Dishing Up the Details about Diabetes and Nutrition: Tips for American Diabetes Month

Did you know that more than 30 million adults and children in the United States have type 1 or type 2 diabetes, and another 86 million Americans are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes? (CDC, 2014) And unfortunately, diabetes cases in the U.S. are on the rise. Between 2010 and 2012, the number of cases of type 1 or type 2 diabetes in the U.S. increased from 25.8 million to 29.1 million, an increase of nearly 13 percent! However, only five percent of all adult diabetes cases diagnosed are type 1 diabetes. The good news is that for most people with diabetes, symptoms can be managed through medication as well as a well-rounded diet and lifestyle that includes regular physical activity. Although it is still important to meet with a physician, nutrition can play a large role in the management of this disease.

November is American Diabetes Month, which is a great time to raise awareness and improve understanding of diabetes, among people with diabetes as well as those who provide care to them. In general, diabetes is a metabolic disease in which the body’s ability to produce insulin is impaired, resulting in elevated levels of glucose in the blood.  As described below, people with diabetes will benefit from many of the same rules of thumb for healthful eating and physical activity as everyone else, with a few customizations to ensure their blood glucose and insulin levels stay in check:


1) The Weight of the Matter

Maintaining a healthy weight is key to managing diabetes and can also decrease the risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Studies show that if an overweight individual loses 5-7 percent of their body weight, his or her chances of developing type 2 diabetes dramatically decrease.  Health professionals can encourage individuals to achieve a healthy weight by making sensible food choices and engaging in regular physical activity.  Use MyPlate as a general guideline for incorporating more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains into each and every meal.

2) The Whole (Grains) Story

The American Diabetes Association Guidelines for the prevention and treatment of diabetes recognizes the role of whole grains and fiber in reducing the risk of diabetes and maintaining blood glucose levels. Examples of fiber-rich whole grains include some breakfast cereals, crackers and breads, as well as brown rice and quinoa. Check the product label for whole grain and fiber content. Evidence from observational studies and clinical trials suggest improved blood glucose control in people with diabetes and in non-diabetic individuals who consume whole grains regularly.  Whole grains may lower fasting insulin levels and decrease insulin resistance.  Whole grains and fiber also assist with weight maintenance by enhancing and increasing insulin sensitivity to lower insulin demand.  According to the ADA Position Statement on Nutrition Recommendations and Interventions for Diabetes, fiber is thought to help normalize the glucose response and decrease insulin concentration and requirements.

The dietary guidelines for management of diabetes established by the American Diabetes Association recommend consuming a variety of fiber-containing foods such as legumes, fiber-rich cereals, fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.  For more information about whole grains and diabetes, view the IFIC Foundation Whole Grains Fact Sheet.


3) Break a Sweat to Control Blood Glucose

Participating in regular physical activity not only helps with weight maintenance, it can also help with blood glucose control.  Adults should aim for at least 150 minutes of aerobic activity per week and strength training two days per week to assist with weight loss/maintenance, which can help with diabetes management and can help decrease risk of developing type 2 diabetes.  When it comes to physical activity, it is important to remind individuals that they don’t have to be athletes.  Health professionals can suggest to their clients and patients to fit exercise into their day wherever possible, including taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or picking a parking spot at the back of the lot when out shopping. For more on living an active lifestyle, visit the Dietary Guidelines Alliance’s It’s All About You Tool Kit.

4) Be Sweet and Low-Carb

Low-calorie sweeteners can also be a useful tool in the management of diabetes for those who are looking for sweet foods and beverages, but need to limit calories or carbohydrates.  Since monitoring carbohydrate intake is a crucial aspect of managing diabetes, using low-calorie sweeteners in place of caloric sweeteners can help reduce an individual’s total carbohydrate intake.  And, despite recent controversies, the larger body of research shows they do not cause weight gain or impact blood glucose or insulin levels. For more information, visit the new European Food Information Council infographic on stevia sweeteners developed for World Diabetes Day on November 14th.

Managing Diabetes This Month and Every Month

This month is an opportunity to talk about nutrition as an important aspect of managing diabetes.  Encouraging people with diabetes to 1) maintain a healthful diet, including consuming foods high in fiber and taking advantage of the many low-calorie and low-carbohydrate food and beverage options, and 2) living an overall healthful lifestyle, participating in regular physical activity and meeting routinely with their physician and/or Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, are all useful guidelines for people managing their diabetes or who are at risk for developing type 2 diabetes.

For more information and resources about diabetes management, visit the American Diabetes Association website.

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