When I was first diagnosed with Type 2 Diabetes, I found the dietary advice confusing to say the least. Basically, I was given a list of foods grouped by Glyceamic Index (GI). These were divided into three columns, low, medium and high GI. I was told to eat as much as I liked from the low GI column, occasional amounts from the medium GI column and to avoid the foods in the high GI column. The problem was that some foods I liked to eat weren’t listed at all. The effect was that my diet became oh, so boring and it was easy to slip back into old habits!
That was nearly 20 years ago and dietary advice has, if anything, become more confusing. There are a number of different diets recommended for Type 2 Diabetics. These include the paleo diet, the Mediterranean diet, the Keto diet and a vegetarian or vegan diet to name but a few!
So let’s talk diets…
The Paleo Diet – Back to basics!
The Paleo (or Paleolithic) Diet really goes back to the basics of what our ancestors ate in Paleolithic times, hence the name. Fans of the Paleo diet will eat grass-fed meats, lots of fruit and vegetables, and a variety of whole foods such as nuts and seeds.
A somewhat more relaxed version of the diet allows the consumption of some dairy (low fat) and potatoes. Others deny these and also some fruit and veg that contain too much fructose (a form of sugar found in honey and some fruits).
Our Paleolithic forebears weren’t farmers and therefore certain foods abundant today are considered unsuitable in their raw form.
Many people who follow the Paleo diet believe our digestive systems haven’t changed much since prehistoric times and therefore foods such as the following list may put a strain on our gastrointestinal tract:
- Legumes (including peanuts)
- Cereal grains
- Refined sugar
- Processed foods
- Refined vegetable oils
- Root vegetables
The Paleo diet is considered to be a lifelong programme or way of eating and not a quick fix, weight loss diet. The plan is typically (but not always) made up of lean animal protein, non-starchy fruits and vegetables, honey and non-saturated fats in the form of oils such as olive, flax, avocado or walnut.
The Mediterranean Diet – a way of life
The Mediterranean diet is more of a way of life, similar to the Paleo diet, than a weight loss regime. It is famously good for us, but defining it is all but impossible. Is it Spanish, Italian, Greek, Tunisian or any of the other cuisines from countries surrounding the Mediterranean? Is it a conglomeration of some or all of them? Ask anyone what it is and you will invariably get as many different answers as their are cuisines from this region.
Generally, what it isn’t is the fare fed to holiday makers in almost any resort around the Mediterranean. Go to Greece and you’ll likely end up with a huge kebab served with rice or chips, Italian restaurants serve up huge bowls of pasta where pasta used to be a small starter dish, Spain may provide you with a huge pan full of paella and almost anywhere you will get steak or chicken and chips!
Having lived in Mallorca for 2 years, I can assure you this isn’t the everyday food of the locals. Get away from the tourist areas and you will find delicious dishes made from the freshest vegetables and lean meat, wonderful salads dressed with olive oil and seasoning, fine cheeses, good wines and simple desserts. People generally ate what they grew. My house had a number of orange, lemon and fig trees as well as a quince or two. I grew tomatoes, peppers, lettuces, radishes and chillies to name just a few. I also had around 30 chickens so fresh eggs and the occasional roast chicken were always on the menu!
As a general rule then, the Mediterranean diet consists of lots and lots of vegetables and fruit, small amounts of lean meat, potatoes, pasta or rice (depending on the region), fresh fish (especially near the sea), vegetables, legumes (beans, lentils, peas etc.), fresh fruit and of course, olive oil.
The Ketogenic Diet – ditch the carbs!
The ketotogenic or keto diet is a very low carb diet where you aim to eat around 30g of carbs or less per day. It is also referred to as a low carb diet or low carb high fat (LCHF) diet.
This encourages the body to get its energy from burning body fat which produces an energy source known as ketones.
Eating a diet high in carbs causes our bodies to produce glucose and insulin.
- It is easier for our bodies to convert glucose into energy and it will be therefore be chosen over any other energy source.
- Insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas. It allows your body to use the glucose for energy or to store it for future use. It helps keeps maintain your blood sugar level.
On a ketogenic diet, blood glucose levels are kept at a low but healthy level which encourages the body to break down fat into a fuel source known as ketones. This process of breaking down or ‘burning’ body fat is known as ketosis.
The diet has particular advantages for those looking to lose weight, including people with prediabetes or those otherwise at risk of type 2 diabetes.
Vegetarian Diet – not rabbit food!
By now, we should all know that our diet is important to maintain health for everyone. However, amongst diabetics, choosing a sustainable and healthy diet is essential.
Diet is one of the most important ways of controlling diabetes, and combined with appropriate exercise and medication can offer a fast route to keeping blood glucose stable.
A well-balanced vegetarian diet, with an emphasis on low fat, high fibres, and high carbohydrates can be particularly suitable for diabetic patients.
Vegetarianism excludes high-calorie foods and animal products laden with saturated fats. It instead concentrates on foods that give necessary minerals and vitamins that help give diabetics a better chance of blood glucose control.
These include whole grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables.
Rich in fibre, a vegetarian diet has numerous benefits. When a diabetic eats a fibre-rich meal, the desire for further food disappears.
Fibre also plays a protective role for pre-diabetics, and can lead to lower daily requirements of insulin amongst type 1 diabetics.
Fibre is well-known as being important in improving blood sugar control, lowering cholesterol levels and providing folate, thereby reducing the risk of complications such as heart disease.
The Vegan Diet – don’t turn your nose up at it!
Do you instantly recoil at the idea of a vegan diet? Maybe, but this attitude is gradually changing and particularly amongst people with diabetes. By eating a healthy vegan diet that is low in cholesterol and saturated fat and balanced enough to include fibre and protein, blood glucose levels can be made easier to control.
This type of diet, particularly when combined with exercise, can help to lower blood glucose levels and better manage diabetes.
Vegan diets are usually plant based and include vegetables, fruit, nuts, grains and legumes. Animal products such as meat and dairy as well as added fat or sugar are generally avoided. People on vegan diets often take vitamin B12 supplements.
Eating a vegan diet will require you to make some compromises. However, if you get hold of the right diabetes recipes and plan your diet well it should make following a vegan diet for diabetes easy. Make sure that you balance protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals
Don’t worry too much about portion size or counting calories on this one! It makes it a much easier diet to stick to!
Many people with diabetes make weight loss a firm goal. Weight loss is one of the best ways of achieving control of your diabetes.
Of course, diets and dieting are a personal choice.
I have my own personal diet which is a mix of a Mediterranean and keto diet. I would encourage you to experiment and decide on your own personal regime.
Whatever diet you decide to follow, I wish you every success!
A word of caution
Whatever you decide to do regarding your diet as a diabetic, you MUST consult your doctor first especially if you are on medication of any sort (diabetic or otherwise).