If you don’t have diabetes yourself, you probably can say you know at least one friend or family member with diabetes. In the near future, there will be more of us with it. In fact, the shocking prediction is that by 2030, two-thirds of all adults will have either diabetes or prediabetes! You may have heard of the “obesity epidemic” … now it’s the “diabetes epidemic.” Epidemics used to be wide-scale human suffering from infections, such as the bubonic plague or influenza. These days, we are far more threatened by chronic illnesses. Although things like Ebola and the Zika virus catch all the attention on the news, it’s diabetes that should be at the forefront of our concerns.
Diabetes is a big topic: it could easily be a column in the paper every week all on its own! Today we will briefly review what diabetes is, and then discuss the things you can do to prevent getting it and treat it if you already have it!
There are two main kinds of diabetes, type 1 and type 2. Type 1 Diabetes usually develops in younger people, when the pancreas is no longer able to produce enough insulin. Insulin is the substance in our body that helps sugar get inside cells in order for every cell in our body to have the “food,” or “fuel” to function. Without insulin, the sugar builds up in our blood stream while the cells starve. People with no insulin get very sick quickly, which is why type 1 diabetics need to inject insulin every day.
Type 2 Diabetes is different, and usually starts later in life—although lately we have been seeing more and more children and young adults being diagnosed. With Type 2 Diabetes, after years of high blood sugars and many times a history of diabetes in the family, gradually the body becomes resistant to the action of insulin. Eventually the pancreas is not as good at making insulin as it used to be. This leads to build-up of sugar in the bloodstream—in the short term making a person feel more tired and thirsty than usual, but in the long term causing damage to blood vessels and organs like the eyes and kidneys.
We treat both Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes with medications to help bring down the high blood sugar and prevent those long-term problems. But medicines are just one part of the plan, and sometimes they have side effects. It is very important to know there are several things you can do on your own to make a BIG difference in helping your body better process high blood sugar. Besides prescription medicines, the other components include: diet, exercise, stress management, and supplements.
The food we eat is the foundation of our health. It is the most important thing you can change to decrease your risk for diabetes. Americans consume on average 19.5 teaspoons of sugar a day. Wow! And it’s not just in sweets like cookies, cakes, and candy. Soda, juice, energy drinks, and even bottled iced tea are loaded with sugar. Without the presence of fiber to slow down the absorption of the sugar, these beverages spike our blood sugar quickly AND never signal to our brain we are full. Americans seem to have a bottomless appetite for sugary beverages. This would be the “low hanging fruit” to start with if trying to cut down on sugar in your diet—consider switching to unsweetened iced tea, water with slices of cucumber or lemon, or mineral water if you need that carbonated “fizz” fix. Most diet and low-calorie beverages have artificial sweeteners that are either toxic to our nerves, cancer-causing, or both. I do not recommend using them as sugar substitutes. In fact, drinking or eating them has been shown to increase your risk for diabetes two-fold!
Sugar is an additive in many foods we would not think of as sweet. Foods labeled “nonfat” or “low fat” replace the naturally-occurring fat with sugar and salt to make it more palatable. Therefore, most diet foods are worse for your health than eating the full-fat version. At least with fat our brains receive messages of fullness and satisfaction: with fake sugars, we end up consuming more calories than we intended. In fact, it has now been shown that eating more healthy fats rather than a low-fat diet cuts down on heart disease! This is the opposite of what science, nutritionists, and even cardiologists have been saying for the past 30 years.
You will always be better off by eating whole foods—the foods that do not come in a box, bag, or other packaging. Foods that your grandparents would recognize as food. Food that had little to no processing to get to you: no added sugars, no added salts, no other questionable ingredients. In fact, the fewer ingredients the better: a good rule, although challenging, is choosing foods with five or less ingredients. Put more vegetables and protein than carbohydrates (i.e. starches: potatoes, pasta, bread, cereal, etc.—these all break down to sugar in your body, too) on your plate, and when you do eat carbohydrates, try to choose the whole grain or whole food version. The less processed the grain or food, the more fiber is in the food. Fiber helps to slow the absorption of sugar in our bodies. Think of eating an apple v. drinking a cup of apple juice: it took at least 10 apples to make that one cup of juice. That cup of juice has 10 times the sugar with none of the apple’s fiber to slow down the sugar coming into your body. Choose the whole food over the factory food every time!
Besides cutting down on sugar in our diets, there are specific foods we can eat more of to help with healthy blood sugar. Fiber is one of those things, discussed above. Eating 1-2 cloves of garlic a day and two or more cups of green tea a day have both been shown to bring down blood sugar. Cinnamon also has blood sugar-lowering properties. Consider adding cinnamon to your coffee in the morning, in place of the sugar! Nopales, those cactus leaves used in Mexican cooking, also have benefits for our blood sugar and blood pressure.
If interested in further information regarding sugar in our diets, read more about the Glycemic Index, a measure of how different foods raise our blood sugar. Also, the movie Fed Up is an excellent documentary discussing the issue of sweeteners in our food supply and the causes of the obesity and diabetes epidemics.
My next article (part 2) will discuss how exercise, stress management, and supplements are also part of the complete plan to prevent, treat, and beat diabetes!