These 10 healthy foods can help you manage diabetes if you eat them daily!
One scene from that movie with Melissa McCarthy and Susan Sarandon I actually remember is:
Melissa McCarthy when she can’t find her grandma:
“- But my grandma, she has diabetes, I’m worried…
– Everyone has diabetes, sweetheart” (some nice people from the movie).
Like you are there, right? Such a great description.
Okay, I so don’t remember the scene very well, file some charges against me.
The point is: diabetes is everywhere. It even made it in movies.
As someone whose dad and aunt have had diabetes for years, as a biochemist and an annoying person who’s very often talking about healthy living, I thought I’d know more about this chronic disease.
Well, I researched diabetes some more recently after a private freakout and now I do.
What is Diabetes anyway?
Diabetes mellitus is a chronic disease that progresses, true, mostly slowly but surely. If not taken care of. It’s characterized by a disturbed carbohydrate, fat and protein metabolism and water and electrolyte balance. (1)
Now, before I make an attempt to explain what diabetes is, it’s important to know the basics first.
Our bodies break down food into nutrients and we use those nutrients for different things – to build body cells and molecules, but also for energy.
Our cells use carbohydrates or sugar for energy (and also fats). Note, I’m saying the cells, not just the body. Because if the sugar you eat remains in the blood plasma without getting into your body cells, it cannot be used as energy.
And that’s the thing with diabetes. The body is having a hard time metabolizing sugar.
Which means that the sugar you eat is not used by the body cells efficiently so that the extra sugar remains in the blood for longer periods of time leading to something called hyperglycemia (high blood sugar).
Why is this bad?
Big deal. So you’ve got yourself some sweet blood. That’s not bad.
Except it is.
Over time that high blood sugar can ruin blood vessels, damage the proteins in the body by a process called glycation and is associated with increased inflammation and the overproduction of free radicals, aka oxidative stress. (1)
As we already know, inflammation and oxidative stress make us age faster and are linked to all kinds of chronic diseases.
Those diseases might come anyway when we’re old and gray, but with too much oxidative stress and inflammation, these diseases come sooner. And that’s pretty horrible.
Diabetes is the leading cause of cardiovascular complications like stroke, heart failure, and atherosclerosis and according to WHO, in 2014, one in 11 people, or 422 million adults worldwide had diabetes. (FYI, I am not ALL CAPSING the word who, WHO = World Health Organization).
What’s the deal with insulin?
You hear diabetes, you know insulin’s involved. But what is it?
Insulin is the hormone that’s responsible for keeping blood sugar levels stable. It’s secreted by the pancreas when blood sugar levels rise (after eating some carbs).
The job of insulin is to pick up all that extra sugar from the blood, unlock cells, so they let that sugar in. Depending on the cell type and needs, that sugar is then either stored or used for energy. The main thing is: when this works blood sugar levels get back to normal and everyone is happy.
Knowing this, it’s important to recognize that there are different types of diabetes:
- Type 1 Diabetes. This is an autoimmune disease, where the beta cells in the pancreas are destroyed so that they can’t make insulin. No insulin means what? Yes, inability to metabolize sugar. The solution for this is supplementation with insulin injections (as far as I am informed).
- Type 2 Diabetes (the more common one). Sitting more, eating more, eating worse, getting heavy…well that blood sugar stays high most of the time. That hyperglycemia is now chronic. The pancreas makes more and more insulin until it cannot do it so well anymore. More than that, the body cells don’t even wanna know about insulin – it’s constantly knocking on their doors. Talk to the hand, insulin. This results in insulin resistance (the inability of insulin to unlock the cells and let sugar in) and possibly to a complete or partial deficiency of insulin secretion by the beta pancreatic cells.
- Gestational diabetes is another type affecting pregnant women, can usually be managed with diet change and exercise (like walking) and in most cases goes back to normal after the baby is there.
Since the type of diabetes that affects the majority of people is type 2 and it’s the one, we can actually do more about – I’ll talk here about Type 2 Diabetes.
Risk factors for diabetes (2)
- family history – the risk for developing type 2 diabetes is 2-6 fold if a parent or sibling has it
- advancing age
- physical inactivity
As bad as it all sounds, there’s much we can do to manage diabetes.
“Just stop eating sugar and flour and eat some whole foods, ok? And stop complaining.” Ah, this kind heart of mine.
That’s what I’ve always told my dad, who really eats a lot of sugar. His words always are “It doesn’t work. I’ve read all that, but someone’s gotta actually do it.”
Getting diabetes under control is, of course, a little more complicated than this and requires a little more consistency and self-care.
What are the general recommendations?
Don’t get me wrong, my so empathetically communicated tips are great if you don’t already have diabetes. If you want to prevent getting type 2 diabetes. But if you already have diabetes? Now, whatcha gonna do?
The best recommendations, I found are:
- Seriously, stop eating sugar and white flour
- Choose high-quality fats and limit their amount
- Eat a lower carbohydrate diet with more vegetables
- Exercise for at least 30 minutes, most days of the week
- Quit smoking
I do agree with all these recommendations, but I did some extra research to find 10 foods that are shown to help manage diabetes, so called anti-diabetic foods.
What are those foods?
Based on the main issues accompanying diabetes (inflammation, oxidative stress, hyperglycemia) these foods fulfill the following criteria:
- low glycemic index (high-fiber / low in sugar)
- have a hypoglycemic effect (lower blood sugar)
- anti-inflammatory (reduce inflammation)
- antioxidant (reduce oxidative stress)
Now, before we go on, I need to take a moment and say that these here are foods to supplement a healthy diet (a balanced diet with lots of vegetables, fiber and low glycemic load). They’re not quick fixes, they are healthy foods that when taken long-term improve your health and can help manage diabetes according to studies.
So let’s start.
This little herb has been used in folk medicine for a number of every man’s needs:
- reduce pain
- stimulate hair growth
- help cough up some bronchial mucus, when sick (3).
Well, in modern medicine rosemary is used to treat diabetes complications and high blood pressure. (3)
Rosemary has also been shown to have hypoglycemic, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects (3). So, everything you need to manage diabetes.
It’s also shown to protect the liver, lower cholesterol, heal diabetic wounds and even be an antidepressant (3).
Therefore – add that rosemary to your life. I must say, I’m not always the biggest fan of rosemary, but once I use it, I never regret it. Rosemary is very versatile and you can use it in dips, main dishes, pretty much any savory recipe.
Fat. Nuts are made of up to 70-80% fat. I will never eat those again. Ever. Right? After all, fat makes us sick and increases the risk for type 2 diabetes.
There’s a big but somewhere in there and I cannot lie.
Not everything is black and white. And not all fat is bad. Just like not all protein is good or all carbs are bad.
Nuts contain healthy fats, unsaturated fats. Poly- and monounsaturated fats to be exact.
These fats have a number of functions in the body. Specifically for diabetes, polyunsaturated fats are shown to improve insulin sensitivity (cells start to again open their doors to the screams of insulin and to let sugar in) and are associated with lower risk for type 2 diabetes.
Now, saturated fat and trans-fat (in processed foods and meats) make diabetes worse.
So what’s important is not to avoid fat altogether, but to eat the right type.
Other than that nuts also contain fiber and magnesium, both decreasing the body’s demand for insulin and insulin resistance.(4)
Nuts are also rich in antioxidants and studies suggest they help us lose weight (and maintain it), prevent Alzheimer’s, heart disease and certain cancers.(4)
I like to add nuts to my diet as a snack, but I also like what some studies suggest: eating more nuts instead of grains and meat.(4)
Like for example in this nut-meat lettuce wrap I made a while ago. This way you keep your calorie intake the same while having more beneficial nutrients in your diet.
Speaking of good fats…Flaxseed & flaxseed oil are among the richest food sources of omega-3 fatty acids.
Now, flaxseed, flaxseed oil and omega-3’s have a number of health and beauty benefits like:
- reducing the appearance of wrinkles
- balancing your hormones
- reducing inflammation
- preventing breast, colon and prostate cancer (5)
- preventing cardiovascular disease
- improving cognition.
In rats, flaxseed was shown to delay the development of type 2 diabetes. (6)
For all these reasons, I use flaxseed, even if I haven’t always been a fan of that taste. Use ground flaxseeds, to get all their benefits. I like to add about 1 tbsp/day to smoothies, smoothie bowls, salads, oatmeal or yogurt.
If you’d like to grind a large amount of flaxseed, make sure to keep that in the fridge for up to 6 weeks.
Now, in all honesty, studies whether cinnamon actually helps with diabetes or not are inconsistent.
A number of studies say cinnamon shows insulin-like activity in vitro (7) and improves fasting blood glucose, triglyceride, LDL cholesterol (that’s the bad one) and total cholesterol levels in type 2 diabetes patients. (8)
On the other hand, there are studies that couldn’t showcase cinnamon’s superpowers and therefore nobody can say for sure. (8)
However. Cinnamon has many other benefits for your health because it contains a number of anti-inflammatory and antioxidant nutrients.
Adding this delicious spice to your everyday life is as easy as sprinkling some (not too much) cinnamon on your oatmeal, yogurt or even drinking some cinnamon tea.
It’s no secret that turmeric has taken over the world during the last few years. So famous, I bet even the Kardashians are jealous.
Well, turmeric is famous for a good reason. Because aside from being an anti-inflammatory superstar and cancer cells’ biggest nightmare, turmeric also improves insulin sensitivity and reduces hyperglycemia. (1)
So whatever your health goal might be, add some turmeric to your meals.
It’s great in curries, I also add it to my whole grain “risottos”, soups, with lentils, even in dips or spreads. I usually use the dry and ground type, but I bet the fresh one would be great as well.
Many people make turmeric smoothies, overnight oats and healthy bars, I’m not there yet, but if you’re ready to experiment – give these options a try.
Popeye used to eat it, you probably used to hate it as a child and now everyone is blending it into smoothies.
Yes, spinach and other leafy greens are in everyone’s mouth right now.
And that’s great because eating more of these vegetables lowers the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. (9).
You can eat spinach raw or cooked, add it to risottos, smoothies, salads or soups and even sneak it into desserts.
Hate it or love it, cumin has a hypoglycemic effect, lowers the bad cholesterol (LDL) and raises the good cholesterol (HDL) in type 2 diabetes.(1)
One study with type 2 diabetes patients showed that cumin-treated patients had a decrease in their plasma triglyceride levels. That decrease was greater than for drug-treated patients. So yeah, cumin was basically better than that drug.
There are many reasons why cumin might be beneficial for diabetes patients – it’s a high-fiber plant and contains vitamin C, niacin, copper and manganese. And all these nutrients are reported to have anti-diabetic effect.
You can add whole cumin seeds or ground cumin to almost all cooked dishes you want. Anything you cook – add some cumin in. I usually like to add about ½ tsp, depending on how much food I’m cooking. I also like to sprinkle whole cumin seeds over salads – they give a surprising taste, in a good way.
If you don’t like cumin, I get it! There wasn’t a spice I hated more my whole life. But once I started adding some of it to my meals, I started tolerating it and now I actually love it (similar to cilantro).
8. Berries, especially cranberries
Like turmeric, berries are quite famous these days. The internet is full of berry smoothies, desserts, salads and people holding berries in their hands.
Again for a very good reason.
These little delicious fruits are antioxidant bombs. Studies show they prevent many diseases and apparently improve glucose levels in type 2 diabetes.
Particularly cranberries (10).
In one study, dried cranberries lowered blood glucose and reduced markers of inflammation and oxidative stress in obese type 2 diabetes patients after a high-fat breakfast. (10)
So adding some dried cranberries after you ate a high-fat meal might be a good idea. Together with some raw nuts, they make a delicious and healthy snack.
9. Dark Chocolate / Cocoa
Cocoa is one of the antioxidant-richest foods. I always wonder how people decide to take something that’s actually super healthy, mix it with sugar and call it bad. Chocolate is good for you.
Dark chocolate that is.
Studies show the antioxidants in cocoa could influence insulin resistance and reduce type 2 diabetes risk. Cocoa is a great source of a number of essential minerals, especially magnesium. (11)
Many of us are magnesium-deficient.
Now, that’s really bad.
Well, magnesium has an antiarrhythmic effect and lowers blood pressure according to research. A deficiency in magnesium, on the other hand, is linked to insulin resistance and diabetes.
So what I’m saying is: enjoy your dark chocolate! I usually eat a 85%-dark chocolate – anything below that is too sweet for me.
I also like to use cocoa in healthy snacks. For this, you grind some nuts and dried fruit and add a little bit of cocoa powder to that mixture. I would then just take a spoonful of the mixture and roll it in my hands into balls the size of a walnut (see this recipe). You can also add cocoa powder to your drinks, overnight oats or other healthy desserts.
10. Bay Leaves
Last, but not least: bay leaves.
They’re rich in antioxidants and have been used in folk medicine to treat digestive problems. But bay leaves might be able to do more than just relieve tummy aches.
Bay leaves have a very high polyphenol content (those are non-essential antioxidants responsible for the health benefits of most plants) and studies show they improve blood glucose levels and lipid profiles in type 2 diabetes patients. (1)
Bay leaves, again, not one of my favorite foods go well with all kinds of cooked meals. I don’t use them much, but now that this research got my eye on bay leaves, I’ll start making some lentil curries with them.
And that is it, guys. These are the plants shown to actually have an effect on type 2 diabetes. I shared this list with my dad and his response was the usual “I know that.” I hope at least it helps you and you add some of these plants to your meals more often.
Don’t overdo it, one step forward each day is always better than 10 steps at once and then just standing there or going back. Yeah, it’s a metaphor (a great one).
PS: Since exercise is proven to be the most beneficial lifestyle change with diabetes, go ahead and try some of the exercise videos or workout plans here: