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Diabetic diet: superfoods and foods to avoid for Type 2 diabetes

When it comes to managing Type 2 diabetes, the foods you do or don’t eat play a crucial part — affecting how well you feel and how much energy you have.

It can sometimes seem difficult to know what you should or shouldn’t be eating as part of a diabetic diet, with conflicting information at every turn. A diabetes diagnosis doesn’t mean you must give up all of the foods that you enjoy. In this article, we provide you with insights from sources such as the American Diabetes Association and the International Journal of Science, which can help you to focus more on diabetes superfoods and be aware of foods to avoid.

Type 2 Diabetes superfoods

The American Diabetes Association list several possible diets as optimal for reducing your A1C test score:

  • the Mediterranean diet
  • vegetarian and vegan diets
  • low-carb or very low-carb diets.

Diets which contain whole grains, beans and other legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables, are all beneficial for diabetics.

1. Beans and legumes

Beans, chickpeas and lentils are high in fibre and protein, but naturally fat-free and sodium-free, making them a great choice for a diabetic diet.

Several studies have found that eating these three things improves blood glucose control, and reduces blood pressure, cholesterol and triglyceride levels in people with type 2 diabetes.

2. Quinoa

Often mistaken for a whole grain, quinoa is actually a type of seed, and is high in both protein and fibre. That means it slows down the rise in glucose sugars in your blood, as well as keeping you fuller for longer. As well as being a great alternative to white rice, quinoa can help to prevent overeating when you’re trying to remain calorie-conscious.

3. Tomatoes and non-starchy vegetables

Tomatoes are full of lycopene, which studies suggest provides protection against the development and progression of type 2 diabetes. In particular, tomatoes can decrease blood pressure and slow macular degeneration.

Other low GI fresh foods include artichokes, broccoli and beetroots — among other non-starchy vegetables. These are low in calories and carbohydrates, but high in fibre, vitamins and minerals.

4. Blueberries

Blueberries have some of the highest antioxidant levels of any fruit or vegetable, and research shows that people who eat plenty of blueberries have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. They are also a great fruit for people on a diabetic diet, thanks to their high levels of fibre and the fact that they can satisfy your sweet tooth without dramatically increasing blood sugar levels.

Foods to avoid when you have Type 2 diabetes

No two people with diabetes are the same, which means there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to eating a diabetic diet. That said, there are a number of foods that are more likely than others to upset your blood sugar levels, blood pressure and cholesterol.

1. Processed meats

Scientific research has consistently shown that a high level of processed consumption is associated with a higher risk of Type 2 diabetes, along with various types of cancer. Processed red meat is highlighted as having a major impact both on an individual’s risk of becoming diabetic in future, and on the health of people who are already diabetic.

Processed meats are things like bacon, sausages and ham that have been cured, salted or smoked. The high level of fat and salt in these foods can reduce your body’s ability to correctly sense and respond to the presence of glucose, and so it’s advisable to replace them with low-fat, low-salt alternatives.

2. Sugary or sugar-substitute drinks

As well as increasing your risk of diabetes, sugary drinks can cause spikes in your blood sugar, while sugar-substitute drinks can cause insulin resistance.

There is no specific recommended sugar intake for people living with diabetes. However, public health authorities around the world recommend limiting your sugar intake considerably, including by avoiding sugary drinks and foods altogether (unless you need them to lift your blood sugar levels during hypoglycemia.)

3. Foods made with refined starch

Refined starches, such as white bread, white rice, white pasta — anything made with white flour — act in a similar way to sugar when your body starts to digest them. As a result, they interfere with glucose levels.

For a slower and steadier release of sugar, look for alternatives that are higher in fibre — wholegrain breads, rice and pasta are a simple switch.

4. Certain varieties of potato

Different varieties of potato have different glycemic index (GI) scores and are also affected by how you cook them. A baked Russet Burbank potato, for example, has an extremely high score, while a boiled, unpeeled Nicola potato has a low-to-medium score.

You don’t have to remove potatoes from your diet entirely if you have diabetes, but it’s important to be mindful of their starchy nature, and the potential risk of eating a high GI variety. A good alternative is the sweet potato — more on this diabetic superfood below.

Fruits to avoid if you’re diabetic

It’s important to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, regardless of whether you’re diabetic or not. The type of sugar that naturally occurs in fruit (fructose) does not increase blood sugars in the same way as the processed sugar from drinks, candies and cakes (glucose), though you should still be conscious of your intake and avoid consuming an excessive amount.

One thing to be aware of is the lower amount of fibre and higher amount of carbohydrate that you will ingest when choosing dried fruits or fruit juices over whole, fresh fruit.

1. Fruit juices

Fruit juices and smoothies have most of the fruit’s roughage removed or broken down during their production. Whereas whole fruit contains plenty of fibre, which helps to ensure sugars are processed at a slow pace, fruit juices do not, and can cause blood sugar levels to spike. For this reason, people with diabetes should avoid fruit juices.

The only circumstance where it is advisable to drink fruit juice is during an episode of hypoglycemia, when blood sugar levels need to be raised quickly.

2. Dried fruit

You can eat dried fruit in small quantities on a diabetic diet. However, when fruit is dried its sugar content becomes more highly concentrated. One cup of raisins contains around four times the amount of carbohydrate than a cup of grapes, so portions should be adjusted accordingly.

Any candied dry fruit or honeyed fruits should be avoided, as these present an even higher risk of causing spikes in blood sugar levels.

Foods that lower blood sugar

While there are many foods that will cause spikes in blood sugar levels, there are also some that can lower and regulate blood sugar levels.

1. Sweet potatoes

While ordinary potatoes can have a high GI score, sweet potatoes and yams have very low scores, as well as being highly nutritious. Unlike other starchy vegetables, they are classed an ‘anti-diabetic’ food, particularly when enjoyed with the skin on for maximum fibre.

2. Oatmeal

Wholegrain oats can help you to hit your A1C target and boost your heart health. People with type 2 diabetes who eat oatmeal for breakfast record better post-meal blood sugar readings and have better lipid profiles than those who do not.

Opt for old-fashioned oatmeal with no added sugar, salt or preservatives, made with skimmed milk or a plant-based milk. To make your oats more flavourful, you could add blueberries or other berries for a bonus vitamin boost.

3. Unsalted tree nuts

Research has found that two servings a day of tree nuts lowers and stabilises blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes, as well as reducing unhealthy cholesterol levels. That’s because of the polyunsaturated fats that tree nuts contain: almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, pecans, walnuts and pistachios are all great choices.

Best fruits for diabetics

It’s fine to eat a moderate amount of whole fresh fruits, even on a low-sugar diabetic diet. Most fruits contain lots of water and fibre to balance out their naturally occurring fructose sugar.

The best fruits for diabetics are those which have low GI scores and low glycemic load (GL) scores. Glycemic load scores take into account the GI of a food, along with the number of carbohydrates in each serving. All of the fruits listed below are both low GI and low GL.

1. Plums

Naturally fat-free and low in calories and carbohydrates, plums are also a great source of vitamin C. Despite a plum’s naturally occurring sugars, their fibre content means they are slow to digest and won’t cause a dramatic rise in blood sugar levels.

2. Kiwi fruit

A 2016 scientific study found that eating kiwi fruit with your breakfast can significantly slow the uptake of sugars into your bloodstream from other foods. This is thanks to the fibre content and specific, absorbent nature of kiwi fibre. Kiwi fruits are also a good source of vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin E, folate and potassium.

3. Citrus fruits

Oranges, grapefruits and other citrus fruits are named by the American Diabetes Association as additional ‘diabetes superfoods’, because they are full of folate, potassium, vitamin C and fibre. Good for your overall health, citrus fruits slow the uptake of sugar into your blood in the same way as plums and kiwi fruit.

4. Berries

Blueberries aren’t the only berry that you can enjoy on a diabetic diet. If you have a sweet tooth, you can also enjoy strawberries, blackberries and raspberries, which all have glycemic index scores below 40 per serving and have all been shown to have preventative qualities against type 2 diabetes.

For more information on how to manage diabetes, diabetes health tips and oral health tips for diabetics, please read our helpful resources.

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