We all know the basics of good health – eat well, exercise, drink lots of water, and get plenty of rest. Sounds simple enough, right? But for diabetics, the goal of good health may sometimes seem intimidating, or even unattainable.
Regulating one’s blood sugar is about more than just the numbers on the glucometer. Uncontrolled high blood sugar wreaks havoc on all parts of the body.
High blood sugar thickens the blood. This increases blood pressure, putting diabetics at higher risk for heart attack and stroke. It is very difficult for the heart to pump that thickened blood throughout the body, especially to small blood vessels.
Some of the smallest blood vessels are in some of the most important places – the eyes, nerves, heart, and kidneys. Even the brain is affected. New research has linked diabetes to Alzheimer’s disease, the most common form of dementia.
Blood vessel and nerve damage also occur in the extremities. Hands, arms, feet, and legs are all vulnerable to “diabetic nerve pain” or neuropathy. This can cause a range of symptoms from tingling, to burning, to severe pain.
Retinopathy, nerve damage to the retina of the eye, is another serious symptom of uncontrolled blood sugar. This can contribute to partial or complete vision loss.
The great news is, there are real-life steps you can take every day to reduce your blood sugar levels and improve your health:
- Avoid carbohydrates.
This means reducing your intake of refined carbohydrates such as bread, rice, and pasta. Non-starchy vegetables (like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower) are great for diabetics, as they are high in fiber. When it comes to fruits, choose apples and fresh berries to get even more fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Fresh-made juices from raw fruits or vegetables also benefit health, but enjoy in moderation as citrus fruits are especially high in sugar.
- Avoid added sugars.
Choose whole, natural foods instead of packaged and processed ones. Check your nutritional labels carefully, sugar goes by many names: fructose, sucralose, maltodextrin, and corn syrup are some of the most common. Don’t turn to artificial sweeteners thinking they are better for you; they too can harm your health. Try adding in different, exciting flavors like cinnamon instead. Cinnamon acts as a natural sweetener, which prevents the need for additional sugar or artificial sweeteners to be added. Cinnamon also lowers blood glucose levels!
- Avoid “sweet” drinks.
Cut out sodas (yes, even the diet ones), energy drinks, bottled juices, etc. Water, coffee and tea are the best bets for blood sugar. For a night out with friends, instead of a sugary mixed drink, enjoy a glass of red wine. Red wine has been found to help lower blood sugar. This is believed to be due to resveratrol (a polyphenol with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.) Resveratrol helps to enhance the release of insulin into the blood stream, therefore keeping blood sugar down.
- Don’t be scared of fats.
Good fats are essential for blood sugar control. Researchers have found that avocados promote stable blood sugar and triglyceride levels and improve the body’s absorption of soluble vitamins and antioxidants. The high omega-3 fatty acids in cold-water fish like salmon, sardines and mackerel can help to lower LDL cholesterol and triglycerides. This, in turn, can help to balance your blood sugar levels. Foods high in fiber also help the body regulate blood sugar. Each meal should include healthy fats and fiber.
- Do not make your food choices based on calories.
In today’s appearance-obsessed culture, it is tempting to choose foods based on calorie counts alone. Don’t be fooled into buying the “light” or “reduced calorie” foods because you think they are better for your weight. When it comes to processed foods, odds are the less fat and calories something has in it, the more sugar it contains. If you are choosing the right foods, and enjoying them in appropriate portions, you won’t have to worry about calories. Focus on the quality of the foods you are eating, and let the calorie count regulate itself.
- Don’t forget about your gut.
There is a naturally-occurring compound in the gut called butyrate. Research has found that butyrate may positively impact insulin sensitivity. When insulin sensitivity is improved, the body does a better job of regulating blood sugar and is able to keep blood sugar levels lower. The gut is the body’s “second brain” and is in charge of everything from digestion, to immunity, to fighting chronic fatigue and joint pain. Take care of your gut with probiotics. Probiotic organisms occur naturally in many foods, especially fermented ones like kimchi, sauerkraut and yogurt. There are many probiotic supplements out there, so do your research and make sure you are getting a quality probiotic.
- Get moving.
Exercise can be a daunting word. What does exercise mean? Is it running 5 miles, lifting weights in the gym, doing Cross Fit with friends? Exercise should be defined as whatever activity you enjoy that gets your body moving. It could be a walk before dinner each evening, taking your dog to the park, or playing a game of football with your family in the backyard. Get up from your desk at work every half hour and walk around the building. Do a few yoga poses or some stretches before bed, or upon waking in the morning. Anything is better than nothing!
- Make the most of your meals.
Some people like to eat three meals a day, while others may eat five times a day or more. Eating regularly is very beneficial for your blood sugar, while skipping meals can cause levels to drop and then spike. Start your day with a hearty breakfast, high in good fats, protein and fiber. If you like to snack between meals, choose nuts, olives, or veggies and hummus. Eat mindfully and with purpose. For example, you are likely to eat less (and enjoy your food more) if you sit and eat at the table rather than eating on the couch while watching TV.
- Plan your meals.
Planning your meals allows you to make the most of your time and budget. By planning your meals each week, you benefit in several ways. Firstly, you know exactly which recipes you are going to prepare and when, which saves the stress of putting together a meal on the fly. Also, you make one trip to the grocery store instead of multiple trips for an item or two here and there. Thirdly, you save money in the store because you are only buying the ingredients that you need. You are also helping to reduce food waste because everything you buy has a specific purpose. Lastly, you improve your health by cooking real food at home rather than getting dinner from a drive-thru or ordering delivery.
- Make it a team effort.
Surround yourself with a support system of family and friends. They not only encourage and inspire you to lead a long and happy life, but also hold you accountable for the choices you make. Take a walk with your spouse, cook dinner for your parents, take your grandchildren to the grocery store and teach them about making healthy food choices. Your healthcare team is another essential part of your overall health. Physicians, nurses, counselors, it is crucial to have open, positive communication with them all. Together, develop a diabetes plan of care that works for you.
These simple, real-life steps will not only get you closer to your blood sugar goals, but to your goal of a healthier life.
Stephanie Johnson has a masters degree from the University of Central Florida and is a Certified Nutrition & Wellness Consultant.