Here’s something to get our attention as we head into a New Year: Half of our U.S. population is now estimated to have diabetes or are headed that way with a condition called pre-diabetes.
Along with this scary news is the good news that — because of how we take care of this disease — diabetes-related complications have declined over the past 20 years. And a big part of that care has to do with nutrition, according to a new review of evidence from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Medical nutrition therapy is specialized nutrition treatment for people with diabetes and other medical conditions. Strong evidence shows that several visits with a registered dietitian nutritionist after getting a diabetes diagnosis is an essential part of managing this condition.
What’s the best diet for diabetes? No one “diet” is recommended, say experts. Diet plans must be tailored to the type of diabetes, medications and individual health goals. For example, a 13 year-old athlete with type 1 diabetes who requires several shots of insulin each day needs a different nutrition plan than a 60-year-old bus driver with type 2 diabetes.
That said, these evidence-based recommendations can be helpful for any person with diabetes or pre-diabetes:
Control carbohydrates. Carbs are sugars and starches in foods such as fruit, bread, sodas and all those leftover holiday goodies sitting on your counter. Since too many carbs at one time can spike blood sugars into the danger zone, people with diabetes need to space their carbs throughout the day. And people with type 1 diabetes must learn to balance their carb intake with the right amount of insulin.
Set a goal for fiber intake. Dietary fiber is found in foods of plant origin such as vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts and legumes. And if you think it’s easy to reach current recommendations for fiber intake, start tracking how much fiber you get in a day. (It’s listed on food labels.) The general goal for adult women and men is 25 and 35 grams a day, respectively.
Don’t rely too heavily on sugar substitutes. Research shows they can safely help us cut extra sugar and calories from our diets. That still doesn’t mean we should eat a whole sugar-free pie, however.
Eat like your heart depends on it. It does, especially if you have diabetes. Heart disease is the main cause of death in people with diabetes. Strong evidence finds that eating foods with more unsaturated fats like fish, vegetable oils, avocados and nuts and cutting back on foods high in saturated fats like heavy meats and butter helps protect hearts and arteries.
Move it, move it! Exercise is the most powerful medicine to prevent and control type 2 diabetes. And this medicine should be spread over at least three days a week, say experts. For best results, be active at least 150 minutes a week and don’t skip the dose for more than two days in a row.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator affiliated with Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in California. She is the author of “Quinn-Essential Nutrition” (Westbow Press, 2015). Email her at to firstname.lastname@example.org.