Jenna, a new client, was explaining what she wanted to get out of her counseling sessions. She said, “I want to love food again. I want to pop a juicy strawberry into my mouth and not think about my blood sugar. I want to enjoy a slice of gooey cake at my son’s birthday party, guilt-free. I want to go to a dinner party and feel free to eat whatever my friend prepares.”
And what stopped her from enjoying eating? “I have diabetes,” she said.
This was followed by a pause, as if that sentence explained it all — that a diagnosis of diabetes means that food and eating can no longer be enjoyed.
Jenna’s concerns aren’t surprising, given the advice most people with diabetes receive about food choices and meal planning. When you’re asked to consider the carbohydrate content, fat content, glycemic load, and potential impact on your weight of everything you eat, it can be extremely difficult to maintain a healthy relationship with food, to truly enjoy eating, and to allow food to nourish you. It doesn’t help when doctors, dietitians, friends, and family members all seem to have something to add to the topic of how to eat with diabetes.
If the prospect of choosing foods strikes fear in you, or if you’ve tried several “diabetic diets” and none of them worked for you in the long run, we’ve got some great news: There’s no need to see food as your enemy, or to carefully restrict your eating. In fact, the opposite is true. The secret to managing your diabetes lies in learning to celebrate food and its amazing ability to nourish you.
Ending the blame game
Chances are you’ve been prescribed a food regimen to help control your blood glucose levels. If you’re like most people, you find it hard to stick with a rigid plan, and if your meal plan excludes certain foods that you like, you mourn the loss of those foods. Perhaps you’ve tried to follow your meal plan, only to find yourself eating the very foods you were told to avoid. Perhaps you were told you needed to lose weight, and even though you shed some pounds, a few months later, they returned. You may wonder why you can’t just get your act together and take better care of yourself. In fact, if you have Type 2 diabetes, you may think that if you’d done a better job monitoring your food intake and weight before your diagnosis, you wouldn’t be in this predicament now.
So here’s our first piece of advice: Don’t blame yourself!
Genes play a large role in the development of diabetes. We’re all born with challenges in our genetic code — as well as in our life circumstances — and this is one of the challenges you were dealt. Your body was vulnerable to difficulty with glucose regulation, and some combination of factors triggered that genetic propensity. However, now that a diagnosis of diabetes has made you aware of your body’s trouble regulating glucose, you’re in the driver’s seat: You can learn how to manage your blood glucose and nourish yourself better. To get there, you may need to let go of certain beliefs that harm rather than help you.
Changing the “diet” mentality
In the care and treatment of Type 2 diabetes, the value of achieving and maintaining weight loss has long been an unchallenged tenet. So you may be surprised to learn that there is limited evidence to support this emphasis. In fact, evidence suggests that the pursuit of weight loss — which more often results in fluctuating weight than permanent weight loss — can actually be harmful, both physically and emotionally. It also tends to distract a person from the behaviors and attitudes that really can improve one’s health, such as eating well, being physically active, and cultivating a positive sense of self.
It’s true that the majority of people with Type 2 diabetes fall into the body-mass index (BMI) categories of “overweight” or “obese.” But it’s also true that insulin resistance, one of the main underlying problems in Type 2 diabetes, encourages weight gain. In fact, weight gain may actually be an early symptom — rather than a primary cause — of the path toward Type 2 diabetes.