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Eating well with diabetes

Published:Wednesday | October 25, 2023 | 12:05 AM
Including small amounts of nuts and seeds, like pumpkin seeds, in the diet also add proteins.
Including small amounts of nuts and seeds, like pumpkin seeds, in the diet also add proteins.

A healthy, balanced diet is key for anyone with diabetes. Good nutrition not only controls glucose, or blood sugar levels, but also improves cholesterol and blood pressure, both of which can be high for people with diabetes.

A diet rich in vegetables, fruits, and lean proteins can benefit a person with diabetes. At the same time, a person with diabetes may need to limit their intake of white bread, sweets, and other highly refined foods.

Dr Rivane Chybar Virgo, medical doctor and health and wellness coach, says there are dietary changes that can have a big impact on the risk of diabetes.

“Choose whole grains and wholegrain products over refined grains and other highly processed carbohydrates.There is convincing evidence that diets rich in whole grains protect against diabetes, whereas diets rich in refined carbohydrates lead to increased risk,” Dr Chybar Virgo said.

Whole grains, she says, does not contain a magical nutrient that fights diabetes and improves health – it is the entire package, with the elements intact and working together, that is important.

“The bran and fibre in whole grains make it more difficult for digestive enzymes to break down the starches into glucose. This leads to lower, slower increases in blood sugar and insulin, and a lower glycemic index. As a result, they stress the body’s insulin-making machinery less, and so may help prevent and control diabetes. Whole grains are also rich in essential vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals that may help reduce the risk of diabetes,” Dr Chybar Virgo said.

In contrast, white bread, white rice, mashed potatoes, donuts, bagels, and many breakfast cereals have what is called a high glycemic index and glycemic load. That means they cause sustained spikes in blood sugar and insulin levels, which in turn may lead to increased diabetes risk.


Like refined grains, sugary beverages have a high glycemic load, and drinking more of this sugary stuff is associated with increased risk of diabetes. Studies also suggest that fruit drinks, powdered drinks, fortified fruit drinks, or juices are not the healthy choice that food advertisements often portray them to be.

There is mounting evidence that sugary drinks contribute to chronic inflammation, high triglycerides, decreased good cholesterol, and increased insulin resistance, all of which are risk factors for diabetes.

“What to drink in place of the sugary stuff? Water is an excellent choice. Coffee and tea are also good calorie-free substitutes for sugared beverages, as long as you don’t load them up with sugar and cream,” Dr Chybar Virgo said.

The types of fats in your diet can also affect the development of diabetes. Healthful fats, such as the polyunsaturated fats found in liquid vegetable oils, nuts, and seeds can help ward off diabetes.

Trans fats do just the opposite. These harmful fats were once found in many kinds of margarine, packaged baked goods, fried foods in most fast-food restaurants, and any product that listed partially hydrogenated vegetable oil on the label.

There is mounting evidence that eating red meat, beef, pork, lamb and processed red meat, bacon, hot dogs, and deli meat increases the risk of diabetes, even among people who consume only small amounts.

“Swapping out red meat or processed red meat for a healthier protein source, such as nuts, low-fat dairy, poultry or fish, or for whole grains, lowered diabetes risk by up to 35 per cent. Not surprisingly, the greatest risk reductions came from ditching processed red meat,” Dr Chybar Virgo said.

Diabetes is largely preventable by taking several simple steps: keeping weight under control, exercising more, eating a healthy diet, and not smoking. Yet it is clear that the burden of behaviour change cannot fall entirely on individuals. Families, schools, worksites, healthcare providers, communities, media, the food industry, and government must work together to make easy and healthy choices.

For more information on how to eat well with diabetes, you can email