Best foods to eat to keep your blood sugar balanced all day long.
Nutritionist-approved food strategies for type 2 diabetes
When it comes to type 2 diabetes, what you eat matters. In fact, diet in the years preceding your diagnosis contributes to the development of this chronic disease. Food is also a big part of what can trigger the progression or remission of type 2 diabetes. “You can absolutely reverse type 2 diabetes with lifestyle changes including diet,” explains Tina Marinaccio, MS, RD, CPT, Healthful Living’s Integrative Culinary Registered Dietitian.
“When you look at the plate of the average American, more than half the plate is meat,” she explains. “Fatty meat can contribute to weight gain, a risk factor for this disease. It can also increase your risk of developing heart disease, which is already elevated if you have type 2 diabetes.”
Add to this that most Americans’ plates are heaped with too much of the wrong kinds of food: unhealthy carbohydrates loaded with saturated or trans fats, too much processed sugar, and too many calories overall. And they’re not getting enough physical activity every day. The result is not only weight gain, but also the development of visceral fat. “This is the fat that lies around your midsection and wraps around organs like the liver,” says Marinaccio. While you can’t always visually tell if you have visceral fat, a good indicator is your waist circumference: for women, 35 inches or more indicates visceral fat; for men, it’s 40 inches or more. Having visceral fat increases your risk of type 2 diabetes as well as other chronic diseases like heart disease.
Development of Insulin Resistance
Bottom line: The American way of eating contributes to extra sugar in the blood. “Eating carbs doesn’t directly cause diabetes,” says Marinaccio, “but eating too many calories to the point of excessive weight gain can lead to insulin resistance, which can result in diabetes down the road if you don’t make changes.”
Insulin is the critical hormone that shuttles glucose from the blood after meals into the cells so they can use it for energy. Insulin resistance is when the body’s cells stop responding normally to insulin, causing a buildup of glucose in the blood. “Excess sugar in the diet also increases inflammatory chemicals in the blood called cytokines, which trigger inflammation (aka muscle aches and pain, fatigue, swelling, stiff joints, and more). If you keep eating excess sugar, it can lead to a chronic inflammatory state,” explains Marinaccio, who adds that chronic inflammation is not only a contributor to type 2 diabetes, it also plays a role in every major chronic disease today. “This can affect the ability of insulin to carry glucose from the bloodstream into the cell, causing hyperglycemia or too much glucose in the blood.” Diabetes is a dysregulation of the body’s ability to properly maintain blood glucose, or blood sugar, levels.
What to Change to See Results
Referring back to the typical American plate, if you simply change your plate percentages at every meal so that half of your plate is non-starchy vegetables and the other half is split between meat and starch, you’ll get much less of a blood sugar spike. Other things you can do:
Plants are high in phytonutrients that have anti-inflammatory and protective antioxidant effects. Plus, they’re chock-full of important nutrients. “A plant-based diet high in phytonutrients can protect against diabetes by enhancing insulin production and utilization of glucose,” says Marinaccio. Some phytonutrients that have been identified as particularly effective for type 2 diabetes are quercetin from foods like apples and black or green tea; lycopene, found in some red-hued foods such as tomatoes and watermelon; and resveratrol, a powerful phytonutrient in grapes and blueberries.
Make your plate colorful.
Studies have found that berries, leafy greens, yellow vegetables, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli are most protective against diabetes. “What these all have in common is they are non-starchy fruits and vegetables high in phytonutrients and fiber,” explains Marinaccio, who advises making colorful foods the base of your diet or daily plate.
Eat foods in the bean or pea family.
“Legumes, lentils, and peas are all significant sources of plant-based protein,” explains Marinaccio. “This type of carbohydrate is what’s called a resistant starch.” These foods don’t cause a spike in blood sugar.
Add foods high in magnesium to your diet.
Beans are high in magnesium, as are pumpkin seeds, spinach, avocados, kiwifruit, blackberries, papayas, and cantaloupes, explains Marinaccio. “There has been some evidence that getting enough magnesium decreases your risk of type 2 diabetes,” she says, adding that the magnesium from supplements doesn’t seem to have the same protective effect. Says Marinaccio: “You need to get the magnesium from foods.”
Cool your high- carb foods before eating them.
You can reduce the insulin-boosting effect of some carbs like potatoes, pasta, and rice by cooling those foods before eating them, explains Marinaccio. For example, if you cook a potato and cool it before eating it, that potato becomes a resistant starch that doesn’t increase blood sugar levels as much as a hot potato would. “The cooling process changes the molecular structure of the starch molecule,” she explains, “so it doesn’t cause as much of a spike in blood sugar levels.”
Cook pasta al dente.
Doing so (instead of fully cooking it) will slow down the release of sugar into the bloodstream, says Marinaccio. You’ll get less of an inuslin response, which means less sugar in the blood, than you would with well-cooked pasta.
Instead of eating carbs alone, have them with a healthy fat like avocado or pumpkin seeds, vegetables, and protein. “Healthy fats, vegetables, and protein help to slow down the absorption of glucose to the bloodstream,” explains Marinaccio. “This helps slow down the insulin response.”
“Refined sweets can be budgeted into an overall healthy diet, but should be limited to small quantities, or special occasions,” says Marinaccio, who adds: “Fruit juices should be limited too as they contain just as much sugar as soda. Even though the sugar in juice is naturally occurring, the fiber that delays release of sugar into the bloodstream has been stripped away.”
Eat true whole grains.
Complex carbohydrates like wheat berries, whole barley, and brown rice take longer to digest, which means you’ll get less of a rise in blood sugar after eating them than you would from refined, flour-based carbohydrates. This is true even if a product is labeled: “Made with whole grains.”
Avoid trans fatty acids.
These may affect cell membranes and the ability of insulin to carry glucose from the blood into the cell through these membranes. “Anything fried may contain trans fats,” says Marinaccio. This is why it’s best to avoid fast food if you’re at risk for diabetes.