Healthy Habits Work Better for Diabetes than Drugs, Say Many Doctors
Diabetes and prediabetes are potentially very serious, chronic conditions that are rising in incidence at a shocking rate. Currently, the number of diabetics and prediabetics in the United States is increasing by several million a year. The majority of diabetics are adults, although in the last few years, a growing percentage of new diagnoses are given to children, including toddlers.
In 2012, the number of people with diabetes in the U.S. was 29 million; more than a quarter of them, 8 million, had not been diagnosed. The number of prediabetics aged 20 and older in 2012 was 86 million. (Source: American Diabetes Association.) Prediabetes is when blood sugar levels are higher than normal, but not high enough to get a diabetes diagnosis.
When you add up people with diabetes and prediabetes in the U.S., the number comes to almost half of the nation’s adult population. This should give people pause and make Americans want to take active steps to avoid becoming a prediabetic, or prevent prediabetes from turning into full-blown diabetes.
Many prediabetics and diabetics fail to recognize the seriousness of their condition until it is too late. Diabetes is the leading cause of blindness and kidney failure in adults. It also causes mild to severe nerve damage and circulatory problems; these two factors combined often lead to a leg or a foot having to be amputated. (Source: Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, The Nutrition Source.) About 60 percent of all non-traumatic lower-limb amputations in people age 20 and older are performed in those diagnosed with diabetes. (Source: ADA.) Because it injures blood vessels, diabetes also increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke.
But the great news is that if you develop healthy habits, prediabetes and diabetes can be prevented and even reversed. While genetics can play a role, a person’s lifestyle habits can overpower genetic influence in whether or not someone gets diabetes. (The Nutrition Source.)
Diet and exercise are the two most important factors in preventing or improving a diabetic condition. Doctors — especially physicians who practice integrative medicine, instead of just recommending drugs and surgeries to their patients — have gone so far as to say that lifestyle changes are a better way to control diabetes than to just rely on medical therapies.
Control Diabetes with the Foods You Eat
Because the biggest risk factor for diabetes is being overweight, controlling one’s weight is extremely important. If you and your doctor believe that you need to lose a large amount of weight to get into a healthy range, it should inspire you to learn that losing between 7 and 10 percent of your current weight will cut your risk of developing diabetes in half. So, it doesn’t need to happen fast; but if you start making some key changes, you can begin losing some pounds and steadily move towards good health.
So many people have fallen prey to the whole “low-calorie,” “zero calories” and “fat-free” marketing strategies used by processed food manufacturers in the last several decades — believing that by substituting sugar or fats for artificial chemicals, fillers and stabilizers, they were doing something good for their health. But now, we know that artificial chemical sweeteners only introduce toxins into the body that don’t belong there, and that could promote illness in the long term; in the shorter term, studies have found that artificial sweeteners can actually lead people to gain weight and crave sweets even more.
The bottom line is that you don’t want to put in your system things that offer no nutritional or medicinal value — or you are simply adding to your body’s toxic load, and courting illness. While it’s easy to turn to artificial sweeteners to add taste and cut calories, it is much better for your health to simply use very little processed sugar in your foods, if you use any at all. Aside from the obvious part of avoiding soft drinks, Snapple and similar sweet drinks — whether diet or regular — it’s a better idea to make all the calories you consume count: for example, sweetening your breakfast oatmeal with a couple of spoonfuls of apple juice, and not use sugar; or add raisins, chopped fruits or blueberries for sweetness and taste, instead of sugar.
As for synthetic fillers, emulsifiers and stabilizers (for example, mono- and diglycerides, hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oils, carrageenan, xanthan gum and others) — these are extremely common in processed foods, from cookies and pies, to crackers and canned soups, most kids’ cereals, salad dressings, ice creams, non-dairy creamers and most store brands of frozen foods sold at regular grocery stores. They are used to bind ingredients, make foods cheaper to manufacture, extend shelf life, and in many cases also to reduce fat or calorie content.
It is truly hard to avoid those additives, if you eat foods that are pre-made. But it’s good to do your best to avoid them, as they are not food, in the true, natural sense, that your system can metabolize and use. Even a little bit of something that isn’t good has the potential to do harm, if you keep eating it. It can poison and clog your system, and interfere with its absorption and elimination processes, which are vital to keeping us healthy. The only way you’ll know if a food you’re purchasing has any unnecessary, artificial additives is to read the ingredients — if something has a strange chemical name, or you’re not sure what it is, it’s best to avoid it. And of course, minimize your consumption of processed foods and eat more natural whole foods, instead.
Some additional food tips to help keep your blood sugar levels from spiking, lose weight and maintain a healthy weight:
- Eat whole fruits every day and limit daily consumption of fruit juices to just a few ounces; unprocessed fruits are rich in fiber, which helps fill you up, eliminate waste, and slow sugar absorption. When you do drink all-natural juice, try pouring just a couple of ounces into a 16-oz glass or water bottle, then fill the rest of the container with water; that quenches your thirst and still tastes quite good. Fruits (and vegetables) also help to keep your immune system healthy, which is an important consideration in avoiding disease in general. You don’t even need any sweetness, to have a refreshing, healthy beverage: try pouring the juice of half a lemon or lime into a 16-oz glass or water bottle, and fill with water, for a naturally sugar-free, invigorating and immunity-boosting drink.
- Eat even more servings of vegetables (3-6 a day) than fruits, opting mostly for non-starchy types, such as: broccoli, kale, lettuce, green beans, tomatoes, collard greens, watercress, carrots, cabbage, onions, cucumbers, bell peppers, radishes, mushrooms, celery, etc.
- Add fresh (or dried) herbs to your dishes, for even more fiber, nutrition and taste: parsley, basil, cilantro, oregano, rosemary, sage, etc. Fruits, vegetables and herbs are rich in vitamins, minerals and thousands of plant nutrients (phytonutrients) that are tremendously helpful in maintaining overall good health by reducing oxidative stress in cells and helping to push out impurities.
- Limit red meat and avoid processed meats; add more poultry and fish to your diet, instead: a handful of large, long-term studies found that eating as little as 3 ounces of red meat (beef, pork, lamb) a day increased the risk of type 2 diabetes by 20 percent. Eating even smaller daily amounts of processed red meats (bacon, sausages, hot dogs, luncheon meats), such as 2 slices of bacon or a hot dog, raised diabetes risk by 51 percent. Conversely, limiting or switching red meat and processed red meat for other protein sources like low-fat dairy, poultry, fish or whole grains cut diabetes risk by up to 35 percent. (The Nutrition Source.)
- Limit your consumption of starchy vegetables like potatoes and corn, as the starch is quickly converted to sugar in the gut. The same goes for white rice and processed white flours, such as those in white breads, bagels and many breakfast cereals. These foods have high glycemic indexes, meaning that they produce sustained spikes in blood sugar and insulin, which may increase diabetes risk, and in diabetics, is burdensome on the pancreas, which produces the insulin.
- Whole-grain foods have a protective effect against diabetes, large studies have found. The secret is in all of a grain’s components being in the food: the bran and fiber on the grain make it harder for the gut to break down the grain starches into glucose. This leads to a lower and slower increase in blood sugar and insulin, which is a good thing both for preventing diabetes and for diabetic conditions. Whole grains are also a natural source of vitamins, minerals and assorted antioxidants that help fight disease in general. Choose whole grains for breakfast cereals, breads and pastries, whether you buy the flour and make your own foods, or buy them already made. Finding cereals and pastries that don’t contain the fillers and stabilizers discussed earlier can be a little hard at regular grocery stores in the U.S.; but more and more food makers are starting to use only natural, minimally processed ingredients, as demand for these products continues to surge. Read ingredients labels and buy organic foods. All-natural brands cost more; but in the long run, you will be healthier for it. There is no better investment of your food money than buying quality foods to nourish and heal you, instead of having to buy pharmaceutical drugs that are even more expensive and having your quality of life diminished by illness.
- Certain spices are brimming with phytonutrients that have been found in studies to lower insulin resistance, a good thing for a diabetic or prediabetic. Three amazing spices in this category are garlic, cocoa and cinnamon. Not only do they add wonderful flavor and important trace minerals to dishes, baked goods and desserts — they can also help prevent blood sugar spikes. All three of these spices improve absorption of glucose from the blood by the body’s cells, where it belongs and is converted into energy, thus lowering blood sugar. They are high in polyphenols, a class of antioxidants found in many studies to improve insulin sensitivity and fasting blood glucose levels. Cocoa has also been found to stimulate the nervous system and improve kidney function — both important for diabetics. (Source: American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation.) In addition, all three of these spices help lower blood pressure — another good effect for diabetic conditions, as diabetes is a risk factor for hypertension. Some usage tips: garlic goes well with meats, cheese dishes and in soups and salads; fresh is best, but organic powdered garlic (with no anti-caking silicone) works well, too. Cinnamon and cocoa are delicious in dairy desserts, in oatmeal, or even together as spiced, hot cocoa — just remember to go very light on the sugar! Cinnamon can also be sprinkled on fruits like apple or banana slices. When purchasing cocoa powder for your hot cocoa or chocolate milk, make sure you are getting 100% cocoa powder, nothing else added. (Chocolate bars should be avoided by diabetics except as a rare treat and in moderation, because of their high sugar content. Dark chocolate has less sugar, and it’s also good to look for chocolate bars that have nuts or minced fruits in them, as that will slow the sugar absorption.)
- Beware of your snacking choices — instead of loading up on potato chips or cookies, keep some low glycemic index healthy choices around for when hunger strikes. These will tide you over and nourish you, but are low in carbohydrates: 1) baby carrots, celery sticks or broccoli florets, using mustard, organic hummus or fresh lemon juice as a dip; 2) fresh fruits; 3) tortilla chips (make sure they are all-natural; they should have no more than three ingredients) loaded with chopped tomatoes, onions and cilantro, using lemon juice or vinegar as a dressing; 4) potato chips with all-natural sour cream and chopped chives — just a few chips will fill you up; 5) nuts — a small handful hits the spot, and they’re full of nutrients.
Control Diabetes Through Exercise
One of the biggest risk factors for many illnesses, including diabetes, is to not have much physical activity in one’s life. Being inactive often results in excess weight, and in the case of diabetes, being overweight is the number-one risk factor for the disease. Further, insulin shots and diabetes medications can sometimes cause a diabetic to gain weight. A person with prediabetes or diabetes, then, has several important reasons to get active and strive to maintain a healthy weight.
Engaging in regular physical activity will help make your muscle cells more sensitive to the insulin your body produces. Also, insulin works better when you weigh less and your body is more able to control sugar levels. (Source: American College for Advancement in Medicine, Integrative Medicine Blog.)
You don’t have to do an intense exercise regime, to reap many benefits. A good aim would be to walk briskly for 30 minutes as close to daily as you can. As your cardiovascular and muscle tones improve, you can increase the time and speed of your walk, or incorporate more strenuous activities, which will yield even greater benefits. The more often and the harder you work your muscles, the better they get at absorbing glucose. That puts less stress on the pancreas insulin-making cells.
Smoking Is a No-No!
Smoking raises the risk of getting diabetes as much as 50 percent; heavy smoking raises it even more.
By Cynthia Sanchez. A graduate of the University of Washington, Cynthia has extensive experience writing about health and wellness topics for different media.