If you have diabetes it’s really worth understanding food. Your long-term health depends on it because we know that lifestyle changes have a far more powerful effect on reducing mortality than drugs. In fact only one diabetic drug reduces mortality (metformin) and even this to a lesser degree than lifestyle changes.
Many natural diets work for diabetes but the key is to use a low carbohydrate, high fat diet. This is what we evolved to live on. The modern diet, packed with sugar and carbohydrates, is bad news for diabetes. The amount of sugar and carbohydrates we are eating has increased alarmingly creating an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Some people think a high fat diet means having lots of meat and dairy. But this is not so. Nuts, seeds and oily fish are full of fat and vegetables are broken down by bacteria in the large bowel to form short chain fatty acids. These are the foods you need.
Sugar and Refined Carbohydrates
It is impossible to get type 2 diabetes or to continue to have type 2 diabetes if you don’t eat sugar, or foods that turn into sugar.
The key to controlling diabetes is removing sugar and refined carbohydrates. Sometimes people assume that if they stop adding sugar to tea or cereals then they will be okay. Nothing could be further from the truth. The typical British diet is a health disaster. The reason is simple: 50% of the diet is made up of refined carbohydrates. These have zero nutritional value but break down into sugar and cause a range of harmful effects including diabetes.
You might be surprised by how much sugar is found in everyday foods. Sugar is added to almost everything. The most useful thing to remember is that a level teaspoonful of sugar is 4 grams (a sugar lump is 5 grams). All packets and time will tell you how much sugar is in 100grams so look at the labels. You may be shocked. A single cola drink can contain 10 teaspoonfuls of sugar, an energy drink 15 to 19 teaspoonfuls, a portion of pizza 8 teaspoonfuls, sauces have between one to three teaspoonfuls per portion, one sausage 1 teaspoonful of sugar, most ready meals 5 to 10 teaspoonfuls of sugar, can of baked beans 6 teaspoonfuls, packet of couscous 6 -10 teaspoonfuls of sugar, bran flakes 3 teaspoonfuls and a yoghurt 5 teaspoonfuls. On average some fruit juices have the equivalent of 14 sugar lumps in them. Soft drinks deserve a special mention as drinking just one soft drink per day increases the incidence of obesity. Our diet contains, on average, 23 teaspoonfuls of sugar per day.
Some foods use the traffic light system. Green is low –less than 5 grams per 10 grams but beware: if you eat a 400grams packet of soup labelled as green you might still be eating 4 teaspoonfuls of sugar. Amber is between 5 and 22.5 grams of sugar per 100 grams. This is labelled as medium but I would regard this as high. Red is above 22.5 grams per 100 grams and labelled as high – I would regard that as ludicrous and certainly a health hazard.
Most breakfast cereals, including those advertised as being healthy, are laced with sugar. Foods labelled as low fat are nearly always high in sugar. Sugar is contained in almost anything that comes in a packet or tin.The average ready meal may contain 8 different types of sugar and can be up to 15% sugar. Sugar is not just present in sweet-tasting foods, it is found in savoury foods such as sauces, canned fish and canned vegetables. It’s also added to meat. Fruit concentrates are even added to baby foods giving babies a taste for sugar.
Other sugars are produced from starches and include sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol and maldextrins. Anything ending in “ose” or “ol” will be a sugar. The worst sugar of all is high fructose corn syrup because it is absorbed very rapidly and can overwhelm the body’s normal protective response (by producing insulin). This in most processed foods and a lot of soft drinks.
Other refined carbohydrates such as white flour (and most bread), white rice, processed potatoes and chips, have a similar effect to sugar. Removing or substantially reducing sugar and refined carbohydrates will go a long way to dealing with diabetes.
What Should I Eat?
First let’s mention a few key studies which will show just how big a difference food can make. You might be surprised to know that some people have cured themselves of type 2 (maturity-onset) diabetes with diet alone. Even in type 1 diabetes insulin can be improved markedly.
Dr James Anderson put 25 type I diabetics and 25 type 2 diabetics on a whole plant food, high fibre, high (unrefined) carbohydrate diet in a hospital setting. All these patients were on insulin. After 3 weeks the type 1 diabetics had reduced their insulin by 40%. All but one of the type 2 diabetics had stopped their insulin after 3 weeks. Their cholesterol levels had come down by a third. His diet included wholegrains, vegetables (all vegetables but especially root vegetables), fruit (apples and avocados are recommended as they are high in fibre), lentils, beans, seeds, nuts, rice bran, brown rice, rye bread and jacket potatoes. He particularly recommended oat bran. This is a soluble fibre and lowers cholesterol quite markedly. Wheat bran is not as good.
At the Pritikin Centre doctors put a group of 40 type 2 diabetics on a low fat, plant-based diet combined with regular exercise. After 26 days 34 of these patients were able to stop all their medication.
Low calorie diets can do the same. In 2011 a team of scientists at Newcastle University put 11 people with type 2 diabetes on a 600 calorie diet. After 2 months all were free of diabetes. After 5 months seven out of eleven were still free of diabetes even though they had gone back to “normal” eating.
Dr John Douglas in Los Angeles has also been able to help many diabetics to stop or reduce their insulin, using a similar approach, by using a 90 – 100% raw food diet. Raw fruit and vegetables work because they are high in fibre and nutrients. A raw food diet also rests the pancreas as it doesn’t need to work nearly as hard as there is much less protein to digest. Although this diet is very different from the standard western diet it does illustrate the importance of natural foods in treating diabetes.
The best diet for diabetes includes vegetables, seeds, nuts, fish and healthy oils (olive oil, coconut oil, butter). Wholegrains such as wholemeal bread and wholegrain rice are better than other types of bread and white rice but need to be used with caution. Wholemeal bread usually has added sugar so check the label. Look for 100% whole wheat. Meat is okay in moderation. The more of these healthy foods you have in your diet the healthier you will be.
Fasting and Low Calorie Diets
Professor Roy Taylor put 30 diabetic patients on a 700 calorie a day diet for 8 weeks. They lost an average of 14kg and 12 of these patients reversed their diabetes (all of whom had the disease less than 10 years) and remained free of diabetes 6 months later. TV presenter, Dr Michael Mosley, developed the 5:2 diet after finding he had diabetes and experimenting with intermittent fasting. He restricted his diet to 600 calories twice a week, eating normally on the other days. He lost 9kg and reversed his diabetes in 12 weeks. He describes this in his book “The Fast Diet”. In a later version of the diet he recommended 2 weeks on a 800 calories a day followed by a 5:2 diet. He also recommends a 12 hour break between eating in the evening and morning (see below).
The 12 hour Break
Research by Professor Panda at the Salk Institute found that mice fed a high sugar diet put on large amounts of weight as we do, but those mice that ate exactly the same food but within an 8 hour time period but on far less weight. Later studies on humans found the same. Whenever we eat we trigger insulin release (although much more if we eat sugary foods). Most fat burning starts about 6 hours after the last food of the day (this includes alcohol). The longer we can leave it after this the better the effect, with an optimum result at 16 hours. Twelve hours is more realistic for most people but longer is better. It makes a real difference to sugar control if we can switch off this response for as long as possible. So fasting, having long gaps between meals and avoiding snacks is critical to controlling diabetes and switching off the insulin response. Ideally have at least 12 hours between the last meal in the evening and the first in the morning.
Fruit is healthy and good for us. However some fruits are high in sugar, especially dried fruits and tropical fruits like mango and pineapple (due to more time in the sun). Other fruits such as berries are usually fine. Fruit juices are a major problem because, as the fibre has been removed, so sugar is absorbed much more quickly. Commercial juices are also stored for long periods and have minimal nutritional value. Until diabetes is stable it is best to go easy on fruits, avoid fruit juices and check your sugar reading after eating fruits.
Remember This Tip
Every packet or tin of food will show a figure for sugars per 100 grams. Remember this: – a teaspoonful of sugar is 4 grams. You will be surprised how many foods such as cereals, soups, yoghurts and sauces have high levels of sugar. The worst offenders are often low fat foods.
Legumes such as lentils, beans and peas stop spikes in blood sugar even if sugary foods are eaten later.
Two tablespoonfuls of apple cider vinegar at bedtime can improve blood sugar readings the following morning.
More about Food
Stimulants such as coffee, tea, cigarettes and alcohol can cause the body to release sugar and make control of diabetes more difficult. Be careful with alcohol. It is higher in calories than sugar and can cause the blood sugar to drop suddenly as the alcohol level drops. Keep the amount of alcohol low and take it with food.
Ground-breaking research in 2013 followed 66,000 women for 20 years and gave results which were totally unexpected. They found that those women who drank artificially sweetened drinks had twice the risk of diabetes compared with those who drank sugary drink (which also increased the risk of diabetes). These sweeteners are bad news and seem to stop us processing sugar in the normal way. They also create sugar craving. They have other side effects: saccharin is associated bladder cancer in rats, aspartame is associated brain tumours in animals and can cause severe hypoglycaemia (low sugar) making diabetes uncontrollable, sucralose increases body weight and damages good bacteria in the gut. A study published in Stroke in 2017 found artificial sweeteners increased dementia and stroke by 300%. Avoid anything with Diet on the label. Some foods labelled as sugar-free contain maltodextrins. These are modified corn sugars which can cause spikes in sugar levels in a similar way to simple sugar. The safest sweetener is Stevia which has no calories and seems to have a positive effect on health.
Good and Bad Fats
Make sure you have the right fats in the diet. Cut down on hydrogenated fats such as margarines (a small amount of butter is better), and beware of supermarket oils (cook with olive oil, coconut oil or butter), and fried foods. It is particularly important in diabetes to get enough essential fats (to protect the arteries). Good sources of essential fats are oily fish (mackerel, sardines, anchovies, pilchards, herring but not farmed salmon) and seeds (linseed, sunflower, safflower, pumpkin). You can sprinkle these on cereals or salads.
Diabetes: the Chemical Connection
The major cause of both diabetes and obesity is well-understood: the flooding of the food market, in the last two to three decades, with poor-quality, high-sugar foods. However the relationship between obesity and diabetes is not as straightforward as it may seem. We know that persistent organic pollutants (POPs), notably BPA, are linked to obesity; this connection has shown up in a number of studies. Research in several countries has, found that obesity is far more likely to progress to diabetes in those who have higher levels of POPs in their bodies. In other words sugar is the fuel behind the diabetes epidemic but POPs were acting like a catalyst, accelerating its development.
We all have chemicals in our fat and removing them is not straightforward, however causing the body to sweat (exercise, saunas), avoiding excess chemicals (pesticides, many personal care products, air fresheners, plastics) and having a good diet will help.
The first is cinnamon. The problem in type 2 diabetes is the sugar cannot get out of the bloodstream and into the cells. A chance discovery by Dr Richard Anderson found that cinnamon helped sugar to get into the cells and diabetic volunteers given between 1 and 6 grams of cinnamon daily reduced their sugar levels by 20%. Some even had normal sugars. It also reduced bad cholesterol (LDL). The amount needed was ½ teaspoonful daily. This can be added to salads, curries, stews or oatmeal. Not all studies of cinnamon have given positive results. The type of cinnamon used as a spice in cooking (Ceylon or sweet cinnamon) has been associated with negative studies but a meta-analysis (review of many studies) of cassia or Chinese cinnamon gave positive results. Using doses of between 1 and 6 grams daily it reduced fasting sugar, HbA1C and slightly reduced blood pressure. The best dose may be about 1 gram daily of the powdered herb.
A study of diabetic patients given either the herb berberine 500mg three times daily or metformin 500mg three times daily for 3 months found both compounds had identical effect on diabetic control and the HbA1c dropped from 9.5 to 7.5 in the berberine group. In another group given berberine 500mg three times daily the HbA1C dropped from 8.1 to 7.3 and sugar and cholesterol levels were significantly reduced. Other studies have shown similar results with berberine plus a reduction of blood pressure. It is thought that berberine improves insulin activity by activating an enzyme.
Another good food is oats –especially oatbran. Taking this with your meal can reduce the peaks of sugar by half – which is a greater effect than the drug metformin.
Another food long known to be helpful for diabetic control is the Jerusalem artichoke. Other foods which have anti-diabetic effects are green tea, buckwheat, garlic, cherries and plums.
The problem in diabetes is the body can’t handle sugar. Too much sugar gets into the blood stream too fast leading to too much insulin being released. This is what happens every day with a typical western diet. After a few decades of this the body can’t cope any longer. So it is important to know which foods release sugar quickly and often to avoid them. Foods that release sugar quickly are said to have a high glycaemic index. Charts of glycaemic index are available on the internet. Eat foods with a low number on glycaemic index.
The glycaemic index doesn’t take into account the calories in food. There is a slightly different system called glycaemic load which takes both into account. For instance watermelon has a high glycaemic index but little carbohydrate so it is not a problem but has a low glycaemic load. Discussing the glycaemic load is beyond the scope of this leaflet but it is well worth looking into.
Testing Your Sugar
When it comes to diabetes everybody is different. One food may be a problem for you but not another person with diabetes.
The only way to find this out is to test your own blood sugar. You can either test it before or after meals (1 or 2 hours after). Although the ideal time is after meals, I would recommend doing it before meals simply because it’s easier to remember. A simple system is to test before each meal three times weekly (Monday, Wednesday and Friday for example). Ideally all readings should be below 8. Write down your results. If you get a high reading then think back to your last meal and see what you ate and try and work out why the sugar was high. Something in that meal caused a problem. Once you have been taking readings for a while then you may be able to guess what your reading will be. Before taking the reading, think back to your last meal and guess what your reading will be. You will soon get good at this and then you will be able to do a lot less blood tests.
Testing your sugar will give you two crucial pieces of information: which meals are okay and which meals are not.
Remember exercise also affects your sugar reading. Many people find that they have lower readings at work if they are doing a physical job and higher readings at weekends.
There is also evidence that a deficiency of chromium plays an important part in diabetes, particularly late onset diabetes. Like metformin, chromium makes the cells more sensitive to insulin. There have been over 20 studies of chromium in diabetes. Not all have been positive but benefits have been shown to occur where 250mcg or more was used, especially when the supplement was chromium picolinate. A Chinese study using 500mcg of chromium picolinate showed halving of fasting and after meal blood sugars. A study using 600mcg of chromium picolinate with 2mg of biotin caused a drop in sugar that was 7 times as great as with metformin. Chromium is very safe and you would need to take over a hundred tablets daily to reach toxic levels. A good regime is to take 200mcg with meals for 3 months then 500mcg daily.
When Diabetes Gets Difficult: Hidden Allergies and Toxicity
This section is for people with hard-to-control diabetes, sometimes called brittle diabetes. Sometimes it can be hard to control in spite of doing all the right things. First make sure you are not using aspartame. However the most likely reason for poor control is an idiosyncratic reaction to a specific food or chemical which specifically affects you. This can cause inflammation and destroys the receptor (called glucose transporter type 4 or GLUT 4) which normally allows glucose to enter the cell. The sugar is then dumped in the fat stores, usually in the abdomen.
To avoid this you need to identify the food causing the inflammation. Make a list of foods you eat every day, those you eat two or three times a day and those you eat once a week or less. Note chemicals like aspartame and monosodium glutamate can also cause this problem and may need to be tested. Start with those you eat daily.
Leave one of these off for 5 days then take a blood glucose reading before breakfast, eat this food on its own and then take another reading one hour later. Keep testing the daily foods and then the two to three times daily foods and then other commonly eaten foods until you have identified the culprit or culprits. Once you know which foods cause your sugar to spike and have eliminated them from the diet your diabetic control will improve, sometimes dramatically. Sometimes the diabetes can disappear completely. This method was a favourite of the late holistic practitioner Dr Patrick Kingsley who specialised in complex problems and used it for many years; it is based on the book Victory over Diabetes. The authors noted a wide range of foods could cause problems.