As 10% of Americans have diabetes, and 30% have pre-diabetes, you know plenty of people who are either living with or trying to prevent medical complications from these conditions. Perhaps you are, yourself?
What you eat and how much you move your body impact diabetes prevention and maintenance significantly. Rachael Lenthall, MS, RD, LDN, of Cheshire Medical Center's outpatient Nutrition Services team, helps patients take manageable, sustainable, evidence-based steps to improve their health. She finds gradually substituting foods and adding healthier items to regular meals is the most sustainable way to make meaningful, healthy changes.
"We're all human, and I am a dietician who preaches that all foods fit," Rachael says. "Eliminating added sugars and artificially sweetened foods in our diets is important for people with pre-diabetes, but I don't think it's sustainable to try and cut anything cold-turkey or eliminate it completely from your diet."
She adds that she has a sweet tooth herself — so she has personal experience with food and drink that make great substitutes, in addition to those her patients have found.
Beverages: Replace soda and coffee flavor shots
"The first advice we give is to change what you drink. It's crazy how many added sweeteners we can consume this way," Rachel says. "Especially if you're getting coffee drinks with flavor swirls." If you frequent coffee drive-throughs, ask for unsweetened flavors at Dunkin, Starbucks, or your local coffee shop.
"Every dietician has their opinion on the role of sweeteners in everyday life," she says. "But when it comes to people with diabetes, artificial sweeteners do not spike blood sugar as actual sugar does."
Soda and energy drinks are also significant sources of added sugar. Rachel recommends switching from soda to sparkling seltzers, such as Spindrift brand, or those with a bit of added caffeine, such as some Aha seltzer flavors.
Snacks and desserts: Eat fruit
"A lot of people with diabetes are afraid to eat fruit because of the sugar," Rachael says. "But with whole fruits come vitamins, minerals, and fiber — which helps control our blood sugar levels throughout the day."
"For a little while, as you cut back on junk food and focus on whole foods, you might think food doesn't taste as good." She says artificially sweetened and processed foods have flavor enhancers that tend to overwhelm our taste buds and can be addictive, "but over time, your taste buds adjust back to what actual food tastes like."
"For a sweet fix, lean on fruit." Rachel says, "I love strawberries with a dollop of whipped cream at night — or I microwave apple slices for one minute and sprinkle cinnamon on top."
Balance: Add protein and fat to carbohydrates
"Not only do protein, fat, and fiber help keep us feeling full, they slow our digestion, which helps us control the release of blood sugar into the bloodstream," says Rachel, who advocates for healthy fats like nuts and nut butters.
"Try not to solely eat carbohydrates," she says. "If it's an English muffin for breakfast, add peanut butter, an egg, or have it with Greek yogurt." An easy, balanced dessert is banana wheels topped with peanut butter and unsweetened 100% chocolate chips found at the co-op.
Consistency: Eat regularly
"Eating consistently throughout the day — not skipping meals — gives your body a consistent source of fuel so it can use that fuel more efficiently," Rachel says. "Also, if we're not giving our bodies the energy and the nutrients it needs throughout the day, we're more likely to get hangry or overeat at night."
Grains: Make half your choices whole
"A really easy switch people make is from processed grains to whole grains to increase fiber in our diets," says Rachel, who advocates for substituting during every other meal. Start choosing whole wheat bread instead of white while checking to ensure there isn't sugar added to the bread. Buy whole-wheat pasta and ask for brown rice when you get takeout.
To include even more fiber and nutrients in your diet, many people enjoy substituting or adding high-fiber vegetables to their meals. Try adding "riced" cauliflower or chopped greens to rice or substituting roasted cauliflower as a base for your meal instead of grains.