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Food Choices That Impact Your Risk of Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is one of the most common diseases Americans live with. The latest figures show about 11 percent of the population has type 2 diabetes, and an additional 96 million American adults have prediabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association.  Although some people are at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes due to uncontrollable factors (genetics and family history), it's important to do your part through diet and exercise. While there isn't a magic food to prevent diabetes, eating the right combination of healthy carbohydrates, fats and proteins can help you in the long run.

How does food play a role in diabetes?

The words blood sugar in relation to diabetes can be confusing to some. Eating foods that taste sweet or consuming too much sugar isn’t the only way to get diabetes. It’s much more involved than that.

To understand why type 2 diabetes occurs, you need to understand the role of glucose (blood sugar) and how your body processes carbohydrates. Carbs, which serve as an important macronutrient along with fats and proteins, contain sugars, starches and fiber.

After eating a meal, your body processes carbs into glucose to provide energy to cells. The glucose enters your bloodstream and causes your blood sugar to rise. To help offset this rise, the pancreas releases insulin, a hormone that allows glucose to enter cells.

Chronic levels of high blood sugar from eating certain foods can alter your body’s ability to use insulin properly, leading to type 2 diabetes. Foods with sugar – desserts, soft drinks, candy – can all quickly raise your blood sugar. But so can starchy foods. For example, a stack of pancakes loaded with refined carbohydrates is high on the glycemic index or the time it takes to increase glucose levels. That may be an obvious case. White potatoes are an example of a less unassuming food. Your body processes the starches in white potatoes quickly, leading to a spike in blood sugar.

Which types of food can cause diabetes?

Carbs are only part of the equation when it comes to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes. In general, any food that can lead to weight gain puts you at risk of developing diabetes – obesity is a major risk factor.

Here are some of the most common foods to stay away from or eat in moderation:

Refined carbohydrates: Many foods contain refined flour that removes the bran and the germ during processing. The finished product doesn't have nearly the same dietary fiber as whole grains. As a result, the body processes these starches quickly, leading to glucose spikes. Examples of refined carbohydrates include white bread, white rice, white pasta, pizza, chips, pretzels, tortilla chips and crackers. Diets rich in refined carbs have been linked to an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Foods high in saturated fats: You may not associate saturated fats with diabetes, but this unhealthy dietary fat has been linked to insulin resistance. Plus, eating any foods that can lead to weight gain can also put you at risk. Foods with saturated fat include fatty cuts of red meat, skin-on chicken or poultry, coconut and palm oil and full-fat dairy products such as butter, cheese and milk.

Foods with added sugars: Any foods with added sugars, especially fructose (fruit sugar), cause glucose levels to rapidly spike. Added sugars include obvious sweets such as candy, cakes, cookies, and ice cream, and less obvious examples such as yogurt, sauces and salad dressings.

Sugary drinks: Whether it’s a lemon-lime soda or a juice box, sugary drinks are full of empty calories with no nutritional value. In other words, this is a quick way to spike your blood sugar. A single 12-ounce soft drink has about 40 grams of added sugar or 10 teaspoons. Similarly, a 12-ounce serving of fruit punch has 26 grams of added sugar or more than 6 teaspoons of sugar. One study found a single sugary beverage consumed each day can increase the risk of type 2 diabetes by 25 percent.

Fried foods: Foods fried in fatty oils can lead to weight gain, high cholesterol and high blood pressure – three risk factors of diabetes. A study by Harvard Health found eating fried foods four to six times per week increased the risk of type 2 diabetes by 39 percent. That number jumped to 55 percent for people who ate fried foods every day.

Processed foods: Processed foods are a way for food manufacturers to add oils, sugars, salt and preservatives to increase product flavor and shelf life. The end result is foods high in sugar, calories and, sometimes, saturated fat. Conversely, they are also low in nutrition and fiber. A large study in 2019 found people whose diet consisted of 22 percent processed foods (or 1 in 5 meals containing processed foods) were at a higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

Foods with trans fats: Trans fats are another type of bad fat that can lead to cardiovascular problems that, in turn, increase your risk of diabetes. While trans fats have largely been removed from products, they can still show up in foods despite labels reading "0 grams trans fat." By law, foods can contain up to 0.5 grams of trans fat per serving and still be labeled at 0 grams. Check food packaging for partially hydrogenated oil. This may appear in margarine, snack foods and packaged baked goods.

Foods to decrease risk of diabetes

While there isn't a specific diet to prevent type 2 diabetes, focusing on these foods has been shown through various studies to play a role in decreasing your overall risk.

Fiber-rich foods: Fiber is your friend when it comes to either preventing or reducing your risk of diabetes. Your body can’t digest or absorb dietary fiber, thus slowing the absorption of sugar to limit spikes in glucose and insulin levels. Fiber is also more fulfilling and helps you feel full faster, which helps prevent overeating. Examples of fiber-rich foods include fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains.

Non-starchy vegetables: These vegetables won’t spike your blood sugar and also pack many important vitamins such as A, C, E and K, along with minerals such as iron and potassium. Examples include leafy greens (spinach, kale, collard greens, mustard greens, arugula), cruciferous vegetables (cauliflower and broccoli), peppers, mushrooms and asparagus.

Fruits: Certain fruits (bananas, mangoes, pineapple) are higher on the glycemic index, but in general most fruits are safe to eat without spiking your blood sugar. To be safe, focus on citrus fruits such as oranges, grapefruits and lemons. Any type of berry is also a good choice to add fiber and vitamins to your morning routine. One study unveiled that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables can lower the risk of type 2 diabetes by up to 50 percent.

Tomatoes: While tomatoes are naturally sweet when cooked, they still are relatively low on the glycemic index, making them an option for a side dish, sauce or soup.

Legumes: These foods contain carbs, but they’re high in fiber to help slow down the release of glucose. Plus, they have protein to keep you full longer. Examples include chickpeas, lentils and beans.

Lean protein: Stay away from saturated fat by choosing lean proteins. Skinless chicken and poultry are good options if you enjoy animal protein. Most types of seafood are lean, too, and also contain heart-healthy omega fats.

Whole grains: Whole grains are high in fiber and beneficial nutrients. The bran and fiber take longer to digest, therefore, most whole grains won't spike glucose levels. Examples include brown rice, oats, whole wheat bread and whole wheat pasta. When shopping for whole grains, look for “whole” on the ingredient list. One study found eating two servings of whole grains can decrease the risk of type 2 diabetes by 21 percent. Another study found that making the simple change from white rice to brown rice was associated with a 16% lower risk of type 2 diabetes.

Plant-based fats: Plants contain monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, both of which are beneficial to heart health. When cooking, use vegetable oils, avocado oil or olive oil. For a snack, any type of nuts (almond, walnuts) or seeds (flax seed, chia seed) are also good sources of healthy fats.

If you have a family history of diabetes or fall under one of the many risk factors (obesity, over the age of 45, don't exercise often or have given birth to a baby over 9 pounds), contact your doctor to talk about altering your diet to lower the risk of type 2 diabetes. For more health tips and wellness content, visit the INTEGRIS Health For You blog.


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