Over 30 million Americans are living with diabetes- comprising over 9% of the population. An additional 80 million adults are currently living with prediabetes. The reasons behind diabetes’ growing prevalence are as complex as the condition itself.
What is Diabetes?
Diabetes is a condition in which a person’s blood glucose, or blood sugar, is too high. Glucose is one of the main sources of energy for our cells, and insulin is a hormone made by the pancreas that helps glucose reach your cells. But, someone with diabetes struggles to produce enough insulin, and thus glucose remains in the blood rather than entering the cells. This causes people with diabetes to have higher than normal blood glucose levels. Over time, high blood glucose can lead to a myriad of health problems including heart disease and stroke, nerve damage, and problems with the feet and eyes. However, there are many ways for someone with diabetes to manage their blood sugar (taking into account what a person's normal blood sugar level should be and how to maintain it) and prevent these complications.
What Causes Diabetes?
There is no single cause of diabetes. The reason someone develops diabetes depends on characteristics including genetics and family history as well as environmental factors. The cause of diabetes also depends on which type of the condition someone is referring to.
There are different types of diabetes, which arise from different causes. Type 1 diabetes is typically diagnosed in children and young adults, and is thought to be caused by genes or environmental factors such as a virus that can trigger the condition. Type 2 diabetes, on the other hand, develops over time throughout someone’s life. While there are still some genetic and environmental components behind type 2 diabetes, it is heavily influenced by lifestyle factors like weight and physical activity.
Risk Factors for Diabetes
As previously mentioned, 80 million adults in the United States are currently classified as pre-diabetic. Prediabetes means that someone is at high risk of developing diabetes. Risk factors for prediabetes include being overweight, little to no physical activity, previous occurence of gestational diabetes (diabetes during pregnancy), or a family history of the condition. The same risk factors hold true for type 2 diabetes.
Thankfully, most of these risk factors, other than genetics and environment, can be managed with some lifestyle changes. It is important to be aware if you are currently in, or nearing, prediabetes, so that you can modify your behavior and hopefully prevent the condition from developing.
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How to Test for Diabetes
If you have any of the risk factors for diabetes, it may be a good idea to get tested for prediabetes. Diabetes can be diagnosed with a blood test, most commonly the glycated hemoglobin (A1C) test. This test can measure your blood sugar levels over the last few months. If the glycated hemoglobin test is unavailable or the results are inconsistent, your doctor may order further blood sugar tests.
Diabetes and Blood Glucose Levels
At the core of diabetes is blood glucose, also known as blood sugar. When the body does not create enough insulin, blood glucose levels become too high, and health problems can ensue down the line. Managing blood glucose levels is the main focus of diabetes treatments.
What are Normal Blood Glucose Levels?
In people who do not have diabetes, the body creates enough insulin on its own to control blood sugar levels following a meal. Using the A1C test used to diagnose diabetes, people without diabetes should have an A1C of 4.8-5.6 percent, which is considered “healthy.” A1C is a measure of average blood sugar over a 2-3 month period.
Normal blood sugar levels should fall between 70-99 mg/dl in a fasted state (in the morning before the person has had anything to eat). Throughout the day as someone eats, this could rise to as high as 140 mg/dl up to two hours following a meal.
Someone with diabetes should regularly check their blood glucose levels throughout the day to make sure they do not have high or low blood sugar. The American Diabetes Association recommends that anyone taking insulin, has low blood glucose levels, has a hard time controlling blood sugar, or is pregnant regularly check their blood glucose levels.
Blood Glucose Levels for Diabetes
Blood glucose target ranges can vary based on someone’s age, how long they have been living with diabetes, comorbid conditions, and other factors unique to the individual. But, in general, someone with diabetes should aim for an A1C below 7%, a fasted blood glucose level of 80-130 mg/dl, and no greater than 180 mg/dl following a meal.
If you have diabetes and your blood sugar levels remain too high or too low for multiple days in a row, talk to your doctor about modifying your care plan.
Symptoms of High Blood Sugar and Low Blood Sugar
High blood sugar, or hyperglycemia, is a common problem among people with diabetes. It is classified as having fasted blood glucose levels above 130 mg/dl, or above 180 mg/dl two hours after eating.
In addition to checking blood glucose levels, some symptoms can indicate if you may have high blood sugar. These symptoms include headaches, blurred vision, increased thirst, fatigue, and frequent urination.
Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, is another serious problem for people with diabetes. Though diabetes itself causes high blood sugar due to lack of insulin, anyone who takes medications to increase insulin are also at risk for hypoglycemia. Taking too much medication, skipping meals, or increasing exercise can lead to low blood sugar in people taking insulin boosting medications. Symptoms of low blood sugar include sweating, nausea, dizziness and blood vision, and shakiness. However, some people exhibit no symptoms of low blood sugar. Monitoring blood glucose levels is very important to avoid both hypoglycemia and hyperglycemia.
Diabetes Nutrition Support
As for everyone, people with diabetes should do their best to eat a healthy diet. The main goals for nutrition should be keeping blood sugar stable and maintaining a healthy weight. To keep blood glucose in a healthy range, people with diabetes need to focus on the glycemic index of the foods they eat.
What is the Glycemic Index?
The glycemic index (GI) is a measure of how much a food will raise blood sugar. A high GI means the food will raise blood sugar more than foods with a lower GI. Thus, someone with diabetes should focus on eating medium to low GI foods as much as possible. Refined carbohydrates like white bread and rice cakes, as well as certain fruits, have high GIs. Fat and fiber typically lower a food’s GI because they prevent a spike in blood sugar caused by carbohydrates.
The Best Foods for Diabetes
There are still plenty of foods you can enjoy while adhering to a low GI diet. One thing to note is that you should still eat a wide range of foods from all of the food groups. There are certain foods that have a low GI, but lack nutritional value. On the other hand, some higher GI foods can be nutritious. It is important to pay attention to both nutritional content and GI when choosing what foods to eat. Some of the best foods for people with diabetes include:
- Vegetables: Broccoli, greens, sweet potato
- Fruits: Berries (the fiber offsets the high carbohydrate content of fruits), apples
- Whole Grains: Oats, quinoa, barley
- Protein: Skinless turkey or chicken, fish, eggs, nuts
As you can see, the best diet for diabetes is similar to what most healthy diets recommend. Plenty of vegetables, protein, and high-fiber unrefined grains are all great choices for someone following a low GI diet. In addition to avoiding refined carbohydrates and other high GI foods, portion size is important. Keeping portions small can help maintain a healthy weight and prevent major blood sugar spikes.
One of the most difficult things for many people to cut out of their diet is sweets, like cookies and chocolate. If you have a sweet tooth but need to manage your diabetes, look for healthy supplements that come in sweet flavors, like MIND cocoa. Naturally flavored supplements are a great way to satisfy your sweet tooth without actually indulging in sugar, plus you reap all the benefits of the supplement.
The Best Supplements for Diabetes
Of course, food is not the only piece of the puzzle when it comes to nutrition. Vitamins and other supplements can help people with diabetes maintain healthy blood glucose levels and overall well-being. Vitamins and supplements may be even more important for people with diabetes than the average person, because elevated glucose levels can be a diuretic, and thus someone with diabetes may be deficient in water soluble vitamins and minerals. Below are some of the vitamins and other supplements people with diabetes should try to include in their diet each day:
- B Vitamins: One of the long term concerns of diabetes in neuropathy, or damage to peripheral nerves. Vitamin B6 and B12 both can support nerve health, which in turn can help prevent neuropathy.
- Vitamin C: Vitamin C can also help protect against damage to the nerves, eyes, and kidneys, and supports strong immune function.
- Alpha Lipoic Acid (ALA): ALA is an antioxidant that improves regulate blood sugar regulation. It can help ease symptoms of neuropathy, and may also prevent eye damage.
- Nootropics: Nootropics can help all people improve their cognitive function and feel better on a daily basis. But, the supplements are especially useful for people with diabetes. Nootropics are extremely low GI, help increase metabolism, and include ALA fatty acids. They can also provide a sugar-free energy boost that will not cause any crash later on.
- Magnesium: Magnesium plays a role in protein synthesis, nerve function, and blood pressure and blood sugar control. But, people with diabetes are more likely to be deficient in magnesium than people who do not have diabetes. Taking a supplement can help ensure that you are getting enough of this mineral in your diet.
Healthy Lifestyle for Diabetes
Everyone can benefit from adopting a healthy diet and exercise routine, especially those living with a chronic disease like diabetes. A healthy diet is the best way to maintain a healthy weight, and helps keep blood glucose levels steady. Diet and exercise are especially important for the millions of people in the prediabetic stage, who can still prevent their diabetes from progressing any further.
Diabetes can be difficult to live with. But, a healthy diet and the right supplements are wonderful tools to help manage the condition and symptoms to help you feel your best.