How to fight diabetes with diet

By Ruth Joseph, March 11, 2010
A healthy diet which includes wholegrains,  fruit and skimmed milk can help to reduce blood sugar

A healthy diet which includes wholegrains, fruit and skimmed milk can help to reduce blood sugar

The NHS has revealed that there are 2.3 million people suffering from Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes in this country, and these figures are spiralling - by 2025, they are expected to double. However, two thirds of those suffering from Type 2 diabetes could, with diet and a healthier lifestyle, radically diminish the effects of the disease. And according to the Prescription Pricing Authority, treating diabetes costs the taxpayer £10 million per week.

So what is diabetes? Diabetes mellitus, referred to here as diabetes, occurs when the level of sugar or glucose in the blood becomes elevated beyond the norm.

When we eat, the food passes into the stomach and is digested through the stomach wall into the bloodstream. When, after eating, our blood sugar rises, a hormone called insulin kicks in and takes this glucose into the bloodstream to be converted into fat or glycogen to give energy. Naturally between meals, levels of insulin drop and then some glycogen or fat changes back into glucose and so back into the bloodstream.

When a person suffers from Type 2 diabetes, they still make insulin but they do not make sufficient for their body's needs. Or they have what is called, "insulin resistance", in which the body cells are unable to use the insulin that is available. Sometimes a person can suffer from both these symptoms combined.

It used to be thought that Type 2 diabetes was an elderly person's disease but, within the last century, younger patients are displaying symptoms, as a side effect of a growing obesity problem.

The symptoms may initially be blurred but manifest as a frequent need to urinate, tiredness, excessive thirst and sometimes weight loss, but in Type 2 diabetes, often the patient is heavily overweight.

There might be recurrent infections on the skin that are difficult to heal - such as boils or an unpleasant itching, particularly in the genital area, where thrush can develop.

This terrible disease can initiate serious damage to the arteries leading to the heart, known as atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries). This can cause poor circulation in the legs, leading to incidence of heart attacks and stroke, damaged eyesight, limb, skin and kidney health.

The diagnosis of Type 2 diabetes is distressing. So after the shock it is good to take stock and discover that a change in diet and lifestyle can be hugely helpful in reversing some symptoms and increasing the chances of extending and enjoying a healthier life.

Firstly it has been proved that physical activity will reduce the problem of insulin resistance.

Increasing your exercise can be as simple as a daily walk, maybe a swim, cycling or going to the gym, and when this is coupled with a change in diet often sufferers can reduce their blood glucose.

And what to eat? Currently dietary recommendations say that a small amount of sugar and sugary foods can still be included so that the patient does not feel deprived. However this should be in combination with a diet which uses:

1 Three good meals a day plus two snacks of good high protein, such as cooked fish, eggs, free-range chicken or turkey without the skin, low-fat dairy products, tofu and mixed beans without salt.

2 A beneficial use of oils, such as a little olive oil in cooking plus the good Omega fats from seeds, plus tinned and fresh oily fish (if fish is tinned in oil, wash or try to buy in water or tomato sauce).

3 Non-starchy vegetables - so no potatoes, peas, cooked sweetcorn, carrots and parsnips (eat only 15g carbohydrates at each meal). But substituting with cooked cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage. Also onions, tomatoes, lettuce and the magical low GL (glycaemic load) fruits - in particular all berries. The glycaemic load shows how rapidly foods are converted to blood sugar.

And when using carbohydrates it is valuable to use the GL marker concentrating on the less refined carbohydrates, such as oats. Making porridge your daily breakfast can achieve this. If you combine porridge with skimmed milk, no sugar and maybe a few berries and a sprinkling of cinnamon, you can begin the day with the perfect breakfast. Also consider adding oat cakes to your diet.

Other less refined carbohydrates include rye bread - different from white bread with rye added - or pumpernickel, brown rice and quinoa. This is a delicious higher protein food beloved by the Aztecs, and when cooked with a little vegetable stock it forms a filling potato substitute. Or remember the food of our past - barley and buckwheat are satisfying in soups and stews.

Once all these diet changes are introduced and coupled with a positive, new and energetic lifestyle, "going on a diet" to lose weight will probably be unnecessary and sufferers of Type 2 diabetes can enjoy a longer healthier, happier life.

Ruth Joseph is a qualified nutritionist

Last updated: 11:07am, March 11 2010