Are you worried about developing diabetes? The rise in rates of type-2 diabetes, which accounts for 90 per cent of diabetes cases, is staggering. So what is it and what can you do to help prevent diabetes?
Type-2 diabetes is the end result of eating a diet and living a lifestyle that repeatedly keeps your blood sugar at too high a level. As a consequence, the body produces a hormone, insulin, which floods into the bloodstream to take the glucose out of the blood and store it in liver and muscles. However, when our stores are full it turns it into fat and stores that. But diabetes doesn’t just lead to obesity. Too much glucose and too much insulin damage all kinds of tissues, including the arteries, eyes, kidneys and brain.
The good news is that type-2 diabetes is largely preventable – the trick is to keep your blood sugar stable. Here, nutrition expert and author of The Optimum Nutrition Bible, Patrick Holford, outlines eight key food groups that will help you do just that. If you aren’t already eating these foods on a regular basis, what are you waiting for?
Oats are a superb food choice for keeping your blood sugar level even, as they contain the soluble fibre beta-glucans, which effectively ‘slow-release’ the carbohydrates you eat and also help to lower cholesterol. You can eat them as oat flakes (cold) or soak and cook them to make porridge. You can also make delicious oat pancakes. Oatcakes are the best ‘bread’ choice, for example, with scrambled or boiled egg, or as a snack during the day with a high-protein spread such as hummus.
2. Choose rye or barley instead of wheat
Whole rye grain is better than wheat as it does not raise blood sugar to anything like the same extent. In practical terms this means a wholegrain rye bread, in moderation, would be a good choice for breakfast or a snack, together with a protein-rich food. The best choice of all would be the slow-cooked Scandinavian-style breads called pumpernickel, sonnenbrot or volkenbrot. Bear in mind that some use wheat as well, so it’s best to go for those breads that are wheat-free.You can also find whole rye sourdough bread, which is good. These breads will be more dense and heavier than regular wheat bread – this is a good sign, but make sure you have thinner slices.
Barley is another good grain to use, as it is rich in beta-glucans and high in fibre. You can buy wholegrain pearl barley, which boils like brown rice. It is also full of beta-glucans and soluble fibres and has a good flavour – quite chewy.
3. Beans, lentils and chickpeas
This food group, known as pulses, is a staple in countries with low diabetes incidence, but we just don’t eat enough of these highly nutritious foods in countries with a typical Western diet. Pulses are all relatively high in protein, which reduces the insulin response. Including a serving of lentils, or beans, for dinner actually has a knock-on effect on breakfast, quite substantially reducing the blood sugar spikes of breakfast the next day. This was proven in a study that fed people different kinds of evening meals, then different kinds of breakfast, while measuring their blood sugar levels after the meals. A dinner containing roughly a 130g serving of cooked lentils was the best.
4. Quinoa – the secret of the Incas
Quinoa has been grown in South America for 5,000 years and has a long-standing reputation as a source of strength for those working at high altitudes. Called the ‘mother grain’ because of its sustaining properties, it contains high-quality protein, is rich in essential fats, vitamins and minerals, and provides almost four times as much calcium as wheat, plus extra iron, B vitamins and vitamin E. It also does not raise blood sugar in the same way as rice and is a great alternative to it. Quinoa can be found in many supermarkets these days, as well as health-food stores. To cook it, rinse well, then add two parts water to one of quinoa and boil for 15 minutes. It is also gluten-free.
5. Chia, flax, pumpkin seeds, walnuts and almonds
You might not have heard of chia seeds but along with the South American grain, quinoa, chia is a highly nutritious food that should become a daily part of our diet. Like flax seeds (also called linseed), chia is very high in soluble fibres, as well as omega-3 fats and protein, all of which are good news as far as helping combat high blood sugar is concerned. Chia has more than double the soluble-fibre content of oats but, of course, you wouldn’t eat the same quantity. Added to oats, for example in porridge, it is a great way to greatly increase your soluble fibre intake. The three reasons I prefer chia to flax are, firstly, it is nutritionally superior; secondly, it tastes better; and thirdly, it stores and remains fresh for longer. I have a 15g serving every day (a tablespoon), which gives me 100mg of calcium and 70mg of magnesium, a really decent amount for maintaining good health and also ideal if you have diabetes.
The next best seeds are pumpkin seeds. These are 21 per cent protein, and reasonably high in omega-3 fats. An advantage of pumpkin seeds is that they are very high in magnesium, which is also vital for blood sugar control. Pumpkin seeds are large enough and soft enough to be eaten whole, either on cereal, or as a snack, perhaps with a piece of fruit. Aim for a tablespoonful.
Good nuts for helping to reverse metabolic syndrome and reduce cardiovascular risk are walnuts and almonds. Walnuts have been shown to improve circulation in those with diabetes, and generally to help reduce indicators of cardiovascular risk. Whether you choose chia, flax or pumpkin seeds, or nuts, you really want to be having a tablespoon of seeds, or a small handful of nuts, every day, either in your food, for example on breakfast, or as part of a snack.
6. Choose squashes
This group includes courgettes, marrows, pumpkin, butternut squashes and many other varieties of winter squash. Unlike many starchy carbohydrates, they release their sugar slowly, so are a great choice for your carbohydrate portion in a main meal. Recent research reveals that diabetic rats fed extract of pumpkin had lower insulin levels. The protective effect of pumpkin is thought to be due to both antioxidants and D-chiro-inositol, a molecule that affects insulin activity. It’s a bit early to say the same effects will occur in people with diabetes but, given that squashes do not raise blood sugar too sharply, it is sensible to make them a regular part of your diet.
7. Enjoy berries, cherries and plums
As the principle sugar in most berries, cherries and plums is xylose, these fruits are especially slow-releasing. The bluer the berries the better, so blackcurrants, blackberries, blueberries and cooked black elderberry are all superfoods. In a recent study, blueberries were put to the test on a group of overweight, insulin-resistant volunteers deemed at high risk of diabetes. They were given a blueberry smoothie every day for six weeks, or an identical-looking and tasting fake smoothie. Those getting the real thing had a 22 per cent increase in their insulin sensitivity. Plums, when in season, are also a great fruit snack, together with some protein such as a few almonds or pumpkin seeds.
A spoonful of cinnamon a day can help keep diabetes at bay. Cinnamon is a safe and inexpensive aromatic spice, which has been used for many years in traditional herbal medicine for the treatment of type-2 diabetes. The active ingredient in cinnamon, MCHP, mimics the action of the hormone insulin, which removes excess sugar from the bloodstream. Cinnamon also appears to reduce blood cholesterol and fat levels and decrease blood pressure.
To control your blood sugar, regulate your appetite, help prevent diabetes and improve your general health:
- Eat your oats for their beta-glucans.
- Vary your grains – don’t always eat wheat, but opt for rye or barley.
- Eat pulses (beans, lentils and chickpeas) regularly.
- Make the super-grain, quinoa, a regular part of your diet.
- Snack on a small handful of chia seeds, walnuts or almonds every other day to help improve your cardiovascular health.
- Include squashes and pumpkins for their pancreas-promoting power.
- Pick deep-coloured blueberries, blackberries, blackcurrants, cherries and plums, which are all naturally lower in sugar.
- Sprinkle a spoonful of cinnamon onto your cereal each morning or add to your soups and bakes to subtly spice them up.