July 21, 2010

Diet and Diabetes Prevention

Last week was Diabetes Awareness week in Australia and it reminded me of a conversation with a friend a few years ago. He was very worried about his Mum as she had just been diagnosed with diabetes but didn’t realise that this was a signal to him. With a family member having diabetes he is at higher risk, but he could reduce his risk by making changes to his eating and exercise habits.

It’s estimated that almost one in every 13 Australians has diabetes; half of these people don’t know they have it because they have never been diagnosed. In light of that, I thought I’d give a brief overview of diabetes and the role your diet can play in prevention.

What is diabetes?

Diabetes is a condition where someone is not able to control how much glucose (sugar) is in their blood. When we eat a meal, the glucose from the carbohydrates in the meal moves through ‘doors’ into our cells where it is used to make energy. These doors are opened by the hormone insulin.

Just like the remote for your car unlocks the car doors, so insulin opens the doors in your cells to allow glucose to move into all the cells of your body. When you have diabetes, you don’t make enough insulin or it doesn’t work properly: it’s as if the batteries of your remote control are running flat, and the doors won’t open. As a result, the glucose is stuck outside your cells and sits in your bloodstream causing high ‘blood glucose levels’.

Usually the body works hard to keep your blood glucose levels in a narrow range. Too low and your brain won’t work, too high over many years and it can lead to damage to kidneys, eyes and nerves, as well as increase your chance of a heart attack or stroke. So it is important that people who have diabetes are diagnosed and make changes to help their body control the blood glucose level.

There are two main types of diabetes: Type 1 and Type 2. People with type 1 diabetes do not produce any insulin and so need to have it injected regularly. This type of diabetes is genetic and usually diagnosed in childhood, but not always. At the moment there is no way to prevent or cure type 1 diabetes.

With type 2 diabetes, which is most common, your body either doesn’t produce enough insulin for your needs, or the insulin you produce does not work properly (flat batteries in the remote). Most people with type 2 diabetes can keep their blood glucose level under control by eating well and exercising regularly, or by taking medication.

Preventing type 2 diabetes – keep those batteries charged!

If you’re over 40 or if you have people in your family with diabetes, you are more likely than other people to develop diabetes. While there’s not much you can do about your age or your genes, there are other things in your control that can make you less likely to develop diabetes. These include your weight, your blood pressure, how often you exercise, and if you smoke. In fact, up to 60% of cases of type 2 diabetes could be prevented with healthy eating habits and regular exercise.

If you are at risk of developing type 2 diabetes you can delay or prevent this by:
  • Maintaining a healthy weight or if overweight, even a small weight loss will reduce your risk.
  • Being active for at least 30 minutes every day (walking, swimming, bike riding...)
  • Quitting smoking
  • Getting a health check every year
  • Eating well to give your insulin a chance!

Eating well to help prevent type 2 diabetes

Eating well and exercising to lose weight or stay a healthy weight are key to help delay or prevent type 2 diabetes. Try some of the healthy eating ideas below to help reduce your risk.

Five serves of fruit and two fruit each day can help with weight loss, lower blood pressure and help control your blood glucose levels.

Use unsaturated fats like canola margarine instead of butter and limit high fat foods

Increase the fibre in your diet slowly until you have 25 – 30 grams of fibre each day. Soluble fibre in fruit and oats slows down digestion so you don’t get lots of glucose in your blood all at once. That way the insulin can work slow and steady. Insoluble fibre, in cereals and the skin of fruit and vegetables, also helps insulin work more effectively though it is not yet known exactly how.

Use less salt in cooking and at the table as this will help to reduce high blood pressure, one of the risk factors of diabetes

Wholegrain foods can help make insulin more effective and also to help with weight loss; try to have half your grain foods as wholegrains, like wholegrain bread, breakfast cereal or crackers

Choose one low GI food with each meal. These foods break down more slowly so you don’t get lots of glucose in your blood all at once. (I’ll have a whole separate blog entry on GI soon!)

I have been focussing here on prevention of type 2 diabetes. If you have been recently diagnosed with diabetes or would like guidance on losing weight I strongly suggest you see an Accredited Practising Dietitian. For more information on the different types of diabetes and management visit the Diabetes Australia website.

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