"Diabetes diet." Simply hearing these words may be enough to make you feel overwhelmed or frustrated. Perhaps you have said, or heard someone else express, one of these thoughts:
- Eating too much sugar causes diabetes.
- There are too many rules about choosing foods that are OK in a diabetes diet.
- You have to give up all your favorite foods when you're on a diabetes diet.
Myth 1: Eating Too Much Sugar Causes Diabetes.
How does diabetes happen? The causes are not totally understood. What is known is that simply eating too much sugar is unlikely to cause diabetes. Instead, diabetes begins when something disrupts your body's ability to turn the food you eat into energy.
To understand what happens when you have diabetes, keep these things in mind: Your body breaks down much of the food you eat into glucose, a type of sugar needed to power your cells. A hormone called insulin is made in the pancreas. Insulin helps the cells in the body use glucose for fuel.
Here are the most common types of diabetes and what researchers know about their causes:
- Type 1 diabetes occurs when the pancreas cannot make insulin. Without insulin, sugar piles up in your blood vessels. People with type 1 diabetes must take insulin to help get the sugar into the cells. Type 1 diabetes often starts in younger people or in children. Researchers believe that it may occur when something goes wrong with the immune system.
- Type 2 diabetes occurs when the pancreas does not make enough insulin, the insulin does not work properly, or both. Being overweight makes type 2 diabetes more likely to occur. It can happen in a person of any age.
- Gestational diabetes occurs during pregnancy in some women. Hormone changes during pregnancy prevent insulin from working properly. Women with gestational diabetes usually need to take insulin. The condition may resolve after birth of the child.
Myth 2: There Are Too Many Rules in a Diabetes Diet.
If you have diabetes, you will need to plan your meals. But the general principal is simple: Following a "diabetes diet" means choosing food that will work along with your activities and any medications to keep your blood sugar levels as close to normal as possible. Will you need to make changes to what you now eat? Probably. But perhaps not as many as you anticipate.
Myth 3: Carbohydrates Are Bad for Diabetes
In fact, carbohydrates -- or "carbs" as most of us refer to them -- are good for diabetes. They form the foundation of a healthy diabetes diet -- or of any healthy diet. Carbohydrates have the greatest effect on blood sugar levels, which is why you are asked to monitor how many carbohydrates you eat when following a diabetes diet. However, carbohydrate foods contain many essential nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, and fiber. So one diabetes diet tip is to choose those with the most nutrients, like whole-grain breads and baked goods, and high-fiber fruits and vegetables. You may find it easier to select the best carbs if you meet with a dietitian.
Myth 4: Protein is Better than Carbohydrates for Diabetes.
Because carbs affect blood sugar levels so quickly, if you have diabetes, you may be tempted to eat less of them and substitute more protein. But too much protein may lead to problems for people with diabetes.
The main problem is that many foods rich in protein, such as meat, may also be filled with saturated fat. Eating too much of these fats increases your risk of heart disease. In a diabetes diet, protein should account for about 15% to 20% of the total calories you eat each day.
Myth 5: You Can Adjust Your Diabetes Drugs to "Cover" Whatever You Eat.
If you use insulin for your diabetes, you may learn how to adjust the amount and type you take to match the amount of food you eat. But this doesn't mean you can eat as much as you want, then just use more drugs to stabilize your blood sugar level. If you use other types of diabetes drugs, don't try to adjust your dose to match varying levels of carbohydrates in your meals unless instructed by your doctor. Most diabetes medications work best when they are taken consistently as directed by your doctor.
Myth 6: You'll Need to Give Up Your Favorite Foods.
There is no reason to give up your favorite foods on a diabetes diet. Instead, try:
- Changing the way your favorite foods are prepared.
- Changing the other foods you usually eat along with your favorite foods.
- Reducing the serving sizes of your favorite foods.
- Using your favorite foods as a reward for following your meal plans.
Myth 7: You Have to Give Up Desserts if You Have Diabetes.
Not true! You can develop many strategies for including desserts in a diabetes diet. Here are some examples:
- Use artificial sweeteners in desserts.
- Cut back on the amount of dessert. For example, instead of two scoops of ice cream, have one. Or share a dessert with a friend.
- Use desserts as an occasional reward for following your diabetes diet plan.
- Make desserts more nutritious. For example, use whole grains, fresh fruit, and vegetable oil when preparing desserts. Many times, you can use less sugar than a recipe calls for without sacrificing taste or consistency.
- Expand your dessert horizons. Instead of ice cream, pie, or cake, try fruit, a whole-wheat oatmeal-raisin cookie, or yogurt.
Myth 8: Artificial Sweeteners Are Dangerous for People with Diabetes.
Artificial sweeteners are much sweeter than the equivalent amount of sugar, so it takes less of them to get the same sweetness found in sugar. This can result in eating fewer calories than when you do use sugar.
The American Diabetes Association approves the use of several artificial sweeteners in diabetes diets, including:
- Saccharin (Sweet'N Low)
- Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal)
- Acesulfame potassium (Sunett)
- Sucralose (Splenda)
Myth 9: You Need to Eat Special Diabetic Meals.
The truth is that there really is no such as thing as a "diabetic diet." The foods that are healthy for people with diabetes are also good choices for the rest of your family. Usually, there is no need to prepare special diabetic meals. The difference between a diabetes diet and your family's "normal" diet is this: If you have diabetes, you need to monitor what you eat a little more closely. This includes the total amount of calories you consume and the amounts and types of carbohydrates, fats, and protein you eat. A diabetes educator or dietitian can help you learn how to do this.
Myth 10: Diet Foods Are the Best Choices for Diabetes.
Just because a food is labeled as a "diet" food does not mean it is a better choice for people with diabetes. In fact, "diet" foods can be expensive and no more healthy than foods found in the "regular" sections of the grocery store, or foods you prepare yourself. As with any food you choose, read the labels carefully to find out if the ingredients and amount of calories are good choices for you. If you have doubts, ask your diabetes educator or a dietitian for advice.
Moving Beyond Diabetes Diet Myths
Now that you know the facts about diabetes diets, you can take steps to learn even more about making wise food choices. Together with exercise and medication, you can use what you eat as an effective tool for keeping your blood sugar levels within normal ranges. That is the best diabetes diet of all.