The right foods can help lower blood sugar

The right foods can help lower blood sugar

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You may keep track of your cholesterol and blood pressure, but what about your blood sugar? About 20 percent of the 37 million U.S. adults with diabetes and more than 80 percent of the 96 million with prediabetes don’t know they have the conditions.

This is especially concerning because diabetes and prediabetes also mean a higher risk of heart disease; vision, kidney and nerve damage; and even some cancers.

Food is a powerful tool for keeping blood sugar, or glucose, under control. And healthy choices can help you avoid prediabetes or reduce your chances of progressing from prediabetes to type 2 diabetes and manage your glucose levels if you already have the disease, says Hope Warshaw, a board-certified diabetes care and education specialist in Asheville, NC.

A healthy diet can be especially helpful for older adults. In a landmark Diabetes Prevention Program (DPP) study, older participants with prediabetes who ate healthier, exercised regularly, and lost some weight reduced their risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 71 percent over a 2.8-year study.

The goal of following a diabetes or prediabetic diet is to prevent insulin resistance. Normally, after a meal, blood glucose levels rise and the pancreas releases insulin. Insulin transports glucose into cells where it is used for energy. Insulin resistance occurs when the pancreas cannot keep up with the demand for insulin. You end up making less of it and your glucose levels stay higher than they should. For people with prediabetes and type 2 diabetes, a diet that increases the body’s sensitivity to the insulin it continues to make is critical, Warshaw says. And for others, it can help keep conditions at bay.

But many of us do not know what to drink, chew and crunch. Here, we clear up some of the most common misconceptions about diet and blood glucose control and offer steps that can make a difference.

Why we crave sugar and how to beat this bad habit

Which carbs to eat for glucose control and how many can be confusing. “‘Bread is the enemy’ is something I’ve heard throughout my career,” says Lisa Jones, a registered dietitian in Philadelphia who counsels clients with diabetes and prediabetes. “And people newly diagnosed with diabetes say ‘I can’t have fruit because it has sugar.’ “

But not all carbohydrates are created equal. Research shows that some, such as refined flour, potatoes and foods with a lot of added sugars, can quickly raise blood sugar and increase the risk of diabetes. For example, in a 2019 study published in Diabetes Care, people who skipped one sugary drink a day reduced their risk by 10 percent.

On the other hand, whole-grain foods containing carbohydrates, such as fruits, beans, and whole grains, have fiber and can slow the rise in blood glucose levels after a meal. Levels do not rise and the pancreas is not taxed.

Studies support their benefits. For example, a daily serving of whole grains reduced the risk of diabetes by 7 to 11 percent in a Danish study of 55,465 older adults. And in a 2021 Australian study, middle-aged and older adults who ate about two servings of fruit a day were 36 percent less likely to develop diabetes within five years, compared with those who skimped on fruit.

Another bonus: Whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables supply flavonoids and other polyphenols, compounds that also help with insulin sensitivity.

Plus, extra pounds increase your risk of diabetes by sending more fat to your muscle cells, making it harder for your muscles to absorb blood sugar. “People with diabetes or prediabetes can be overwhelmed by the numbers and think they have a lot of weight to lose,” says Jones. “Really, just small amounts make a big difference. Losing just 5 to 7 percent of your body weight (10 to 14 pounds if you now weigh 200 pounds) reduced diabetes risk in the DPP study. Still, “I don’t care if someone loses 25 pounds,” Warshaw says. “It’s better to lose 5, 10 or 15 pounds for your size and keep as many as possible. Gaining weight is likely to increase insulin resistance again.”

A 2016 study found that eating unsaturated fats like vegetable oils, nuts, avocados and fish over foods full of saturated fats like butter and red meat can lower blood glucose levels enough to reduce the risk of diabetes by 22 percent . “Fats are not just carriers of calories, they are the most important structural molecules in the body,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University. In particular, polyunsaturated fats (found in safflower and sunflower oils) can promote insulin production and help muscles respond to insulin’s commands to absorb blood sugar. In contrast, saturated fat appears to increase insulin resistance by packing excess fat into your liver.

Does sugar detox work? I’m on it and have some surprising results.

According to a 2020 BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care study, 62 percent of people age 65 and older in the United States take dietary supplements. These include cinnamon, bitter melon, fenugreek and magnesium. Manufacturers may claim that they “promote” healthy blood sugar levels or that they are a “natural diabetes cure,” but there is little scientific evidence that they work, the National Institutes of Health says. “My approach is food first,” says Jones. So try cinnamon on whole grain toast, in a fruit salad or in your coffee. And check with your doctor before taking supplements.

Skip the candy bars and shakes

While products made to manage blood sugar can help, they are highly processed foods that contain things like protein extracts or isolates, many additives and sugar substitutes. A 2022 study of more than 70,000 people found that those who ate the most ultra-processed foods had an 80 percent higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes compared to those who ate the least. And other studies have had similar findings.

You can lower your glucose levels by eating whole foods, which have the added benefit of being full of nutrients. Try a smoothie made with yogurt, fruit, a little avocado for creaminess, and a handful of spinach or kale to boost your fiber and nutrient levels. “You won’t even notice the green; it’s gone,” says Jones. A handful of nuts, some yogurt and berries or carrots dipped in peanut butter are also good options.

Copyright 2022, Consumer Reports Inc.

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