According to a 2011 study from the Diabetes Prevention and Control program, 370,000 Kentuckians, or 10 percent of the state’s population, are estimated to have type 2 diabetes, compared to 8.7 percent nationwide. Type 2 patients risk complications such as blindness, amputation, heart disease, stroke, and kidney failure.
The good news is, with the assistance of qualified physicians and nutritionists, diabetes patients can make food choices that will help manage their blood sugar levels and avoid the serious health risks that accompany the disease.
Meet with a dietician
Registered dieticians help type 2 diabetes patients develop a meal plan that suits their individual needs and tastes, said Kathy West, the diabetes educator at Western Baptist Hospital in Paducah. The plan will also take into account prescribed diabetes medications, as well other health conditions that might affect dietary requirements.
So many factors go into diabetes management that it may seem overwhelming at first, but meal plans are becoming more user-friendly, according to Rita Bailey, a registered dietician with the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Bailey said that dieticians are starting to place less emphasis on complicated food exchange systems. Instead, they often focus on one element of the meal plan, namely carbohydrates. This simplifies the diet and makes it easier for patients to manage over the long term.
Avoid blood sugar spikes
Dieticians recommend complex carbohydrates, such as whole grain breads and cereals, to keep blood sugar levels from fluctuating. The kind of flour found in white bread lacks fiber and should be avoided, according to nutritionists. “It’s always better to eat the foods with higher fiber, because they don’t give you that spike in glucose,” said West.
Blood sugar levels are more likely to stay stable if diabetes patients eat snacks that contain protein as well as carbohydrates. “If they eat carbs all by themselves, it’s going to go right into the bloodstream. ... For example, with their crackers, they can have some peanut butter. They can eat milk with cereal; anything with protein,” said Bailey. Small servings of meat and eggs also count as proteins, Bailey said.
Diabetes patients should stay away from sugars, particularly the simple kind found in white table sugar, syrup, and condiments. Bailey recommends using artificial sweeteners in moderation.
Make simple modifications
A diagnosis of type 2 diabetes doesn’t mean you have to eat foods you don’t like, or completely eliminate all your favorites from your diet. Dieticians can suggest simple modifications that allow patients to enjoy familiar favorites without wreaking havoc on their blood sugar levels.
“A typical southern meal may have potatoes, corn, black-eyed peas, and cornbread,” Bailey said. The meal may sound unfeasible for diabetes patients, but its four servings of carbohydrates are actually in line with dieticians’ standard recommendations.
“That (option) is nice for people that aren’t fond of fruit and don’t tolerate milk, both of which also count as carbohydrates. As long as it’s managing their blood sugar, that works fine,” Bailey said.
Non-starchy vegetables, such as broccoli, carrots, and onions, should be a staple for diabetes patients. To receive the greatest benefit from these foods, exercise caution when preparing them. “Around here we tend to season those vegetables. You don’t want to put hunks of butter in them, or even oil or meat grease,” Bailey said.
Nutritionists also advise patients to opt for grilled, rather than fried meat, as breaded coatings are high in carbohydrates, and the process of frying adds calories.
Learn when to eat
Maintaining regular mealtimes is crucial for diabetes patients, especially those taking medication to regulate their blood sugar. To avoid the blood sugar highs and lows that can accompany diabetes, eat at a set time every day and never skip meals.
Scheduling meals can also help with weight control. People who skip breakfast, for example, may feel justified overeating at dinner, and being overly hungry can lead to poor food choices. “When you’re starving, you’re more likely to overeat,” Bailey said.
The challenges of managing blood sugar highs and lows are best met by planning, nutritionists say. Armed with an understanding of their individual meal and medication plans, diabetes patients can navigate such situations as travel and eating out without sacrificing too much enjoyment.
When you take a trip, consider packing healthy foods rather than purchasing them on the road. If you do end up ordering fast food, the best strategy is to think small, Bailey said. A grilled sandwich with a single patty and a side salad is a better option than the more widely-advertised combination meals.
Keep in mind, too, that fast food restaurants and other chains often have nutritional information available. Diabetes patients are encouraged to familiarize themselves with healthy meal options before they sit down to eat.
Making healthy food choices can be challenging, especially in the long term. Dieticians recommend gradual, sensible changes in meals and exercise regimens. “It takes so long to break a habit,” West said. “People often start (making changes) too fast. You’ve got to cut out the Snickers bar, and walk once around the block. Then cut out a piece of bread at breakfast and walk twice around the block,” West said.
West reminds patients that type 2 diabetes management is an ongoing process, and should include a team of experts. “People need to work with their physician, their dietician, their diabetes educator. Opthalmologists and podiatrists are crucial, too,” West said.
Know your resources
Local hospitals and can provide more information on meal planning, including exchange lists and seasonal recipes. The American Diabetes Association also offers free recipes online at diabetes.org.
Call Laurel Black, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8641.