The Diabetes Diet

Yes, you can still enjoy mealtime—and not even give up dessert.
In fact, tasty, nutritious dishes—like the ones featured on the pages ahead—
should be an integral part of your plan to prevent or manage the blood-sugar blues. Here, ET offers a few simple guidelines to help you embrace eating.

July/August 2006

By Joanne Gallo

When it comes to diabetes and food, it often seems like an all or nothing proposition. Many diabetics crave and indulge in sugar and carbohydrates, a hallmark sign of the disease, which only makes them sicker, fueling a vicious cycle. On the other hand, those who fear that they “ate” their way into it can become suspicious of every morsel and limit their diets so much that they miss out on vital nutrients.

But neither feast nor famine is a useful strategy if you’re struggling with type 2 diabetes or trying to ward it off. Instead of viewing food as an object of either desire or dread, your dietary philosophy should embrace eating as simple, enjoyable and beneficial.

“Eating wisely is one of your most powerful weapons in the fight against diabetes,” asserts Sandra Woodruff, MS, RD, LD/N, author of The Complete Diabetes Prevention Plan (Avery). What’s more, it doesn’t have to be complicated. “For most people, it’s simply a matter of getting back to basics—replacing overly processed foods with wholesome alternatives.”

Stuffed Chicken Breasts Florentine

4 cups (packed) coarsely chopped fresh spinach
2 tsp crushed garlic
1/4 cup crumbled reduced-fat feta cheese (plain or flavored with tomatoes and basil)
4 boneless skinless chicken breast halves (5 ounces each)
1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tsp salt
1/2  tsp ground black pepper

1. Coat a large nonstick skillet with nonstick cooking spray. Add the spinach and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes over medium heat, or until the spinach is wilted. Remove from heat and toss in the feta cheese.

2. Cut a deep pocket into the thickest side of each piece of chicken and stuff a quarter of the spinach mixture into each pocket. Close by pressing flesh together and secure with a wooden toothpick if necessary. Sprinkle both sides of the chicken pieces with some of the salt and pepper.

3. Wipe out the skillet, add the olive oil, and preheat over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook for a couple of minutes on each side or until nicely browned. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and cook for about 8 to 10 minutes, turning occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through. Serve hot.

Serves 4. Analysis per serving: 213 calories, 35g protein, 6.7g fat (1.6g saturated), 2g carbohydrates

Garlicky Green Beans

1          lb frozen French cut green beans
2          tbsp water
1/4       tsp dried thyme
1/4       tsp salt
1          tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2    tsp crushed garlic

1. Place the frozen green beans, water, thyme and salt in a large nonstick skillet. Cover and cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, for about 7 minutes or until the green beans are completely thawed. Reduce heat to medium and cook for several minutes more or just until tender. Drain off any excess liquid.

2. Push the beans to one side of the skillet and add the olive oil and garlic to the empty side of the skillet. Increase heat to medium-high and cook for about 10 seconds, or until the garlic smells fragrant and is just beginning to turn color. Toss the beans with the garlic mixture and serve hot.

Serves 5. Analysis per serving: 54 calories, 1.6g protein, 2.8g fat (0.4g saturated), 7g carbohydrates

Golden Peanut Butter Cookies

1          cup whole-wheat pastry flour
3/4       cup oat flour
1/4       cup nonfat dry milk powder
3/4       tsp baking soda
3/4       tsp baking powder
2/3       cup peanut butter
1/4       cup plus 2 tbsp trans-free margarine or butter
3/4       cup light brown sugar
1/4       cup fat-free egg substitute
2          tbsp pure maple syrup
1          tsp vanilla extract
1. Combine the flours, milk powder, baking soda and baking powder in a bowl and stir to mix well. Set aside.
2. Combine the peanut butter, margarine and brown sugar in a large bowl and beat with an electric mixer to mix well. Beat in the egg substitute, maple syrup and vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture to the peanut butter mixture and beat to mix well.
3. Shape level tablespoonfuls of the dough into balls and arrange 1 1/2 inches apart on ungreased baking sheets. Flatten each cookie to 1/4-inch thickness by crisscrossing with the tines of a fork. Dip the tines of the fork in sugar between each cookie if desired.
4. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the bottoms of the cookies are golden brown. Remove the cookies and let sit for 2 minutes. Transfer the cookies to wire racks to cool completely.

Makes 40 cookies. Analysis per cookie: 78 calories, 2.1g protein, 4g fat (0.7g saturated), 9g carbohydrates

The most obvious place to start is by avoiding sugar and all foods containing it. Then replace refined foods like white bread, white rice and low-fiber cereals with whole-grain breads, cereals and pasta. (The new whole-grain breads and pastas are quite good—no more of the gritty, heavy stuff.)

Emphasize vegetables, salads, fruits, lean meats, skinless poultry, seafood, legumes, low-fat dairy foods and good fats like nuts and olive oil. 

“There is no single optimal diet to prevent diabetes,” notes Woodruff, “which is good since people have such different tastes and preferences. However, the typical ‘Western’ diet (high in fatty meats, French fries, high-fat dairy foods, refined grains and sweets) is associated with a  nearly 60% increased risk of developing diabetes (Annals of Internal Medicine 2002). On the other hand, diets high in whole grains, nuts, unsaturated fats and vegetables are associated with a lower diabetes risk.” The important thing, adds Woodruff, is that meals should include some lean protein, good carbohydrates and good fat.

Check the Index

One system that experts advocate for diabetes and weight management is the glycemic index (GI), which was developed in the ’80s to rank foods containing carbohydrates based on how much they raise blood sugar levels. High-GI foods are quickly digested and absorbed, causing a sharp rise in blood sugar and insulin levels, while low-GI foods are slowly digested and absorbed, leading to a smaller, more gradual rise. With high-GI foods, the pancreas must work harder to handle the burst of incoming sugar; over time the pancreas can become worn out and type 1 diabetes develops.

Nutritionists and health professionals debate the relevance and accuracy of the glycemic index, but Woodruff believes it has its merits. “There are individual variations in how high blood sugar rises after eating a given food,” she says. “But, in general, for any individual, a high-GI food like white bread will produce a significantly higher rise in blood sugar than a low-GI food like oatmeal or pasta. So the overall concept of GI is very useful in meal planning.” Woodruff adds that you do not have to totally eliminate all high-GI foods, just have them in reasonable portions and eat them with lower-GI accompaniments.

In fact, old favorites can still be eaten and enjoyed with just a few healthy tricks of the trade. “For instance, pasta dishes can be made with whole-grain pasta, lean meat and reduced-fat cheeses,” says Woodruff. “French toast and pancakes can be whole grain and topped with low-sugar fruit sauce. Even dessert can feature fruits, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, nuts and other wholesome ingredients.”

Woodruff recommends using extra-virgin olive oils for cooking, as well as canola oil for baking because it has no interfering flavors. Walnut oil, which like canola contains healthy omega-3 fats, is a great choice for salads, imparting a distinct nutty flavor. Herbs like basil, thyme, rosemary, oregano, dill, parsley and garlic can also help spice up your cooking.

The recipes shown in this story are examples of the kinds of flavorful, well-balanced dishes that can be a regular part of your plan to keep diabetes at bay. Just don’t blame us if you wind up craving the right foods instead.

The Glycemic Index of Common Foods

Foods containing carbohydrates are ranked on the glycemic index according to how much they raise blood sugar levels. Low-GI foods, which cause a smaller rise in levels, are preferable to high-GI foods. Following are the ratings for some common foods (some of the rankings might surprise you):

Baguette: 95
Baked Potato: 85
Corn Flakes: 81
Bagel: 72
Watermelon: 72
Carrots: 71
Cantaloupe: 65
Pita Bread: 57
Sweet Potato: 54
Sourdough Rye Bread: 53
Peas: 48
Spaghetti: 44
Pear: 38
Cherries: 22
Peanuts: 14

 

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