Living with diabetes: Experts debunk common diet myths

Jul 12, 2019
Figuring out what foods to eat and which to avoid can be tricky when a person is diagnosed with diabetes. Source: Getty

Between doctors throwing all kinds of information about the condition at you and navigating your way through the myriad of information available online, a diabetes diagnosis can be a confusing and overwhelming time for everyone involved – particularly when it comes to the foods diabetics can and can’t eat.

Type 1 diabetes is an auto-immune condition where the immune system destroys insulin-producing cells in the pancreas, while type 2 diabetes occurs when the body becomes resistant to the normal effects of insulin or the pancreas fails to produce enough insulin. Starts at 60 spoke with two leading nutritionists about the common diabetes diet myths and how food and lifestyle helps people manage the condition.

Myth: If I have diabetes I have to follow a diabetic diet

Because diabetes varies from person to person, there’s actually not a specific diabetic diet. Advice needs to be tailored to individual needs to help people manage their diabetes and diabetics need to access ongoing self-management advice from a multidisciplinary healthcare team, Diabetes Australia says.

Health professionals will usually recommend following a diet in line with the Australian Dietary Guidelines.

“We advise just general healthy eating advice that we would provide to the rest of the population as well,” Monica Stagg, accredited practicing dietician with Diabetes Tasmania, explains. “Just general healthy eating changes, including all five of the healthy food groups, focusing on having adequate amounts of fresh fruit and veggies and good lean sources of protein.”

This includes five serves of vegetables and legumes, two serves of fruit, four serves of grain, two serves of lean meat, fish or poultry, four serves of dairy and up to 2.5 serves of from any food group for women aged between 51 and 70. It’s similar for men, with the exception of 5.5 serves of vegetables and legumes, 2.5 serves of lean meat, fish or poultry and 2.5 serves of dairy.

“It certainly is the best diet for someone with diabetes, however, I wouldn’t label it as a diabetic diet,” Nicola Miethke, clinical naturopath, nutritionist and Nuzest expert, explains. “It’s for anybody looking to eat optimally.”

Myth: My whole diet needs to change when I’m diagnosed with diabetes

While diabetics are encouraged to follow a healthier diet, they won’t always need to make drastic changes to their diet, providing it’s not filled with junk food.

“People don’t need to go out and change their way of eating, they might just be able to make a few little changes to what they’re currently doing and that can really get them on track with their diabetes management, so they’re still enjoying their foods and social outings,” Stagg says.

This could mean cooking with olive, canola or sunflower oils instead of butter, switching cream for low-fat yoghurt, or adding flavour to baked goods with fruits rather than sugar.

Myth: People with diabetes can never eat sugar

While sugar can certainly cause blood glucose levels to rise, it doesn’t mean diabetics can never eat it again. However, reducing sugar intake keeps blood glucose levels down and is recommended for all people living with diabetes.

“Anything in moderation for type 2 diabetes is absolutely fine, however, someone with type 1 diabetes, obviously they have to be so careful of the insulin levels,” Miethke says.

Sugar limits will vary between individuals, which is why it’s vital to talk to a health professional about diabetes and diet. Also be aware of the added sugar content in foods, as excess sugar can be consumed without people even realising.

“By the time someone has a bowl of cereal with some milk and some orange juice in the morning, they’ve probably already hit about 40 grams of sugar for the day,” Miethke notes. “The more we eat fresh whole foods and don’t eat out of packets, the more likely we are to avoid sugar. If people are going to eat food out of packets, read the back and find out how much sugar is in it.”

Myth: Replacing sugar with sweeteners is always healthier

Despite the myth, artificial sweeteners aren’t actually required to manage diabetes, mainly because small amounts of sugar can be consumed as part of a healthy diet plan. However, if people would rather use sweeteners, it’s important to know they’re not all the same.

“There’s the non-nutritive sweeteners such as things like stevia. These actually won’t affect blood glucose levels, so they can be really useful in diabetes management,” Stagg says. “We have nutritive sweeteners [such as fructose and sorbitol] as well and they do contain some carbohydrate, so they will affect blood glucose levels slightly.”

Non-nutritive sweeteners available for purchase in Australia are approved by Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, but be aware that some products marked as ‘diet’ that contain these sweeteners may still have higher saturated fat levels and may not be the best option for managing diabetes.

If I eat right, exercise doesn’t matter

Diet can sometimes help people manage diabetes, but exercise is also an important component.

“We know clinically, scientifically that anyone who does exercise immediately improves their insulin sensitivity and therefore lowers their blood glucose levels,” Miethke says.

While moving can become harder as we age, Miethke says exercises such as walking, swimming or any activity that gets the blood pumping is beneficial in stabilising blood sugar levels.

“We want the blood going to their muscles because that’s where we have a lot of glucose transporters and so the more they can use their muscles, the better their insulin sensitivity is going to be and therefore, the more likely they are to manage their blood glucose levels better,” she says. “I know type 1 diabetics who might be having a spike in their blood sugar levels. Instead of immediately injecting with insulin, they go for a run, come back, retest themselves and they’re fine.”

It’s important to remember that while exercise and diet is important, it isn’t a cure for diabetes and insulin will still be required for type 1 diabetics. Diabetics need to constantly and closely monitor their blood sugar levels to ensure they’re stable and to discuss any diet or lifestyle changes with a health professional.

Are you living with diabetes? What’s your top tip for managing the condition with food?

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

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