabetes is to adopt healthy lifestyle changes – increase in physical activity, achieving a healthy weight, reduce stress, and healthy eating. Healthy eating plays a major role in the management of all types of diabetes, except type 1 diabetes, where its management is majorly on insulin.
It is quite frustrating that so many persons with diabetes believe that healthy eating means completely giving up foods they enjoy, eating “same kind of food” day after day, or there is a quick fix tagged ‘diabetic food’.But on the contrary, a healthy diet does not mean denying yourself foods you love eating or boredom. Healthy eating in diabetes management is consuming a wide variety of foods in moderate amounts and sticking to regular meal times. Aiming for variety, balance, and moderation in your diet daily are the basics of a healthy diet.
Variety in your diet means choosing several different locally available foods within any given food group, rather than eating the same old food day after day. There is no single food that contains all the essential nutrients your body needs to fulfil its vital functions. Variety makes your meals more interesting, colorful and ensures that your food contains sufficient vitamins, minerals, and phytonutrients. For example, if your favorite raw vegetable is a carrot- a rich source of beta carotene that forms vitamin A in our body. You may miss out on vitamin folate which is found in abundance in green vegetables like cucumber and garden eggs. This concept cut across all food groups – fruits, vegetables, starchy foods, protein foods, dairy foods, and oils.
Incorporate different kinds of vegetables into your diet daily especially the non- vegetables- green(leafy vegetables, cucumber, garden eggs, etc), orange(carrot, squash), red(tomatoes, peppers, beet). They are powerful weapons for controlling blood glucose, losing weight, and improving heart health. These vegetables are very low in carb, loaded with vitamins, minerals, dietary fiber, and phytochemicals. They can keep you hydrated and feel full for longer. If you are using canned vegetables with sodium, drain the vegetables and rinse with water to reduce sodium content or better still buy the ones that have no added sodium on the label. Spice it up with natural spices like cinnamon, ginger, garlic, and turmeric.
You might have heard that you can’t eat fruits if you are living with diabetes. Although, fruits are simple carbohydrates whether fresh, frozen, or canned. They are loaded with antioxidant vitamins and photochemical just like vegetables, which is beneficial to your heart health and skin. Fruits also help to satisfy your sweet tooth without the added sugar found in cakes and pastries. It is recommended that you stick to one serving of fruit per meal.
Eat a variety of starchy foods-cereal grains and starchy root tubers-. Stop eating the same old food day after day, because you are scared of a spike in your blood sugar. Choose whole-grain cereals( ofada rice, brown rice, acha, oat, millet, corn, etc)and starchy root tubers(yam, garri, potatoes, breadfruits, etc ) that are as close as their natural form. They are less likely to cause sugar spikes than refined carbohydrates. These complex carbs are the readily available means of fuel for your body especially the brain. They also contain dietary fiber, some vitamins, and minerals. Eat them in smaller portions for better glucose control and a healthy weight. If you are using refined starches, look out for words like “whole grain” and “high fiber” on the food label. Avoids foods and drinks with added sugar.
Include a variety of protein foods such as lean meat, beans, eggs, dairy, nuts, and seeds into your diet. Proteins are slow to digest and cause a mild increase in blood glucose. Proteins keep you full for longer, which is good for weight watchers. Choose fatty fish like mackerel – a rich source of omega-3 fatty acids, which is good for the heart. At least 2 portions per week. Go lean when it comes to meat, beef trimmed of fat, skinless chicken. Avoid or limit fatty cuts of meat(offal s, etc) and processed ones(bacon, sausage, etc,)for less saturated fat and cholesterol. Most days of the week you can have a meatless dish like beans pottage and lentil porridge.
Try non-dairy products like unsweetened soy milk or almond milk. Watch out for added sugar in yogurt choose unsweetened yogurt. Choose low-fat milk. For less cholesterol.
Fats are not our enemy. They support cell growth and cushion our organs. Focus on using healthy fats(unsaturated fats) to lower your cholesterol and protect your heart. Healthy fats are found in nuts, avocado, soy oil, canola, olive oil, fatty fish like salmon sardines, etc.
Since carbohydrate raises blood sugar faster than protein, fat, and fiber. It will be wise for you to strike a balance in your diet by choosing foods from the different food groups. Eat a mixture of carbohydrates, protein, and fats to manage your blood glucose better and feel full longer. You can dish it out in the right portion sizes and make sure you focus on the nutrient-dense foods of these groups.
It is very easy to eat more foods than you need without realizing it. You must strive to moderate the portion sizes of what eat. With the help of the “Diabetes Plate Method,” you will easily portion your meals without weighing or counting calories. All you need is a 9-inch plate. Fill half of the plate with nonstarchy vegetables. Next fill one-quarter of the same plate with protein foods like lean beef, skinless chicken, fish, egg, or tofu. Finally, fill the remaining one-quarter of the plate with starchy foods. Here, starchy foods include all foods that have even the smallest amount of carbohydrates- milk, yogurt, fruits, beans, peas, lentils, rice, yam, etc. With this portion of starch in your diet. You will be able to keep your blood glucose in check. For a personalized meal plan, consult a Registered Dietitian.
Furthermore, regular exercise and physical activities are additional advantages in controlling your blood glucose levels.
Gloria Oshionya is a Registered Dietitian.