There is no particular food that will prevent or cause diabetes, but diet is an essential part of diabetes management. Find out how diet affects type 2 diabetes and which diets work best to prevent or reverse it.
Can food cause diabetes?
Your body has only a few distinct inputs to regulate its health: the air you breathe, the fluid you drink, and the food you eat. So, good food and clean water are integral components of good health. But, the world has many different cultures, and each culture has different customs around food. Many times, locale and climate dictate food choices. There is no perfect diet, and there is no specific set of foods that you are required to eat to help you manage diabetes. Anyone who tells you that they have a “miracle food” for diabetes is not being truthful. The body is resilient, and it can adapt to get its nutrients from various food sources.
Why does the Western diet promote the development of type 2 diabetes?
Think about your local supermarket. The fresher, unprocessed foods are usually on the perimeter of the store. Almost all the items on the inner aisles are processed. There's a lot more space dedicated to processed food than there is to fresh food in most supermarkets. Sometimes, food processing serves a purpose. For example, the ability to freeze food means that we can enjoy summer produce all year round.
Other times, food processing does more harm than good. Imagine a box of cereal aimed at young children. Let's pretend this product is made from wheat. When wheat grows in the field, it has an outer husk commonly referred to as bran. The bran contains fiber and protein, as well as lots of minerals. After harvesting, the wheat goes to the factory for processing into cereal. In the factory, the bran gets removed, and so does the fiber and many nutrients.
Next, the soft wheat flour gets formed into the shape of the cereal. The manufacturer adds food dye to make the product more attractive to children. Salt and sugar get added to make the taste more appealing too. Finally, some of the vitamins and minerals removed in processing get added back to the breakfast cereal. Eating this one processed sugary cereal product is not going to cause diabetes, but it's not going to improve anyone's health, either.
Our Food is Highly Processed
Imagine all the other products on the supermarket shelves. Now imagine the processing all of those foods go through before they get to the grocery store, and you'll have an idea of the magnitude of our consumption of processed food.
There are areas around the world known as Blue Zones. The blue zones are places where people tend to have excellent health and where people also live significantly longer lives than they do in other areas. What do eating patterns in the blue zones have in common? A very high intake of fresh fruits and vegetables and little use of meat and dairy in the diet.
What's the Best Diet for Diabetes?
A whole foods plant-based diet may prevent or reverse diabetes. What is a whole food plant-based diet, exactly? It's lots of raw or lightly cooked vegetables and fruits, whole grains, and nuts and seeds along with minimal meat and dairy products. Processed foods like cakes, cookies, pies, and chips don't cut it on this eating plan. If you have been eating a typical American diet your whole life, changing to a whole food plant-based diet may seem like a big challenge. A change is your eating habits isn't something that has to happen cold-turkey or all at once. Any improvement in the quality of your diet is a step in the right direction.
There is some evidence that a vegan whole-foods plant-based diet (as mentioned above) can reverse diabetes. A 2018 review in Current Diabetes Reports concluded that “Vegetarian diets may be more beneficial than medication for diabetes management.” (Please don't stop your medication without a discussion with your health care provider!)
If you're not quite ready for the whole foods plant-based approach, counting carbohydrates is the alternative. Fruits, starchy vegetables, dairy products, and food made from grains (and of course, sugar) all contain carbohydrates. You can still have these foods in moderation. Learning to count carbs is crucial for managing diabetes. Use this link to find a free trial of a diabetes meal plan that is moderate in carbohydrates.
What about Probiotics for Diabetes?
Probiotics are good bacteria that live in the gut, and they can help control blood sugar. You can also get probiotics naturally by eating yogurt, kefir, and other fermented foods like kimchee. You can buy probiotic supplements as well. Different strains of good bacteria are better at helping people with different conditions. For people with diabetes, the probiotics I recommend are B. animalis ssp. Lactis 420 (B420) and L. reuteri NCIMB 30242. You can find B. animalis under the brand Floravantage Control and Ultraflora Control. The probiotic L. reuteri can be found under the brand name Microbiome Plus Gastrointestinal. B. animalis ssp. Lactis 420 (B420) has been shown to help with weight management, and L. reuteri can help to manage cholesterol levels.
Can Type 2 Diabetes Be Reversed with a Change in Diet?
Maybe. It depends on how long a person has had diabetes and how much their pancreas is still functioning. In the early stages of type 2 diabetes (or in pre-diabetes), a person's pancreas still has some ability to produce insulin. Around six years after diagnosis, most people have lost about 75% of their pancreas' ability to make insulin. For people with pre-diabetes, the US National Diabetes Prevention Program encourages a weight loss of about 5% of body weight and at least 150 minutes of physical activity per week. This small weight loss combined with regular physical activity has been shown to prevent full-blown type 2 diabetes in many prediabetic patients.
The Bottom Line
Eating well won't prevent type 1, but it goes a long way toward the prevention and reversal of type 2 diabetes. A whole foods plant-based diet combined with the addition of fermented foods or probiotics is the best way to prevent and manage diabetes.
MPH, RDN, LDN, CDCES, IBCLC
I believe people with diabetes can enjoy good food and good health without feeling ashamed of their bodies.