What’s the best diet for people with diabetes? It’s not an easy one-size-fits all, we were told at the scientific sessions of the American Diabetes Association in Boston recently. In fact, many of the experts at this meeting said the answer may not be in one specific diet. Instead, they point us to well-studied “patterns” of eating. Evidence is strong, for example, that people with diabetes who follow an eating style based on the Mediterranean and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) dietary patterns can benefit healthwise.
But wait. Aren’t these ways of eating designed to prevent heart disease and stroke? Yes, they are, said Lawrence Appel, MD, of Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions. But diabetes is closely linked to heart disease. So when we eat to keep our hearts ticking, we also help control diabetes.
What do healthful diet patterns for diabetes have in common? They emphasize vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, seeds, and whole grains. They include fish, low-fat dairy foods and vegetable oils like olive oil. And they put less emphasis on meats and high-fat dairy foods.
These types of food choices provide a healthful balance of nutrients; and they also have been shown to reduce inflammatory processes in the body that scientists say are linked to chronic diseases like diabetes and heart disease. Fish, vegetables, nuts and whole grains are especially rich in anti-inflammatory substances, say researchers.
And, yes, it is still important for people with diabetes to control their intake of carbohydrates (sugars and starches in food). “But I don’t believe carbohydrates are the devil,” said Appel. He pointed out that many of the beneficial foods in diabetes-friendly eating patterns contain carbohydrates. They just don’t go overboard with foods excessively high in sugar or refined starches. And what’s interesting, reported registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator Marion Franz, is that, after following any type of diet, most people tend to settle back into eating patterns that are not extremely high or extremely low in carbohydrates.
How to translate all this great research into real life is the biggest challenge, these researchers acknowledged. It all comes down to the choices we make from day to day, meal to meal — like choosing fruit over hash browns, or a veggie omelet more often than biscuits and gravy. We can eat a fish meal a couple of times a week. And salad more often than fries.
Diabetes is a serious and complex disease, and we still don’t have all the answers, these experts report. But from what I observed, researchers are hitting it from all directions. Stay tuned.
Barbara Quinn is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator at the Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org .