When it comes to type 2 diabetes, prevention is the way to go. You should be especially careful of your diet habits if you are at increased risk of diabetes. The risk factors include having a family history of the disease, being overweight, being over the age of 45, having heart disease or high blood pressure and leading an inactive life.
Preventing diabetes is not difficult, and it is never too late to start. Simple strategies such as having a healthy diet, being more physically active and losing a couple of kilograms if you are overweight will be able to help.
From the diet perspective look at:
- Increasing your fibre intake – this will improve blood sugar control and can help with weight loss as it will help keep you fuller for longer and thereby prevent excess eating. To increase fibre eat 5-9 servings of vegetables and fruit per day, choose mostly whole grain foods, and eat legumes (beans, chickpeas, lentils) regularly
- Don’t go on fad diets – fad diets are generally very low calorie diets where you are deprived of certain food groups. Although you will lose weight on these diets most people cannot keep the weight off as they cannot stick to the diet long term. Rather get into better habits i.e. eat breakfast early, eat enough during the day by having regular meals and snacks when hungry, have a small supper, drink enough water, and incorporate small treats occasionally. Keep in mind that physiologically, sugar control and insulin functioning are better during the day than at night, so make breakfast the largest meal and supper the smallest
- Watch your portion sizes– your body will tell you how much food you need, so when you feel satisfied, stop eating. If you eat a good breakfast and eat regularly during the day you will not be too hungry at dinner and will be able to keep the portion small. Portion sizes should be roughly a palm size protein, ½ to 1 fist size carbohydrate (legumes and starchy veg are your best bet), a small amount of added plant fat and lots of non-starchy vegetables
Even if you have developed diabetes, it is not too late to change your eating habits to manage or even treat the disease. The most important thing that you can do is to lose a little bit of weight. A 5-10% weight loss can help lower your blood sugar levels. The weight around your waist is what you need to focus on most to lose.
A ‘diabetic diet’ does not need to be complicated, and no special ‘diabetic foods’ are needed. Get into better eating habits by following these simple rules:
- Eat at regular times in the day– consistency helps the body regulate blood sugar levels. Start off with a good breakfast and eat regular small meals and snacks during the day. Try to keep portion sizes/calorie intakes the same every day. If you have eaten too much on one day, don’t try to ‘undo’ it the next day. Just get back into your normal routine as soon as possible
- You can eat carbs – but it is important that you choose higher fibre, low GI, less processed carbs (such as seed loaf or rye bread, brown or wild rice, sweet potatoes, peas, legumes, whole-wheat pasta, oats etc.) AND that you have to eat them in moderate portions
- Choose fats wisely – fats are fantastic to add to your meals as they slow down the digestion of the carbs and thereby help control blood sugar levels. However, not all fats give the same health benefit. The fats to choose predominantly are the healthy plant fats such as nuts, seeds, avocado, and olives. Omega 3 fats found in fatty fish (pilchards, sardines, herring, trout, and salmon) are healthy animal fats that should be included in the diet regularly. Other animal fats are the less healthy fats and should be used sparingly. The worst fats are the trans fats that are created when fats are hydrogenated. They are found mainly in processed foods such as fried and baked foods (doughnuts, pies, pastries, samosas, hot chips, biscuits etc.)
- Become smart about sugar – having the occasional treat is not an absolute no, but it must be occasional, and if you have a treat it must be small. Eat it slowly, mindfully, savouring each bite, so that you can get as much satisfaction out of the small treat. Reading labels is the best way to determine if the product has large amounts of added sugar. Look at the ingredient list to see where sugar is listed. If it is early on the list then more sugar has been added. Remember that honey, jam, syrup etc. are also sugars!
- Learn how to keep your weight constant – weight cycling (losing large amounts of weight and regaining it after the diet is stopped) is the worst thing that you can do to your health. It is better to be slightly overweight but have constant healthy habits. It is important that you don’t go on and off ‘fad’ diets. Your diet should be forever, so find an eating style that will fit into your lifestyle. A dietician will be able to help you work out a plan that suits your individual needs and is sustainable.