Diabetes – the basics

A healthy diet is an essential part of diabetes management as it can help to control blood glucose (sugar) levels and achieve a healthy weight.

What is Type 2 Diabetes?

Diabetes, correctly called diabetes mellitus, is a condition in which the body can’t maintain healthy levels of glucose in the bloodstream. Our body produces a hormone called insulin that converts glucose (from food) into energy.  In type 1 diabetes, the body doesn’t produce any insulin naturally.  So, people with type 1 rely on insulin each day to replace what their body isn’t producing. They also need to be diligent each day in testing their blood glucose levels, to make sure they are within a healthy range.

In people with type 2 diabetes, the body becomes resistant to insulin, or it gradually stops producing enough to control blood glucose levels. Either way, without enough effective insulin, the blood glucose levels will rise above normal levels. High levels of glucose in the blood can eventually cause damage to blood vessels and nerves. Small blood vessels like those that deliver blood to the kidneys and eyes are particularly susceptible to damage in people with poorly managed diabetes.

Blood glucose levels normally vary between 4 and 6 mmol/L (fasting). People with diabetes should aim to achieve blood glucose levels as near as possible to the normal range in order to avoid short and long term diabetes complications.

Individual blood glucose targets should be discussed with your diabetes health professional team.

Good diabetes management can help reduce the risk of complications such as:

  • Heart disease
  • Kidney disease
  • Stroke
  • Eye problems
  • Foot problems
  • Circulation problems.

Diabetes and Diet

It is important that any dietary advice is tailored to your individual needs. An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) will consider personal health and lifestyle influences and help to separate the facts from the myths surrounding diet and diabetes.

Some common dietary myths that are not correct include:

  • People with diabetes should eliminate all food containing carbohydrate
  • People with diabetes need to avoid all sugar completely
  • People with diabetes need to eat mostly foods high in protein and fat.

However, evidence shows that people living with diabetes may need to modify the following:

Dietary fat

Both the type, and amount of fat that we eat is important. Foods containing unsaturated fats are a healthier choice than foods high in saturated fats. It may be important to reduce the amount of foods containing saturated fats in your diet and replace with sources of unsaturated fats.

Fibre

It may be helpful to increase the amount of fibre eaten each day. Fibre can make meals more filling and evidence suggests that soluble fibre (found in foods such as beans, fruit and oats) may help to control blood glucose levels. Try to choose high fibre breads and cereals, fruit and vegetables each day.

Carbohydrate

Foods containing carbohydrate include bread, rice, pasta, noodles, breakfast cereal, potato, corn, legumes, fruit, milk and yoghurt. Carbohydrate foods can be eaten with each meal but the quality and amount need to be individualised for you. Some people with diabetes use ‘carbohydrate exchanges’ to work out how much carbohydrate to eat and when to eat it. The carbohydrate-containing foods that provide the best blood glucose level control are those that are slowly digested and absorbed into the blood stream. These are foods with a low glycaemic index (GI).

It is important to include regular meals each day particularly if you are taking medications. Skipping meals can affect blood glucose levels and leave you feeling unwell. For more information on low carbohydrate diets and diabetes, see our hot topic.

Keep active

Regular physical activity is also important in managing diabetes. Try to be active each day as this can assist with blood glucose control by helping to make muscle more sensitive to taking up glucose.

An Accredited Practising Dietitian (APD) can provide you with professional dietary advice to help manage diabetes and stay healthy.