More than 100 million Americans are currently living with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, according to the latest government stats. While you let that sink in, let me explain a little bit about how these conditions develop. Everything you eat gets broken down so your body can use the raw materials to carry out its daily functions (thinking, breathing, moving, and on and on). When you eat carbohydrates from foods like grains, sweets, starchy veggies, fruits and beans, those carbs get broken down to glucose, which is the primary source of energy for your cells. (Ever heard of carb-loading before a marathon? The theory behind this has to do with stock-piling those carbs for energy.)
In order for that energy to reach your cells, your pancreas pumps out insulin. You can think of insulin like a delivery truck; its job is to transport glucose to your cells where it can be used for energy. (If it’s transported to your cells but isn’t used for energy, it’s stored in your muscle or liver cells as glycogen and then used at a later time.)
In certain situations, your cells become less responsive to insulin, so it’s as if no one is available to sign off on the package and the delivery truck can’t deliver energy to your cells. In this case, glucose sticks around in your blood stream. When this happens, your pancreas works overtime to pump out more insulin in an effort to get that energy to your cells. Ultimately, the pancreas can’t keep up its overtime work, glucose remains in your blood stream since your cells aren’t responding to it, and your blood sugar rises above normal levels.
What’s the difference between prediabetes and diabetes?
In both prediabetes and diabetes, your blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but the main difference between these two conditions is whether your blood sugar reaches the cutoff point to be diagnosed with diabetes. Most people aren’t aware they have prediabetes, yet if it’s left untreated, there’s a high chance prediabetes will progress to diabetes. However, if it’s caught, studies show a holistic lifestyle approach that involves a healthy eating plan, some routine activity, and a small amount of weight loss can reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes by 58 percent or more.
What can I eat if I have prediabetes or diabetes?
With either condition, your meal plan is pretty similar to other healthy meal plans, like the Mediterranean Diet or a plant-based diet. In fact, studies suggest that a plant-centered eating pattern rich in foods like whole grains, fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds can help improve insulin sensitivity, which means your cells continue to respond to insulin, allowing your delivery truck to drop off those energy packages. These types of foods, along with foods like coffee, tea and extra virgin olive oil, are high in polyphenol compounds, which are thought to play a role in lowering your risk for developing type 2 diabetes.
While carbs are encouraged on this plan, you may need to adjust how you eat your carbs. A diabetes-friendly eating plan emphasizes smart carb choices eaten in the right portions and eaten steadily throughout the day at each of your three meals. That means balancing out your carb choices with other nutritious foods and keeping portion sizes more modest than you may be used to.
A diabetes-friendly eating pattern is also lower in overly processed sweets, sugary drinks and refined snacks, though you don’t need to eliminate your favorite foods to get healthier.
Diabetes-Friendly Sample Menu
This sample day helps illustrate a diabetes-friendly eating plan. This plan supplies about 35 grams of carbohydrate from whole food sources at each of the three meals and about 10-15 grams at each of the two snacks. Carbohydrate needs are individual so you may need a bit more or a bit less. Together with your doctor or dietitian, you can decide on the amount of carbs that match your needs.
You’ll notice that the plan includes some fan favorite foods, like pancakes, an Asian-inspired entree, and a sweet treat. While you may need to cut back on some of the less healthful foods you eat, your food should still be both mentally and physically satisfying and this plan is meant to both fill you up and mimic foods, like diner pancakes and takeout food, that can be eaten in a more healthful, but equally enjoyable way.
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Simple Banana Pancakes
In a bowl, mash one banana with ½ teaspoon cinnamon. In a separate bowl, beat 2 eggs plus 2 egg whites. Stir the beaten eggs into the mashed banana and mix well. Heat a nonstick skillet coated with avocado or coconut oil spray over medium heat and add about ¼ cup of the batter at a time to form pancakes, cooking about 1-2 minutes per side and flipping gently. While pancakes are cooking, heat ¼ cup frozen blueberries in the microwave for about 30 seconds. When pancakes are ready, drizzle with 1 tablespoon almond butter and top with warmed blueberries.
Chicken Quinoa Greek Salad
Toss 2 cups pre-washed arugula with 1/3 cup cooked quinoa (from frozen or from leftover), ½ small cucumber, diced, 4-5 cherry tomatoes, ¼ cup canned and drained chickpeas, 3 oz shredded, rotisserie chicken, and 2 tablespoons pitted, kalamata olives. Toss salad with ¼ teaspoon Greek seasoning, 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil, and 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar.
½ large cucumber cut into rounds and topped with a total of ¼ cup hummus, divided over each round. Sprinkle with black pepper or other seasonings if you’d like.
Easy Orange Chicken with Broccoli over Rice
Cut 1 lb chicken into cubes and saute in avocado oil until cooked through and browned. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, stir together ¼ cup lower sodium chicken broth, ½ cup orange juice, 1 ½ tablespoon honey, 2 tablespoons lower-sodium tamari or soy sauce, 2 minced garlic cloves and ½ tsp red pepper flakes. Bring to a boil and then let simmer for 10 minutes. As sauce is simmering, steam about 8 cups of broccoli florets and 3 cups pre-riced cauliflower (from fresh or frozen). When veggies are ready, add broccoli to the pan with the chicken and coat with the sauce, letting it come back to a simmer. As your meal is coming to a simmer, combine ½ cup cooked brown rice (reheated from frozen or leftovers) with the heated cauliflower rice. Serve the chicken and broccoli mixture over the rice mixture. Makes 4 servings.
1 oz dark chocolate
Where does weight loss fit in?
If you need to lose weight, losing just a little bit — defined as 5 percent to 7 percent of your weight — can help your cells respond to insulin better. This helps keep your blood sugar levels in a healthy range and may prevent or delay prediabetes from progressing into diabetes.
Government data suggests the average woman is around 171 pounds and the average man is about 198 pounds, so for average individuals, weight loss of around 8 or 9 pounds for women and about 10 pounds for men is enough to lower your risk of type 2 diabetes. I’ve found that people tend to have much larger weight-loss goals, but when you move the goal post, a smaller amount like this is easier to achieve and much more sustainable. Some people find they can lose more, but from a health perspective, this amount is linked with considerable benefits. And you can achieve this type of weight loss without severely limiting your diet or pushing yourself to extremes at the gym! Many people can lose a small amount of weight by simply following the healthy eating principles discussed here and developing a consistent activity practice.
How much exercise do I need?
Again, not that much. According to research, 150 minutes per week is ideal, though some is always better than none. Activity is important because it’s one of the ways you can help your cells continue to respond to insulin, which again, helps keep your blood sugar in a healthy range.
With activity, it’s important to develop a routine that you don’t mind doing most days. For many people, that means squeezing in a 30-minute walk five days per week, but for others, group fitness classes may be more enticing. If time is a challenge, consider taking shorter, 10-minute walks after meals or subscribing to a fitness app so you can work out consistently, even when you can’t get to the gym. Studies suggest that sneaking in some activity about 30 minutes after a meal may be an especially good way to help transport glucose to your cells. So if it makes sense for you to take a stroll after dinner, that might be helpful. But my best advice when it comes to staying active is to find something you like doing and to fit it in when you can! Whether that’s right when you wake up (before the demands of the day set in) or at lunch with some walking buddies or any other time that suits you. When fitness is enjoyable and works into your schedule easily, it’s more likely to become a long-term habit, which will help keep your blood sugar levels healthy over time.
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