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Diet is a four-letter word

Individual healthy eating plans now recommended for those with diabetes

Karen Miller
Diet is a four-letter word
Constance Brown-Riggs, M.S.Ed., R.D., C.D.E., C.D.N., Registered Dietitian Certified Diabetes Educator

The diagnosis of diabetes is not the best news to hear, but it’s not a death sentence, said Constance Brown-Riggs, a certified diabetes educator. People who control their glucose can live long and productive lives, she added. Even healthy eating for those with diabetes has gotten so much easier. At one time there was a specific eating plan that people with diabetes had to follow. “Not anymore,” said Brown-Riggs.

The American Diabetes Association has updated its nutrition therapy recommendations for the management of adults with the disease. The eating plan recommended for those with diabetes is the same as that recommended for everyone: a variety of fruits and vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats.

Don’t use the word “diet” around Brown-Riggs. She considers it a four-letter word. “It’s a lifestyle change,” she explained. “It’s a new way of life rather than an on-and-off again fad diet.”

What’s even better is that each healthy eating plan is unique. “You must look at the individual,” she explained. “One size does not fit all. Identify what the person is eating and go from there.”

Chances are you can find acceptable healthier alternatives.

One of the biggest mistakes made by people with diabetes is to make a 360-degree turn-around in what they eat. You cannot sustain that, Brown-Riggs cautioned. After about three months, most people fall off the wagon. Focus on what you already eat and like rather than try to incorporate popular trendy foods, such as quinoa, into your diet.

“Make moderate changes that can be sustained,” she said. For instance, if you drink five cans of sugar-sweetened beverages a day, cut it down to four. That small change takes 10 teaspoons of added sugar a day and 70 teaspoons of added sugar a week out of your eating plan. Added sugar provides no nutritional value and is a culprit behind obesity, heart disease and diabetes.

Brown-Riggs gives simple tips to help people start a plan. First is a self-assessment of what one eats and drinks every day. That means everything — including portion sizes and every nibble of cookie. Writing it down can help present a clearer picture of one’s habits. People tend to underestimate how much they eat. What one approximates as a half cup is really a cup and a “small” helping of ice cream can burgeon into two portion sizes.

The second step is to emphasize what’s healthy and cut back on the junk food and desserts. Contrary to a common myth, people with diabetes can eat desserts, but they have to be included in the daily portion of carbohydrates. As a general rule, Brown-Riggs recommends 45 grams of carbs per meal for women and 60 grams of carb per meal for men.

It’s hard not to cheat every now and then and eat too much food or too many unhealthy snacks. That will make your blood sugar go up, but “it’s not the end of the world by any means,” Brown-Riggs explained. She has a quick solution. “Take a walk,” she advised. “That will bring your glucose level down quickly.”

But she added, you should not incorporate exercise into your lifestyle plan just as a quick remedy for overeating. She calls exercise free medication. Exercise on a regular basis may result in the need for less medicine for diabetes.

Because high blood pressure often accompanies diabetes, avoid the salt shaker and monitor foods that tend to be high in sodium, such as sauces, pickles, olives and Chinese food. Don’t be fooled by tricky labels, such as “seasoned salt.” It’s still salt, she cautioned.

A recent study questioned whether breakfast was really the most important meal of the day and implied it may not be harmful to skip it. People with diabetes should eat three meals a day, said Brown-Riggs, and particularly breakfast. “You have to break the fast,” she explained. After hours of no food the body will be looking for glucose, or energy, to give it a jumpstart. But you don’t have to eat the typical breakfast of eggs, toast or cereal. “Leftovers from the night before are fine,” she said.

The diagnosis of diabetes can be frightening. Some people have a hard time making changes to their eating habits. Brown-Riggs offered a simple solution. “If nothing else cut down on portion sizes,” she recommended. Smaller portion sizes will help control weight and prevent a spike in glucose levels.

“Any change will improve outcomes,” she said.