The only thing I was sure of when my dad developed Type 2 diabetes was that sugar was the enemy. After my own diagnosis of Type 2, I discovered that I was not seeing the whole picture.
Anything we eat that turns to simple sugar quickly can make our blood sugar spike. We do not have a healthy pancreas pumping out insulin to move those sugars into the cells. The pancreas of someone with diabetes responds too slowly or not at all.
Without insulin, a simple sugar called glucose builds up in the blood. One diabetes specialist said extra glucose is like little bits of glass floating through our arteries, damaging the tiny blood vessels that our eyes, hearts, and kidneys depend on. Other areas of the body, such as our fingers and toes, are at risk too.
So excess sugar was bad. But the big surprise was that other foods can cause spikes in blood sugar even though they are not, or don’t initially appear to be, sugary.
So I made a list of nine things those of us with diabetes ought to avoid and why. Included are some suggestions for what you could try instead.
Rice, pasta, and white flour are staples in our Western diet. White rice has been “milled” and “polished,” processes that strip away the fiber and most of the vitamins, leaving only the endosperm, a simple carbohydrate that cooks and digests quickly. An hour or so after eating white rice you may feel hungry again.
White flour has a similar story. The fiber and minerals are in the outer part of the whole grain. This is removed in processing, leaving a simple carbohydrate that turns to glucose fast.
White bread and pasta are made from this processed flour. Does this mean you cannot have bread, pasta, or rice anymore?
No. The answer is to look for whole-grain bread, pasta, and rice. All are available, and all of them include fiber, minerals, and vitamins.
These foods still contain carbohydrates, so you have to watch portions, but the magic ingredient, fiber, slows down digestion and lowers the impact on your blood sugar.
If you want to lower the impact of these foods even more, include a healthful fat like olive oil. Fiber and fats slow the digestion of carbohydrates, helping to make them diabetes friendly.
Bagels are another potential landmine for Type 2 diabetes. Because they are typically made with white flour, bagels can cause blood glucose spikes. Thankfully, you can choose whole wheat versions and add some protein and fat to reduce the blood sugar spike if you do not want to give up bagels.
French fries with ketchup are out. The ketchup is full of sugar, and the fried potatoes are full of something called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). AGEs have been identified as factors in developing and worsening many diseases, among them Type 2 diabetes. This makes French fries a huge no-no.
So what can you have instead? Baked sweet potato fries are a delicious substitute, full of minerals and naturally sweet. It is also possible to find ketchup with no sugar added, but you may not like the taste. For me it turned out that the sugar was what I liked about ketchup.
Next on the list is fruit juice. Many of us keep orange juice in the refrigerator as a rescue drink in case of low blood sugar. This is exactly why we should not drink fruit juices every day. They cause blood sugar levels to rise fast.
In fruit juice you have all of the fruit sugar without the fiber from the whole fruits. Remember the rule: Fiber slows down digestion. Oranges, apples, and berries are full of fiber. Fruit juice is not, so we need to get our vitamins from whole fruit and avoid juices.
Commercially prepared fruit smoothies often have the same problem: Lots of calories and sugars packed into a tasty drink that spikes blood sugar. (However, you can find — or make — diabetes-friendly smoothies if you are careful.)
Sport drinks are even worse than fruit juice. Most of them have very little nutritional value but are packed with sugar, usually in the form of high-fructose corn syrup.
Another food we have to watch out for is energy bars. Finding them in the health aisle at the store gives the impression that they are good for you, but these bars often contain hidden sugars.
Low-fat yogurt also seems like a healthy snack. Keeping the serving size small makes the calorie count look good, but most of those calories come from added sugar. As a snack, this will not satisfy your hunger for very long.
The best choice in yogurt is a Greek style, because the protein content is much higher. Protein slows down digestion, so Greek yogurt will stick with you longer. You might try buying plain yogurt and adding fresh fruit or a spoonful of no-sugar-added jam.
Number nine on this list of foods we can live without is not actually a food at all. Artificial sweeteners ought to have made our lives with diabetes easier by helping us avoid sugar. But certain studies have shown that they may slow our metabolism and encourage our bodies to store fat.
Some studies have also uncovered an increased risk of diabetes among people who regularly use artificial sweeteners. This means natural sweeteners are better choices.
We will always have to keep sugars and other simple carbohydrates to a minimum. But when I look back at how I used to eat, I must admit having diabetes has made me learn healthy eating habits.
There is certainly nothing wrong with that. Do you agree?