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Why Diet Matters for People with Diabetes

Are you genetically predisposed to have diabetes? What if you are already experiencing, or have a high chance of developing other complications known to be influenced by diabetes?

The statistics tell us close to 26 million people (that’s over 8% of the population), are living with diabetes. Many of these people are unaware of what exactly is wrong with their health; but they suffer nonetheless.

The signs and symptoms associated with diabetes are often sloughed off or attributed to something less serious. Could this be you or someone close to you?

The American Diabetes Association (ADA) explains how you may have diabetes if you:

  • Are thirsty all the time
  • Have compromised vision (blurry)
  • Heal slowly from cuts or bruises
  • Feel famished – even after eating a filling meal
  • Experience any pain, tingling, or numbness in your hands and/or feet
  • Look for a bathroom everywhere you go due to a frequent need to urinate
  • Complain about being really, really tired (so tired that everyday life is becoming a chore)

So, just how serious is diabetes?

Heart disease and cancer are the top two killers in the United States but did you know diabetes is the seventh leading cause of death in this country? A scary statistic, and one not to be taken lightly. The number of people being diagnosed with diabetes is in an upward spiral (and doesn’t appear to be decreasing anytime soon).

Long-Term Effects

Even if the ADA’s list of the signs and symptoms associated with diabetes sounds like things you can live with, they are also indicative of what lies ahead.  It’s imperative to be aware of the fact that as unmanaged diabetes progresses, the consequences of the disease also progress and become much more severe.

The Nutrition Guide for Clinicians tells us diabetes affects the entire body including vital organs and body systems including the:

  • Eyes
  • Heart
  • Kidneys
  • Central nervous system
  • Peripheral nervous system

When these organs and systems are affected by diabetes the damage is manifested through:

  • Eye complications (includes an increased risk of glaucoma, cataracts, retinopathy, and even blindness)
  • Heart disease (the number one killer of people in general, and those with diabetes, in particular)
  • Nephropathy (kidney disease)
  • Neuropathy (nerve damage)
  • Death

What Your Doctor May Not Know

The medical community commonly prescribes drugs classified as sulfonylureas to “manage” diabetes. These drugs come with, in addition to many other side effects, an increased risk of death. Metformin is not a sulfonylurea; however, it is the number one drug prescribed for diabetes. It too comes with its own set of problems (including side effects that include nausea and vomiting).

What are the alternatives to these drugs?

Diabetes is a result of your blood glucose levels being too high for too long. The goal is to reduce these high levels of glucose in the blood (high blood sugar); this can be dealt with through lifestyle changes. Obvious changes include quitting smoking and minimizing or eliminating alcohol from the diet.

But what about the activity all of us do (have to do) on a daily basis?

Eating! What we choose to put in our bodies in the form of food can be life-altering!

According to a six year research study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association what we choose to eat affects our chances of getting diabetes. 65,000 participants in the study were given two distinctly different diets; refined carbohydrates (sugary) vs. complex carbohydrates (high fiber, whole foods). The group consuming the whole foods had a significantly (two and a half times) lower risk of developing diabetes.

These findings are not surprising. A well-publicized report, The Framingham Heart Study, reports type 2 diabetes has increased dramatically over the past few decades. The amount of added sugars (refined carbohydrates) in our diets has also dramatically increased during the same time period.

Are you thinking the same thing I am?

Refined carbohydrates are unnatural and highly processed foods which contribute to a multitude of health problems, including diabetes.

We are designed by nature to consume foods in their natural state, e.g., fruits and vegetables, in order to benefit from their nutrient and fiber content. Fiber is key in the diet, especially for a diabetic.  Fiber is an indigestible carbohydrate which slows down the digestion of the natural sugars in whole foods, resulting in a blood sugar level that is healthy and stable.

How do we know which carbohydrates we should be eating?

Glycemic Index

The glycemic index (GI) tells us the lower the GI of a carbohydrate the less effect the food has on blood sugar.

A research study out of the University of Sydney in Australia, “Low–Glycemic Index Diets in the Management of Diabetes,” concluded low-GI foods (as opposed to higher-GI foods) had a “clinically useful effect on medium-term glycemic control in patients with diabetes.” These low-GI foods even offered benefits similar to those derived from taking certain diabetic drugs!

Refined carbohydrates, e.g., white flour, white rice, and sugar, generally have a higher GI than healthier carbohydrates and have a large part to play in the complications associated with diabetes. Are these foods the only culprits?

What about fat?

While weight is not always implicated in diabetes it can be a very big contributing factor for many diabetics, making their condition more difficult to manage and increasing other health complications. Extra body weight comes from too much fat being stored in the body and this excess fat leads to increased insulin resistance.  

Insulin resistance is characterized by the sugar in the bloodstream being unable to enter the cells.

Why can’t the sugar enter the cells?

Studies cited in the book, Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes, show a diet high in fat leads to an accumulation of excess fat inside the cells. This fat acts as a barricade of sorts and won’t let the sugar enter, leaving it in the bloodstream, leading to high blood sugar.  Fat is a necessary component of any diet; however, it’s the type and quantity, which are in question when it comes to a healthy diet.

And what about protein? Is protein intake a concern when dealing with diabetes?

Almost half of those diagnosed with diabetes have compromised kidney function, making high protein foods a concern. Protein digestion results in waste products in the bloodstream which our kidneys must filter out and remove. When the kidneys are compromised they must work harder to deal with the by-products of protein metabolism, ultimately wearing out the kidney’s filters and leading to kidney disease.

Where does all of this information leave us in terms of what someone dealing with diabetes should eat?

For the prevention, management, or even reversal of diabetes, the following foods are beneficial:

  • Whole foods
  • High fiber foods
  • Lower GI foods
  • Healthy fat foods
  • Quality proteins


  • Vegetables (non-starchy vegetables, especially dark leafy greens).
  • Yams/sweet potatoes (instead of white potatoes).
  • Quality proteins, high in fiber (beans, peas, lentils).
  • Whole grains (avoid wheat if possible), and alternative grains (quinoa, millet, buckwheat).
  • Lower GI fruits (tropical fruits and watermelon have a higher GI).
  • Healthy fats in small quantities (avocados, walnuts, flaxseeds, chia seeds, hempseeds – only 1 oz. of nuts or seeds a day).

Are there others out there who have made similar changes and been successful?

Celebrity Role Models

Celebrities who have struggled with their diabetes and made life changing commitments to their health include Randy Jackson, American Idol favorite, and Sherri Shepherd, co-host of the popular Barbara Walter’s daily talk show, The View.

Both Randy and Sherri lost a substantial amount of weight and got their diabetes under control by changing and improving their diets and beginning a consistent exercise program.

In contrast, Johnny Cash, the well-known country singer and music legend, managed his diabetes poorly and as a result was diagnosed with autonomic neuropathy. This led Cash to end his touring career and eventually die from diabetic complications in 2003.

One of Dr. Phil’s quotes summarizes these stories best: You need to listen to your body because your body is listening to you.” It’s true. By embracing your health and the choices that support it (a healthy diet), you can manage your diabetes or better yet reverse or prevent diabetes in the first place.




Barnard, Neal D., DR., Nutrition Guide for Clinicians. Washington, DC: PCRM/Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, 2009. Print.







Barnard, Neal D., Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes: The Scientifically Proven System for Reversing Diabetes without Drugs. New York, NY: Rodale, 2007. Print.




  1. I’ve enjoyed things I need to know

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