Diabetes Diet: “Healthy” Foods That Actually Aren’t
When you have type 2 diabetes, smoothies, granola, and other foods most people think of as “healthy” may present hidden dangers, or not even be healthy at all. Whether it’s unwanted ingredients or foods high in carbs (often from added sugars), some items just don’t belong in a diabetes diet.
Sorting Out “Healthy” Foods: Read Before You Eat
When eyeing up a piece of fruit or steaming a head of broccoli, you don’t have to wonder about an ingredients list. But when you’re choosing prepared, processed, or packaged foods, you need to pay close attention to find out what’s in each food item — even if it’s touted as “healthy.” Balancing carbohydrates as part of a diabetes diet means knowing the nutrition facts about everything you eat. What might be healthy for someone without diabetes could be a poor choice for you if it has more carbs than you need.
Start with carbs. “Absolutely read the nutrition labels and look at the total carbohydrates for everything you eat,” says Tammy Randall, RD, LD, CDE, a diabetes educator at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio. She explains that for people with diabetes, it’s not enough just to look at the total grams of sugar in a food item because there are usually other carbs too, such as starches and fiber. The up side is that fiber isn’t digested (although it aids digestion), so you can deduct the fiber count from the carb total of any food you’re considering.
Tally up the salt and fat. Watching the amount of sodium and fat in your diet isn’t as critical as the amount of carbohydrates, but it’s still important in distinguishing healthy from not-so-healthy foods. If high blood pressure isn’t an issue for you, limit salt intake to less than 2,300 milligrams daily, which is less than a teaspoon. If it is a concern for you, 1,500 milligrams a day is the max. Most people get too much salt through processed foods. For instance, Randall says, a can of soup can bring anyone close to his or her daily salt maximum. And if salt has been added to canned veggies, they won’t be as healthy as you thought. Choose low- or no-sodium options, or rinse them before eating.
Likewise, the general rule on fats is that less is better, and no more than 60 grams a day is best, Randall says. Minimize saturated fats (typically those from animals, such as in butter and lard) and stay away from trans fats, which are chemically altered fats and often used to preserve the shelf life of foods. However, some healthy fat should still be part of your diet. Look for unsaturated fats, which are found in vegetable- and plant-based oils.
Keep count of calories. When examining the calorie count in a portion of a food, fewer calories are certainly better, but Randall says it’s more important to watch the carbs and fat. “If you’re diligent with these, you’ll be making good choices about calories, too,” she says.
Not-So-Healthy Foods to Keep Out of Your Diabetes Diet
Here’s a sampling of foods that are often considered “healthy” but that are actually loaded with a less-than-ideal amount of carbs for someone with diabetes:
Fruit juice. “There’s nothing in juice but sugar,” Randall says. Most people don’t think about juice as a food, but a 16-ounce glass contains 60 grams of carbohydrates, which is as many as should be in an entire meal, she says. Worse yet, all of the healthy fiber in fruit is removed during the juicing process. Eat a piece of whole fruit instead.
Energy or protein bars. These snack foods are often jam-packed with the wrong things — calories, fat, and carbohydrates, Randall says. Cereal bars are a little better, but usually still too high in sugar and carbs to be included in a healthy diabetes diet. Have a bowl of high-fiber (whole-grain) cereal with fat-free milk instead.
Granola. Think of granola as whole grains gone awry. Most granola is sweetened with sugar or honey, and if dried fruit has been added, you’re getting even more carbs in the mix. Dried fruit can be a good source of fiber along with carbs, but save it as a snack rather than using it as a topping on another source of carbs. Like juice, granola is a source of concentrated carbs, so a small serving can add up to too much carb. And you might not be satisfied with the volume of food you’re getting for your carb allotment, Randall warns. If you want some crunch, add a handful of nuts to a salad instead.
Fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt. Because it’s made from milk, yogurt has carbs. If you add sweetened fruit puree, you’ve pretty much negated the protein and calcium value of the yogurt. Instead, top fat-free, plain Greek-style yogurt with a handful of berries or ½ cup of fresh or frozen fruit chunks.
Smoothies. Most smoothies start with a base of multiple servings of pureed fruit (much more than the single serving limit in any given meal for a diabetes diet) and then ice cream or whole milk and sugar are added. Because just one piece of fruit is equal to one serving of carbs, that store-bought smoothie can cause a carb overload. When you have a hankering for a smoothie, make one at home so you can control the carb content. Use frozen chunks of fruit, fat-free milk, and ice. Remember that you can enjoy a reasonable portion and save the rest in the fridge for later.
“Low-fat” packaged foods. Often low-fat versions of foods that are naturally fatty, such as peanut butter and salad dressings, are made with added sugar to replace the flavor lost when the fat was reduced. This is often from a thickener, such as corn syrup, which gives it a creamy texture — and lots of empty carbs. These foods can also be more expensive and less tasty. Choose regular peanut butter and salad dressing instead, but eat smaller portions.
Flavored oatmeal. Check out the labels of popular varieties of oatmeal and you’ll see that the value of its fiber is lost in a swirl of added sugar and other unwanted ingredients. Buy plain oatmeal instead, and flavor it yourself with a pinch of cinnamon or a bit of vanilla bean.
Whenever you’re unsure of whether something is truly a healthy food or not, count the ingredients, including the types of sugars, so you can determine whether it fits into your diabetes diet.
Need a pre-bed snack? Go big on complex carbohydrates
Ready for bed, and your stomach starts growling?
The easiest thing to reach for is the cookies, yes? Really, they are right there in front of you. Eat one, or two — even if it feels a little sinful — and crawl under the covers. What could go wrong?
But not all hope is lost. While you’ve been told eating before going to bed is wrong, eating a small pre-bedtime snack can help you sleep more soundly without packing on pounds — if you reach for the right foods.
Especially if you tend to eat dinner a few hours before bedtime or you’re very active (or both), snacking before bed will help stabilize your blood sugar levels during the long, meal-less night, Stephanie Maxson, senior clinical dietician at the University of Texas’s MD Anderson Cancer Center, stated in a Time.com article.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first. Here’s what to stay away from before turning out the lights: chips, cookies, cereal, or any traditional dessert food, Joan Sabate`, a professor of public health and nutrition at Loma Linda University, said in the Time.com article. This is because fiber and other digestion-slowing nutrients are typically stripped away from these foods during their preparation and your body absorbs them quickly — and they tend to cause quick spikes in your blood sugar, which can make it tough for you to sleep.
Now, what’s good:
Complex carbohydrates such as whole wheat bread, non-starchy vegetables (carrots, asparagus, pea pods, bean sprouts), popcorn and fruit. These foods break down slowly, and helps stave off the blood sugar spikes or crashes that could interfere with a person’s sleep or appetite, according to the article.
For athletes, adding protein (such as turkey or chicken) to a bedtime snack can help with muscle repair while providing an essential amino acid called tryptophan, which is beneficial to sleep.
“I don’t see that it would do any harm if it is a small snack,” Hank Williford, department head of kinesiology at Auburn Montgomery, said of athletes. “In some studies, several small meals during the day for athletes is better than large meals. (But) the sugary snacks probably wouldn’t interfere with your sleep. But for people trying to lose weight, it’s probably not the smartest idea.”
Ideally, a person wants to encourage stable blood sugar levels for optimal health, which will be tough to do if they’re going 10 or 12 or 14 hours without eating, which is one reason nutrition experts underscore the importance of eating breakfast, according to the Time.com article.
When choosing a pre-bed treat, choose something filling enough, but also healthy enough so it does not derail your diet, according to a “Healthy Eating” article in SF Gate (San Francisco Chronicle website).
It suggests cottage cheese, which contains protein and will ward off hunger. It offers a steady supply of amino acids through the night, which aid in muscle building and recovery. Adding a tablespoon of natural peanut butter to this can increase digestion time and will help control hunger longer, according to the article.
“A lot of times we tend to eat at night,” said Rachel Laughlin, a registered dietitian in Montgomery. “That’s the time we get to relax and enjoy ourselves. I think the problem with snacking at night is that you’re choosing the wrong food.
“People are choosing their sweets and alcoholic beverages. They are having ‘snack’ foods. I feel like sometimes people want something salty or sweet. Maybe a small amount is OK. If control is an issue for you, then try a low fat yogurt, or a frozen yogurt.”
Laughlin also suggests a low-fat turkey or egg salad sandwich, or oatmeal.
“Something filling and comforting,” she said, “but not super sweet because that will raise your sugar level.”
A sleep-inducing snack is Greek yogurt with honey and a sliced banana, according to the SF Gate. It all contains tryptophan and bananas, which are rich in sleep-promoting potassium, are a good source of carbohydrates.
Other smart nighttime noshes include half a turkey or peanut butter sandwich, according to the SF Gate.
Need more ideas for healthy, sleep-promoting snacks? The Huffington Post offers these:
• Banana and nuts: half of a banana with a handful of your favorite nuts provides tryptophan and carbs.
• Crackers and peanut butter: a few whole wheat crackers and spread on some all-natural peanut butter for a mix of complex carbs and protein with tryptophan.
• A bowl of cereal: the milk contains tryptophan and the whole-grain cereal adds the complementary complex carbs. Just be sure to ditch the Captain Crunch — avoiding sugar helps prevent a sleep-disruptive blood sugar crash during the night.
• Cheese stick: munching on a low-fat cheese stick before bed supplies tryptophan. Plus, a lean protein can leave you calm and less frazzled while keeping your blood sugar on an even keel during the night.
Common non-starchy vegetables
Complex carbohydrates, like those found in non-starchy vegetables break down slowly, and helps stave off the blood sugar spikes or crashes that could interfere with a person’s sleep or appetite, according to the Time.com article. Here’s a few common non-starchy vegetables:
Source: American Diabetes Association
Brown rice contains nearly all the nutrients in the original rice grain. Polishing removes the brown coat and germ that contains most of the B vitamins and minerals, but it renders the protein in the grain more digestible.
A better buy is parboiled or converted white rice; the process forces many of the nutrients into the white kernel. Instant and minute rices are least nutritious. Avoid washing rice unless it’s coated with talc, since some vitamins may wash away. A cup of rice contains 223 calories.
Spaghetti and noodles of all sorts can be purchased enriched. Many are now readily available in a highprotein form, in which protein‐rich soy flour has been used. You should also be able toget whole‐wheat spaghetti; some prefer it mixed half and half with the regular kind. A cup of cooked pasta has 192 calories, home recipes somewhat more.
Legumes and Seeds
Dried peas and beans, seeds and nuts are rich sources of protein, as well as vitamins and minerals. Seeds and nuts contain considerable amounts of fat, albeit polyunsaturated vegetable oils, which bolsters their caloric count. The beans and peas vary in fat content, with soybeans containing far more fat that lentils, for example. A cup of soybeans contains 234 calories, lentils, 212, and kidney beans, 218. There are 322 calories in 10 large walnuts. A tablespoon of sesame or sunflower seeds has about 50 calories.
Fruits and Vegetables
Although most are not high in starch, these carbohydrate foods are vital sources of vitamins and minerals and excellent sources of fiber. Many contain small but significant amounts of protein as well. Their fiber and water content add satisfying bulk and volume to the diet and help ward off overeating.
Fruits and many vegetables contain simple carbohydrates (sugars), but since theseare “packaged” in a nutrient‐laden edible that is relatively low in calories, nutritionists do not consider them “empty” calories. One medium apple contains 80 calories; a carrot, 30.
Skimmed milk, buttermilk (which despite its fatty name is really made from skimmed milk) and yogurt prepared from partly skimmed milk are also nutrient‐laden foods in which simple carbohydrates provide the bulk of calories. They are excellent sources of protein. In whole milk products, however, fat calories predominate.