Diabetes Canada states on their website:
“Today, there are 11 million Canadians living with diabetes or prediabetes. Every three minutes, another Canadian is diagnosed. Chances are that diabetes affects you or someone you know.”
Approximately 90% of all the people with diabetes have Type 2 Diabetes, which often develops in adulthood. In long-term care homes, it is typical for about 25-30% of residents to have Type 2 Diabetes.
Because I am most familiar with working with people having Type 2 Diabetes, the information in the rest of this post focuses on this. For more information about eating with Type 1 or Gestational Diabetes, talk to your diabetes care team or visit the Diabetes Canada website.
What’s happening in the body
When we eat food, our bodies break it down into smaller pieces so our bodies can use it. If there is carbohydrate or sugar in the food, it is broken down into a smaller sugar called glucose. This glucose travels around our body in our blood and gets used by muscles as fuel. A hormone called insulin also travels around in our blood and acts like a key, opening the door into the muscles so the glucose can be delivered and used.
For someone with Type 2 Diabetes, the body is either not making enough insulin or is not using the insulin well, like trying to use a rusty key in a lock. This means the glucose in the blood just keeps going around, not getting into the muscle. When more sugar is added to the blood with each meal or snack, the blood sugar level keeps raising. The body, being the smart machine it is, knows this can’t continue and tries anything to get the glucose out of the blood. Some is taken out of the body with urine, some is hidden in any corner possible. But this is still not enough. Meanwhile, the muscles feel like they’re hungry because the sugar fuel is not getting there and signals get sent to the brain that the body is starving … leading the person to feel hungry and continue eating. A viscous cycle for sure.
Should I eat a Diabetic Diet?
Thinking about eating can feel like a difficult, full-time job for some people … then throw in a chronic disease to the mix and it can feel down-right impossible. How can I eat food, when I know that my body doesn’t use the food I eat very well and could make me sick? People first diagnosed with diabetes often feel like they have to completely change their eating. They often ask me questions about the sugar content of foods and aim to avoid sugar, even from healthful foods like fruits, whole grains and dairy/ alternatives.
The good news is that a little meal-planning and regular physical activity can help your body use the food you eat. Including foods with natural and with added sugars. For some people, making these lifestyle changes is all that’s needed. For others, some pills or insulin may be suggested by their doctor to help the body out with this.
Something else my client’s often seem to struggle with is the idea that there really isn’t just one way to eat. I don’t choose to use the term ‘diabetic diet’ and this often confuses my clients.
But I see this also as good news.
I believe that eating – for anyone – should be flexible. What we used to call the Diabetic Diet is actually just a general healthy eating pattern. Many people are able to decrease their stress about food when they 1) don’t see themselves as being on a special diet and 2) when they have a few key tools to help them make food decisions in any situation. To me, that is flexibility and that will help take away some of the fear about eating. And because it’s not a rigid, one-size-fits-all approach, it will be something that fits right into how you live your life and you’ll be able to stick with it. Which means a better handle on your blood sugars, control of your weight and decreased risks of diabetes side effects.
My Top 3 Meal Planning Tips for People with Type 2 Diabetes
1. Space carbohydrate foods out through the day and choose whole grains.
- carbohydrate is an important part of our diet and is the fuel of choice for our brains – it’s very difficult to completely avoid it for a long time
- by having small and consistent amounts of sugar entering the blood, the body can handle it either with the insulin it’s still making or with the help of the medications you may be taking
- choosing whole grains also gives your body fibre which can help slow the rush of sugar into your blood
2. Include a protein source at all meals and snacks.
- this helps carbohydrate be digested slower and will help keep you feeling satisfied through the day
- when you are not feeling over-hungry, you’re less likely to grab quick-energy snacks like cookies or crackers which can lead to spikes in your blood sugars
3. Eat a healthy diet for your whole body, not just to control blood sugars.
- considering 3 of the 4 food groups have carbohydrate, if you start cutting back on any food with sugar, you will also be cutting back on major sources of nutrition
- blood sugar levels are really just one symptom of diabetes; heart health is also a major concern so watching salt intakes and taking other steps toward a heart healthy diet is recommended
For anyone wanting to make a change in their eating, often the ‘what’ is not the real concern … it’s the ‘how’. Have you found yourself thinking, “Your lists are fine, but how do I make this work in my life?”. If this is you, consider talking with your care team or contacting a Dietitian to help you work out your health priorities and give you the tools you need to feel confident in this journey.
Angela Hubbard is a Registered Dietitian (RD) and Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) with 10 years experience working in the field of nutrition. Her work focuses on empowering people with young minds and aging bodies as they enter their retirement years and beyond. In her off time she loves swapping recipes, creating and exploring Northern BC life with her young family.