If you are living with diabetes, you may find it difficult to keep up with the latest findings in diabetes research – and especially difficult to distinguish between diet fads and true, evidence-based recommendations. Even the most seasoned healthcare professional may find themselves sifting through research to find reliable information.
As a health coach and registered dietitian, I often find myself playing myth-buster for clients who are overwhelmed by all the differing opinions on how to best manage diabetes. Should they or should they not eat bananas? Could their high-stress job really be impacting their blood glucose levels? Will fiber really make a difference in blood sugar regulation or should they just opt for a super low-carb diet instead?
Below are some frequent statements I’ve heard about diabetes. See if you are able to tell the difference between these diabetes myths and facts.
“Fiber helps to regulate blood sugars”: Myth or Fact?
FACT. Fiber is an essential component in maintaining a healthy diet and can be particularly helpful for those managing diabetes because of its role in blood sugar regulation. Fiber is an indigestible carbohydrate that does not contribute calories or raise blood sugars. There are two types of fiber that are found in most plant-based foods: soluble and insoluble fiber. While both are beneficial, soluble fiber has the ability to slow down the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream, allowing for more stable blood glucose levels. The recommended fiber intake is 25-30 grams/day for adults. Aim to get your fill of fiber through whole, plant-based foods like nuts, beans, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
“Probiotics may help to manage diabetes”: Myth or Fact?
This is looking like it may be a FACT, although I’d emphasize the “may” in that statement – probiotics is a relatively new area of research with much more left to be discovered. The use of probiotics, or healthy gut bacteria, in diabetes management is getting a lot of attention these days and for good reason. Most folks already know that probiotics serve as an essential element in healthy digestion but recent studies have shown probiotics may play an even larger role in the body, especially for those living with diabetes. Some of these findings include reducing insulin resistance, reducing inflammation in the body, and even preventing other conditions commonly associated with type II diabetes, such as hypertension and obesity.
While there are a wide variety of probiotic supplements already on the market, you can begin growing your healthy flora by simply adding in certain fermented foods to your diet like plain yogurt or kefir (cultured dairy), sauerkraut, kimchi, miso and kombucha, a bubbly, fermented tea.
“Stress can increase your blood glucose”: Myth or Fact?
This one is most definitely a FACT. Ever wonder why your blood glucose levels tend to read higher around the holidays or when struggling to meet a deadline at work? Stress has a strong influence on our blood sugars, so ongoing stress can become problematic in managing diabetes.
Stress is just as much a physiological issue as it is psychological. Not only do stress hormones surging through our systems cause blood sugars to elevate but they will often increase our cravings for sugary or salty foods, making it even harder to exercise willpower.
Avoid getting caught in the high-stress, high-blood sugar trap by learning how to address your stress before it becomes unmanageable. If you are a notorious stress-eater, try an alternative coping mechanism to handle your stress like exercise, deep breathing techniques, or meditation.
“Artificial sweeteners may make it harder to kick the sugar cravings”: Myth or Fact?
Though more research is needed, this one is looking to be more FACT than myth. You may be saving yourself some extra calories when you sprinkle on your favorite low-cal sweetener, but you are likely doing very little to kick the sugar cravings. In fact, some research has shown that the ongoing use of artificial sweeteners is likely to further perpetuate cravings for sweet foods because of their interference with appetite control and our brain’s reward system. Couple this with other studies that have found that artificial sweeteners may alter healthy gut bacteria and metabolism, and you are likely better off reducing all sweet foods—artificial or not.
If you are looking to minimize your sweet tooth, try noshing on whole foods that contain complex carbohydrates and protein like fruit and nuts when a craving strikes. This may help to keep you fuller for longer and decrease the desire for sugary foods as often. Lower your tolerance of sweets by gradually reducing your sugar/sweetener use little by little each day, like opting for a teaspoon, rather than a tablespoon, of sweetener in your morning coffee.
“You should avoid fruit if you have diabetes”: Myth or Fact?
This is a huge MYTH! There seems to be a lot of confusion surrounding the role of fruit in the diabetes-friendly diet. If you are living with diabetes, you may have been told you need to drastically reduce your sugar intake, no matter the source, leaving you to believe fruit is automatically off-limits. But rest assured, there is always room for fresh fruit in your diet – and if you’re skipping nature’s candy, you may be missing out on some very valuable nutrients.
Adding fruit into your diet can offer an excellent source of fiber and antioxidants, which are crucial for preventing cell damage and inflammation, which is common in those living with diabetes. Of course, as with any food, fruit should be eaten within its proper portion size to avoid excess consumption of sugar and calories.
And be mindful when choosing which fruits to eat. Always opt for fresh fruit over fruit juices or canned varieties, which are often packed in sugary syrups and lower in fiber. And while all whole fruits will contain fiber, certain tropical fruits like pineapple and banana tend to be higher in natural sugars, so you may want to make these more of an occasional choice.
In need of a healthy snack? Pair a handful of fresh berries or an apple with a handful of almonds or string cheese and you have the perfect mix of complex carbs and protein to keep you full until your next meal.
“People with diabetes should follow very low-carb/no-carb diets”: Myth or Fact?
MYTH! There are many diets out there that recommend considerably reducing carbohydrates beyond standard diabetic diet guidelines. This can be a risky approach when trying to manage diabetes. For one, reducing your carbohydrate intake too much can leave you feeling lethargic and hungry, which is entirely unnecessary and many times leads to binge-eating behaviors when reduced for too long. Secondly, if you are on medications for diabetes, cutting all carbohydrates from your diet can be outright dangerous, as our bodies need some glucose to maintain normal daily functions.
Instead of radically reducing or eliminating all carbohydrates from your diet plan, focus on the quality of carbohydrates and the portion sizes you are consuming at each meal. Avoid most refined versions of carbohydrates when possible, such as white bread, white rice and foods high in processed sugar. Instead, choose complex carbohydrates that contain high amounts of fiber, such as whole wheat bread, brown rice, quinoa, fresh fruit and vegetables.
If you’re not sure how you should adjust your carbohydrate consumption or portion sizes, seek out a Registered Dietitian or Certified Diabetes Educator to get information that’s tailored to your needs.