If diabetes doesn’t directly impact you, it most likely affects someone you know. In Canada, over three million people live with diabetes and 90 per cent of those have Type 2 diabetes. Risk factors include:
- Being over the age of 40
- Having a brother, sister, or parent with diabetes
- Conditions such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and other fats in the blood, and Polycystic Ovary Syndrome
Diabetes is a disease where the body either can’t make the hormone insulin (Type 1 diabetes) or is unable to properly use the insulin it makes (Type 2 diabetes). Insulin’s role in the body is to remove sugar (glucose) from the blood and place it into our cells to be used for energy. With diabetes, the glucose remains in the blood, resulting in high blood sugars. Long-term high blood sugars can lead to complications affecting the nerves, eyes, kidneys and heart.
Whether or not you have diabetes, food plays an important role in managing blood sugar levels. Aside from balancing both food and beverages with physical activity, research shows that specific foods can improve blood sugar levels. This helps prevent or better manage Type 2 diabetes.
Here are five foods to incorporate into your diet:
1. Whole Fruit
Fruit certainly gets a bad reputation these days, while vegetables take all the glory. But when you look at the evidence, fruit and vegetables are equally healthy. While it’s true that some fruit contains slightly more natural sugars than some vegetables, fruit, due to its soluble and insoluble fibre content, does NOT lead to a sharp rise in blood sugars. Evidence shows that higher fresh fruit consumption is associated with a lower risk of developing diabetes, and a lower risk of developing vascular complications among those already living with diabetes. So eat fruit and enjoy your favourites!
The most commonly grown pulse crops (part of the legume family) in Canada are lentils, peas, chickpeas and beans. Pulses are a good source of resistant starch (RS), which has both soluble and insoluble fibre. RS slows digestion in the gut and improves glucose tolerance. One study looked at legumes’ “subsequent meal effect” and found that they not only immediately improved post-meal blood sugars, but also lowered blood sugars at subsequent meals. For example, if you eat lentils for an evening meal, they continue to have a positive effect at breakfast the next day.
Kudos to this potent little vegetable! Not only does it add a host of flavour and seasoning – it also supports healthy blood sugars. A recent study showed that garlic supplementation in doses as low as 500mg reduced blood cholesterol levels and significantly reduced fasting blood sugars and hemoglobin A1C. While garlic is not meant to replace your current medication regimen, it’s a safe and effective option to add.
4. Unsalted Nuts
Nuts have a low glycemic index, making them a great addition to carbohydrate-containing meals or snacks. The glycemic index measures the speed at which your body absorbs blood sugars. Nuts’ low glycemic index means carbohydrates are absorbed more slowly which produces a slower rise in blood sugars.
For example, adding almonds to white bread has been shown to progressively reduce that meal’s glycemic index. Nuts also have a positive effect on blood cholesterol, while reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. A great place to start is by adding ¼ to ⅓ cup of unsalted nuts to your daily food consumption.
Oats are a whole grain that offers a good source of soluble fibre, resistant starch and beta glucan. Beta glucans are complex, long chain carbohydrates that induce a number of health benefits such as lowering LDL cholesterol and blood pressure. Evidence shows that consuming 3 grams of beta glucan or 1½ cups of cooked oatmeal daily reduces post-meal glucose and insulin response, which in turn lowers fasting blood sugars and hemoglobin A1C in people with Type 2 diabetes.
When it comes to dietary changes, start small to help make realistic changes.
- Include a serving of berries at breakfast
- Make one pulse-based dish per week
- Add ¼ cup of unsalted nuts to your afternoon snack
- Swap out your usual breakfast with oatmeal three times a week
These small changes can put you in the driver’s seat of managing your blood sugar. Small changes add up and can help to reduce your risk of developing Type 2 diabetes or can improve blood sugar management if you’re already living with diabetes.