November is Diabetes Awareness Month—an observance that impacts us all. With over 30 million people in the US having type 1 or type 2 diabetes, you would be hard pressed to say you don’t know someone affected by the disease. We’re experiencing a growing epidemic of a disease that can lead to damaging and life-altering complications, such as hypertension, heart disease, peripheral vascular disease, blindness, stroke, kidney disease, and blindness. Despite tons of money spent on research, there is no cure for diabetes. Fortunately, it can be managed successfully with medication, diet, fitness, and community support.
Understanding hemoglobin A1C
If you have diabetes and are looking to improve your blood sugars and prevent problems, let’s focus on diet and nutrition. The first thing you need to understand is the concept of hemoglobin A1C—a simple blood test that can indicate how well your blood sugar level has been controlled for the past three months. Knowing where you stand with respect to hemoglobin A1C is the first step in taking care of your diabetes. For non-diabetic people, this measurement is usually in the range of 4 to 5 percent, but for diabetics it can be as high as 14 to 15 percent. The test can also identify prediabetes, which raises your risk of developing diabetes. The goal should be to keep your hemoglobin A1C lower than 7 percent. Studies have shown that complications can be greatly reduced by maintaining this level or lower.
The “Diabetic Diet”
For years there has been a “Diabetic Diet,” which has evolved from the exchange system to carb counting to carb gram counting. However, the American Diabetes Association does not promote one particular diet or diet plan. Rather, the organization promotes sensible eating that is healthy and nutritious. To find a diet plan that works for you, consult with your physician and a dietitian.
There’s no magic diet for controlling blood sugar, though research has found that plant-based diets, the Mediterranean diet, and low-carb diets seem to work best. Some healthy tips include choosing whole foods that are not processed; eating non-starchy vegetables; limiting sugary foods; limiting soda and diet soda—and choosing more water instead; and choosing lower-carb, vegetable-based foods.
The carb conundrum
That last point—choosing lower-carb foods—can be difficult for everyone. After all, our body needs carbs to function at its best and our brain only likes fuel from carbs. On the other hand, if you get too much or too little carbohydrate, your blood sugar level can climb too high or drop too low, respectively. Striking the right balance can be a challenge for people with diabetes.
There are three main types of carbohydrates in food—starches, sugar and fiber. When you are reading nutrition facts labels, you will see all three listed. Look for the term “total carbohydrates” if you’re counting carbs.
Higher-carb foods include starchy vegetables like peas, corn, lima beans, potatoes, dried beans, peas, and lentils; grains such as oats, barley, and rice; as well as pasta, bread, and crackers. Milk, fruit, and fruit juice contain naturally occurring sugars. As for fiber—which comes from fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, nuts, and whole grains—aim for 25 to 30 grams per day.
Remember, a lower-carb diet is not a no-carb diet. Be sure to balance carbohydrate throughout the day by eating roughly the same amount of grams at each meal.
Eating well is essential in managing diabetes, but as you work on a healthier diet, don’t forget that taking medications as prescribed and getting regular activity are also vital. Above all, if you have diabetes, keep in mind that you’re not alone. There are many people around you who care and are struggling with the same challenges every day.
Knowledge is power, so get involved, attend classes, read up on the latest with diabetes, and attend a Walk to Stop Diabetes. Also, be aware that help and support are available through many different sources, such as community groups, Facebook groups, the American Diabetes Association, recipes on Pinterest, etc.
Join the fight to prevent and cure diabetes!
Laurie Syring, RD/LD, is Clinical Nutrition Manager at ProMedica Flower Hospital. ❦