If you have diabetes, it can seem challenging to make the proper diet choices to support your health and well-being. There's so much information out there that it can get confusing, plus (if you have type-2 diabetes) you're up against ingrained dietary habits that likely took you years to develop. That being said, your body innately knows what it needs, and so it's a matter of actively re-connecting to this natural ability we all possess.
This is one of the key principles of my food and eating philosophy. We have an inborn ability to know what to eat to support our optimal health. This means keeping it simple by frequently choosing natural whole foods that the body actually recognizes as food, as opposed to "foodlike substances", a term memorably coined by author Michael Pollan. Real whole food doesn't need a label. And if it does have a label, it should be a small list of recognizable ingredients (example, butter).
This brings me to the main point of this blog post - creating a diabetes-friendly kitchen. Which, in my mind, is essentially the same as creating a healthy kitchen (i.e. it applies to all). Now, you may be thinking, Didn't you just say I should already know what to eat? Why do I need your tips then? Because there is likely a disconnect between what you deep down know your body is asking for versus what you're feeding it, so this post will act as a guide to bring this knowledge back up to the surface of your awareness.
What prompted me to write this blog post was reading an article posted on a diabetes care website. I was surprised at much of the advice they were giving to people with diabetes in terms of food choices (example, choose margarine, stock up on popcorn as a healthy snack, etc.). It appeared to have more of a focus on avoiding fats and sodium, as opposed to sugar, which I believe is the main culprit to diabetes (and scientific research is pointing to this as well).
How to start creating a diabetes-friendly kitchen
Firstly, realize that you don't need to do a massive overhaul all at once. This is a gradual process over a period of time. As you start to adjust your dietary habits, you'll automatically adjust your kitchen as well. The main idea to keep in mind is to stock your kitchen with as much whole, natural, good-quality foods as you can, and the other "foodlike substances" will begin to clear out from your kitchen shelves because you'll finish them off and won't buy again, they'll expire and you'll throw them out, and so forth. However, I'm all for a good culling of the fridge and pantry every once in a while to help support the healthy mindset.
Healthy foods for stocking the pantry:
Dried and canned beans and pulses like lentils. I prefer dried beans (just takes a bit of pre-planning), but if using canned beans, look for cans with non-BPA lining.
Raw nuts and seeds like walnuts, almonds, chia seeds, and pumpkin seeds. A small handful of nuts or seeds is an excellent snack option as they are satiating (I'm not a big proponent of snacking - I feel it's more of a habit we developed here in the west; however, I do realize that sometimes we can be authentically hungry between meals).
Whole grains that haven't been refined or processed like quinoa, teff, barley, and brown rice.
Canned omega-3 rich fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. Again, look for cans with non-BPA lining and wild varieties where possible.
Healthy oils like extra virgin olive oil, avocado oil, and coconut oil (we need some fat in our diets, despite what we have been told over the past few decades. It's the trans- and hydrogenated fats found in packaged foods that are unhealthy).
Vinegars like apple cider, and low/no-sugar condiments such as good-quality salsa (with a few simple ingredients that are recognizable and pronounceable).
Spices and dried herbs both for the flavour and for their health properties (for example, some studies found that using cinnamon on a daily basis may improve hyperglycemia, plus it adds a natural sweetness to foods). And swap table salt for sea salt, which contains a lot of minerals that regular salt has been stripped of.
Healthy foods for the fridge and freezer:
A wide variety of colourful vegetables and fruits (focusing more on the non-starchy and leafy green varieties). Also, consider stocking up on seasonal vegetables and fruits from the local farmers' market and freezing them for future use as freezing doesn't significantly diminish the nutrient value of the produce (and it's better than canned produce in my opinion). It's important to note that if you have diabetes it may be best to avoid eating fruit on an empty stomach as the sugars are quickly absorbed.
Fish - especially cold water wild varieties like salmon and trout that contain abundant amounts of essential fatty acids (EPA and DHA). Along with plenty of other sources of complete protein, including local free-range poultry and vegetable sources.
Free-range eggs. You may think you can't eat eggs because of the cholesterol, but they are a nutritious protein-packed whole food. Avoiding whole natural foods that contain cholesterol is unnecessary as these types of foods don't really contribute to increasing circulating cholesterol in the body.
Plain organic yogurt and butter (yes I said butter! Some saturated fats are important in the body. Butter contains important fat-soluble vitamins and minerals, along with other vital constituents). Other organic full-fat dairy products in moderation (and only if tolerated).
Nut milks and butters. I suggest making your own nut milk to avoid the emulsifying and binding agents added to store-bought varieties.
In general, I recommend stocking-up on as much organic foods as your budget will allow because they are pesticide-free and in some cases have a higher nutrient content compared to their conventional counterparts (plus I find they taste more like what they're supposed to be versus conventional, which is perhaps linked to nutrient content). And if you're buying packaged foods, always read the label! Even if the front of the package claims it's healthy, read the list of ingredients to be sure (this applies to organic products too).
Foods to replace and/or limit:
Refined sugar! For the obvious reasons. So avoid all high-sugar foods like syrup, jams, jellies, instant puddings, sugary low-fibre cereals, instant flavoured oats, canned fruit in syrup, pastries, cookies, and candies. And look to really limit other sources of natural sugars (or sweeteners) as well to keep your blood sugar levels in check. However, if you do like to eat fruit, again eat it with a meal (i.e. with protein, fibre, and/or fats). And fruit is the best option for adding sweetness to your diet because it already contains fibre (hence it's a lot better than drinking fruit juice that has been stripped of its fibre).
Really limit refined and simple carbohydrates like bread, crackers, and pasta (even if it says "whole grain" on the packaging, it was still processed in some way and is no longer in its original form).
Avoid snack foods like chips, cookies, and popcorn (even if they claim to be "lite" or "low sugar"). As the saying goes, "out of sight, out of mind." Or at least make them out of reach if temptation strikes.
Steer clear of margarine of any sort (even if it claims to be "non-hydrogenated" or "heart healthy". It's still a processed vegetable oil product, and not a natural food). The same goes for other products containing trans- and hydrogenated fats.
Ditch the store-bought dressings and sauces as many are full of added sugars. Opt to make your own instead (trust me, they'll taste way better and are quick to make).
Avoid luncheon meats because they are processed as well with all sorts of additives and preservatives (despite some marketing claims of being"natural" products - it's not in its whole food form!). In cases where you're used to eating luncheon meats, start making a switch to roasting a whole free-range chicken instead and slicing or shredding it yourself. Added bonus is that you can control the amount of salt and season it to your liking.
Your journey towards creating a diabetes-friendly kitchen will be a rewarding experience for you and will provide tremendous health benefits for the entire household.
Lessard-Rhead, Brenda, BSc, ND. Nutritional Pathology. Third ed. Richmond Hill: CSNN, 2015. 211-4. Print.