Going to the Grocery Store with Diabetes: The Produce Aisle

As I mentioned in a previous entry, attacking the perimeter of the grocery store first is key to making healthy food choices. The perimeter of the store is where the fresh fruits and vegetables, fresh fish and meat, and dairy products are typically located.

Let’s start by going down the produce aisle. When it comes to diabetes management, we have all been told at least a hundred times how important fibrous vegetables and fruits are for healthy meal planning. But what if you don’t quite understand organic versus conventional? What if budget is a major factor for you and the growing cost of produce is just too much to bear when cooking for a family of five, let’s say. What if you’re confused by the health trends that target just one type of vegetable or fruit as the source of all vitality? What if you truly can’t stand vegetables?

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The general rule of thumb for consuming fruits and veggies, as outlined in the new 2015–2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, hasn’t changed much over the years. In general, it is recommended to make up about half of your plate with fresh, canned, or frozen fruits and veggies. Fresh vegetables that are minimally processed (that is to say, not sautéed in butter, fried, and so on) are the best way to get those vitamins and minerals, but even if you can only get those important nutrients from frozen or canned (low-sodium) versions, it’s better than nothing. Remember, fruits and vegetables not only contain high amounts of fiber, which can help with blood sugar management, but they also have nutrients and antioxidants that can help ward off many different health conditions.

Here are some pointers that will help you navigate the fruit and veggie section:

Food safety and shelf life. While on its face this has absolutely nothing to do with managing blood sugar, it potentially could lead to a blood sugar emergency. If you are not in the habit of discarding funny-looking onions, wilted lettuce, or fuzzy grapes, this could lead to potential foodborne illness, which of course is not ideal for someone with diabetes — or anyone, for that matter. Download an app such as FoodKeeper or Is My Food Safe to help you estimate how long a food will be good. As for bagged lettuce or precut fruits and veggies, note that these are often higher in cost and have passed through more production hands to get into their convenient packages. If you have the time, you may be better off washing and preparing your fruit or vegetables yourself instead.

Organic versus conventional. This is hot-button topic for many people. While some studies show that eating organic produce is not necessarily any healthier than eating its non-organic counterpart, many people feel that these studies are missing the big picture, which is the effect of pesticides and GMOs on our risk of cancer and other conditions. If we are just talking about diabetes, whether a fruit or vegetable is organic has no effect on your blood sugar levels. However, you do want to reduce your exposure to pesticides, and in turn potentially reduce your risk of getting any other chronic conditions, so you may want to familiarize yourself with the Environmental Working Group’s list of the “Dirty Dozen Plus” and “Clean Fifteen” foods. This will especially help you choose produce based on your budget and health concerns. If organic is way out of your budget, you may want to just choose a few items from the dirty dozen list to purchase organic, such as cherry tomatoes and strawberries.

Fiber and glycemic index. Keep in mind that fruits and vegetables, and particularly those that are higher on the glycemic index (a ranking of carbohydrate-containing foods based on their effect on after-meal blood sugar levels) need to be accounted for when adjusting insulin and other medications. Fruits that have a higher glycemic index include bananas, pineapples, watermelon, and raisins. While these may be beneficial in treating a low, if you’re just eating them as part of a snack or meal, they need to be accounted for. Vegetables such as parsnips also have a high glycemic index and can affect blood sugars more than, say, spinach or bell peppers. A great idea is to print a glycemic index list from the web and highlight the vegetables and fruits you most enjoy, planning accordingly.

Versatility. Finally, creating a versatile shopping cart is important. You shouldn’t be buying produce that you can’t stand to eat just because you know it’s a fad and is supposed to clean out your colon, or some such. While food items such as kale and avocados are indeed powerhouses, it doesn’t mean you need to force yourself to eat them. You can try to incorporate these nutrient-dense options into a recipe or two, but worst case, try to at least just eat more of the fruits and veggies you do like! And remember, children need to be exposed to a new food roughly 20 times before deciding if they really like it or not. So don’t let your toddler’s initial dislike of broccoli stop you from buying it!

Cost. Try to shop in-season produce to get a more affordable price and a fresher product. Also try your best to stick to a master grocery shopping list that incorporates all the necessary and hopefully versatile ingredients for the recipes you plan for the week. Try to focus your budget on healthy produce options, proteins, and dairy before allotting money to sweets and snacks.

I want to add that if you have flexibility in your budget and live in an area that has farmers’ markets or local farms, I would always recommend choosing local first. This not only supports our local farmers, but also provides the most fresh and unique options.

Next week: Let’s get down to the meat of it in the meat aisle.

Sincerely, going bananas,
Regina

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