Diet habits you should follow when trying to manage your blood sugar
Matthew Kadey, MSc, RD
Needless to say, there are a lot of people who have management issues. By this we don’t mean how we juggle work tasks with pressing family matters, but instead how blood sugar levels are controlled. Given that so many Canadians live day to day with blood sugar levels that are dangerously high and not properly managed, it’s clear that preventive strategies cannot be overstated. While blood sugar management is important to overall wellness in a variety of ways, including undeniably lowering the chances of developing diabetes, balanced blood sugar also helps support stable energy, mood, and brain functioning.
What may surprise some people is just how important a role the food we eat (or don’t eat) plays in the prevention or management of diabetes. There are just too many studies out there now linking diet with diabetes prevention and progression for us to ignore.
In particular, emerging research suggests that a plant-based diet with a focus on nutrient-dense foods is especially effective. “Whole plant foods are packed with fibre that works wonders with blood sugar regulation and phytochemicals to help fight chronic inflammation,” says Debbie Fong, a registered dietitian with Aroga Lifestyle Medicine.
In fact, a study in the journal Diabetes Care found that adopting a plant-forward diet when we’re younger can be protective against developing diabetes as we age. In contrast, data suggest that higher meat intake, particularly red meat and processed meats such as hot dogs, can raise the chances of developing diabetes.
But not all plant-based diets are created equal. To better aid with diabetes concerns, including insulin resistance and blood glucose levels, you’ve got to focus eating efforts on whole foods, including vegetables, legumes, fruits, whole grains, nuts, and seeds.
There’s nothing wrong with including some minimally processed plant-based foods in your diet (we’re talking about foods such as tofu, frozen vegetables, and unsweetened nondairy milks), but you most certainly want to limit what are known as ultra-processed foods—UPFs.
These items undergo multiple industrial procedures and are combined with one or more ingredients such as sugars, questionable fats, emulsifiers, food colouring, and artificial flavours that are all used to alter taste, texture, and shelf life. You end up with a product with more calories than nutrition.
A 2021 study in the journal Clinical Nutrition determined that higher intakes of UPFs significantly raises the risk for type 2 diabetes. Of concern, a greater avoidance of animal-based foods in favour of a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle can increase the consumption of these highly engineered foods, a concern that is prompting nutrition scientists to call for more research.
If you’re diabetic or prediabetic, you don’t need to shun all carbohydrates. A Harvard University study found that swapping 5 percent of calories from saturated fat in a diet for high quality carbohydrates such as whole grains is associated with a lower risk for diabetes.
“Not all carbs are created equal,” Fong says. “Refined carbs make type 2 diabetes worse, but unprocessed or complex carbs can help treat the root cause, not just the symptoms, of type 2 diabetes.”
She calls out legumes, whole grains, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and even fruits as diabetes-friendly sources of plant-based carbs. The healthiest carbohydrates are those found where nature puts them. The harmful carbohydrates are often ingredients in processed foods made with refined carbohydrates (white flour, white rice, potato starch, and so forth) and items with concentrated simple sugars, including soda and fruit juices.
Instead of highly processed packaged foods, reach for these better-for-you plant-based foods to show diabetes the door.
Whole fruit A study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism found that individuals who consumed at least two servings of fruit every day had a 36 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, as well as greater measures of insulin sensitivity, compared with those who consumed less than half a serving of fruit daily.
The same benefit was not found for fruit juice consumption. The dynamic duo of antioxidants and fibre in berries, apples, and pears can help keep sugar levels steady.
Lentils Supplying about 15 grams of fibre per cup, lentils are a plant-based powerhouse with proven benefits for enhancing blood sugar control. Fibre helps slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, improving blood sugar regulation.
Peanuts A recent study conducted at Pennsylvania State University discovered that those with elevated fasting blood sugar, a definite risk factor for diabetes, who ate a single serving of peanuts (about 1 oz/28 g) as an evening snack had improved blood sugar levels in the morning. The combo of protein and fat in inexpensive peanuts makes them a sugar-stabilizing snack.
Cinnamon In people with prediabetes, compounds in cinnamon improve blood sugar control when eaten in a meal with carbs and, in turn, could slow the progression to full-blown type 2 diabetes, according to a recent Journal of the Endocrine Society study.
Oats People who ate the most whole grains, including oatmeal, were at the lowest risk for developing diabetes, according to a recent review of data from the massive Nurses’ Health Studies and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study that was published in the British Medical Journal.
Spinach British investigators recently determined that eating 1.35 servings (about a cup and a half) per day of nutrient-dense leafy green vegetables, such as spinach or Swiss chard, is associated with a 14 percent reduction in the risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared with consuming only 0.2 servings.
Tempeh A research review published in the journal Nutrients suggests that a greater intake of plant-sourced proteins such as tempeh, tofu, and lentils could be protective against developing type 2 diabetes.
A separate investigation in Nutrition, Metabolism & Cardiovascular Disease found that adults with prediabetes who had a high-protein diet for six months had greater prediabetes remission rates. Protein will help minimize blood sugar spikes since it slows down the digestion of your meal or snack and will also work to squash hunger.
Chia seeds These salubrious seeds are a good source of soluble fibre that, as it’s digested, attracts water to form a gel-like substance with food, which in turn slows down digestion to promote steadier blood sugar levels and improved satiety to help with weight management.
Try these recipes that feature some of the best foods from the plant kingdom to do battle against diabetes, according to science.
This easy, nourishing make-ahead breakfast takes only a handful of minutes to prep. Including some protein powder makes it a daybreak meal with better blood sugar stabilizing powers. You can scale up the ingredients to make more than one serving.
2/3 cup (160 mL) unsweetened nut or oat milk
1 scoop plant-based protein powder of choice
1 tsp (5 mL) maple syrup or honey (optional)
1/2 tsp (2 mL) cinnamon
1/2 cup (125 mL) rolled oats
1 Tbsp (15 mL) chia seeds
1/3 cup (80 mL) sliced strawberries
2 Tbsp (30 mL) unsalted peanuts
Blend together milk, protein powder, maple syrup or honey, and cinnamon.
In small wide-mouth jar or cereal bowl, stir together oats, chia seeds, milk mixture, and a pinch of salt. Top with strawberries and peanuts; cover and chill overnight.
Each serving contains: 524 calories; 33 g protein; 20 g total fat (2 g sat. fat); 59 g total carbohydrates (21 g sugars, 12 g fibre); 319 mg sodium
These adorable mini lentil loaves are about the best plant-based meatloaf copycat you can serve. And just look at all that sugar-regulating fibre. Leftovers keep for four days in the refrigerator or two months in the freezer. Reheat in the microwave or oven until warmed through.
2 tsp (10 mL) canola oil or avocado oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1/4 tsp (1 mL) salt
3 cups (750 mL) chopped mushrooms
1 cup (250 mL) walnut halves, preferably toasted
1 1/2 cups (350 mL) peeled, cubed, and cooked sweet potato
2 chipotle chili peppers in adobo sauce
1 Tbsp (30 mL) fresh thyme
2 cups (500 mL) cooked green or brown lentils
1 cup (250 mL) quick cooking oats
2 Tbsp (30 mL) tomato paste
2 Tbsp (30 mL) low-sodium soy sauce or coconut aminos
1 tsp (5 mL) ground cumin
1/3 cup (80 mL) low-sugar barbecue sauce
Heat oven to 350 F (180 C) and grease 12 standard-sized muffin cups or line them with parchment paper.
In skillet over medium, heat oil. Add onion and salt; heat until onion has softened; about 5 minutes. Add mushrooms to pan and heat until softened, about 3 minutes.
To food processor container, add walnuts and pulse a few times into fine pebbles. Add mushroom mixture, sweet potato, chipotle peppers, and thyme, and pulse to combine. Lastly, add lentils, oats, tomato paste, soy sauce, and cumin; pulse to loosely combine—but not to puréed. Divide among muffin cups and bake for 30 minutes. Spread barbecue sauce over tops and bake for another 10 minutes. Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes in pan. Then gently remove and serve.
Each serving contains: 327 calories; 13 g protein; 14 g total fat (1 g sat. fat); 40 g total carbohydrates (5 g sugars, 10 g fibre); 536 mg sodium
In layman’s terms, diabetes is a condition in which the body doesn’t produce enough insulin or any at all, or doesn’t properly use the insulin that is produced. A lack of insulin, or resistance to it, causes sugar to build up in your blood, potentially leading to a diagnosis of diabetes and the numerous health problems it can bring.
Type 1 diabetes This is an autoimmune condition in which the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. A person with this condition will need to take insulin for life to keep blood sugar from reaching dangerously high levels.
Type 2 diabetes This type begins as insulin resistance, which means the body can’t use insulin efficiently. This stimulates the pancreas to keep pumping out more insulin, driving up blood sugar levels, until production diminishes, leading to elevated blood sugar numbers.
Unlike type 1, environmental factors including poor diet and being overweight play a major role in the development of type 2 diabetes. About 90 percent of diabetes cases in Canada are type 2, with at least 3 million citizens diagnosed with the condition. Type 2 diabetes used to be called adult-onset diabetes, but it is becoming more common in children.
When glucose builds up in your blood, it binds to the hemoglobin in your red blood cells. The hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) test measures how much glucose is bound to hemoglobin and, in doing so, determines how well controlled your blood sugar has been over a period of about three months. This means it provides a more complete picture of blood sugar management compared to a single day’s blood sugar test results.
The higher the HbA1c, the higher the risk of having complications related to diabetes. Luckily, a combination of exercise and diet, including eating a plant-based diet instead of a typical highly processed Western diet, can help bring numbers down.
Poor blood sugar control isn’t only a problem for diabetes; it can also morph into other health concerns. For instance, when blood sugar rises too high, the pancreas releases large amounts of insulin.
This hormone then converts extra sugar into triglycerides, a fat that is an independent risk factor for heart disease when present in elevated numbers. High triglycerides can lead to the thickening and narrowing of arteries, raising the chances for stroke and heart attack.
Food should be one of the first defences against diabetes, but these supplements show promise in helping keep blood sugar in the safe range. Only use these with guidance from a health care practitioner.
Apple cider vinegar A systematic review and meta-analysis in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that daily supplementation of 750 to 3,600 mg of apple cider vinegar (high in acetic acid) was associated with lower fasting blood glucose levels among patients with type 2 diabetes without adverse side effects, compared with placebo.
Cinnamon Several studies suggest cinnamon extract can improve fasting blood sugar numbers. Most research has been based on up to 500 mg with meals daily.
Alpha-lipoic acid This antioxidant can lower the oxidative stress in the body that, if not managed properly, can contribute to insulin resistance.
Green tea extract An ancient brew’s signature antioxidant, EGCG, appears to improve blood sugar levels throughout the day. Supplements can provide a more concentrated and consistent source of EGCG than brewed tea. But drinking a few steamy cups of green tea daily can help, too.
Omega-3s The anti-inflammatory powers of these long-chain fatty acids may lower risk factors for diabetes, including insulin resistance. Plant-only people can use algae-sourced omega-3 supplements.
Vitamin D Most Canadians come up short in this nutrient that may lower the risk for developing type 2 diabetes. Check with your health care practitioner to see if you need to supplement, especially if sun exposure and food intake is limited.
Fenugreek Consistently taking this herb may improve fasting blood glucose and total cholesterol levels.
Aloe vera Some scientific evidence suggests a potential benefit of aloe vera in improving glycemic control in prediabetes and type 2 diabetes.