If you’re on a mission to strip processed sugars and carbs from your life – or just to reduce your risk of diabetes and stablise your blood sugar levels – here’s the good news: you don’t have to be limited to a lack-lustre diet of expensive “health” products that might taste more like cardboard than food.
While sugar and carbohydrates have been controversial topics over the past few years, acccording to the experts, there’s plenty of ways to inject colour, texture, flavor and creativity into a low-GI diet as you stabilise your blood sugar levels. What will work for you can depend on your cultural background, your diabetes risk and what you like to eat.
Dieticians warn against anyone totally eliminating carbohydrates from their diet for weight loss or blood sugar control. That’s because our blood sugar (glucose) – sourced mostly from foods containing starches and sugars – provides us with a gradual, continuous supply of energy, which keeps us going from one meal to the next.
“It’s important not to cut this food group from your diet as carbohydrates are our main energy filler and provide lots of essential vitamins and minerals,” says Accredited Practising Dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia, Charlene Grosse.
Grosse explains that minimally processed, nutrient-dense low-GI foods work to lower your blood sugar levels and avoid spikes while other foods containing added sugars (such as junk food and sugar-sweetened soft drinks) can heighten glucose levels, and should be limited or avoided altogether.
Consultant dietitian and nutritionist and University of Sydney lecturer, Dr Alan Barclay, recommends a diet featuring basmati or Doongara rice and soluble fibre-rich foods like beans, lentils and chickpeas to control blood glucose levels.
That means homemade hummus dip is in, as are various noodle soup winter warmers, from the Iranian vegetable and noodle soup (ash-e reshteh) to American chickpea soup if you go easy on the noodles and opt for wholegrain varieties.
“These foods fit within the dietary patterns of many traditional cultures,” says Dr Barclay.
“A serve that provides no more than 60 grams of carbohydrate is a useful guide for an Australian adult. That would be equivalent to four slices of bread, or a cup and a half of rice or pasta, for example.”
Carrots, cassava, corn, parsnip, peas, pumpkin, taro and yam consumed “in moderation” can also provide sustainable energy and help stablise blood sugar levels. Such a broad range of acceptable starchy products means that you can still experiment in the kitchen and whip up dishes like the Egyptian taro and lamb stew, or a Sri Lankan lotus root, yam and bitter gourd curry, while pursuing a positive state of health.
Research also shows that cinnamon can help people with type 2 diabetes and pre-diabetes to improve their blood glucose levels and insulin signaling. Chinese cinnamon has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine and is popular in many Asian-inspired dishes like spiced oolong eggs with bean curd and wolf berries.
Science finds that prickly pears (also referred to as Indian fig or Nopal Cactus) are effective in reducing blood glucose spikes and increasing antioxidant activity in healthy people and patients with type 2 diabetes. This exotic fruit can be used to accentuate the flavours of a Mexican street salad that’s paired with a Spanish-style grilled chicken.
Meanwhile, studies also prove that Mediterranean and high-protein diets lead to a greater improvement in glycemic control and can aid in blood sugar level control. What does that mean in practical terms? Include a small amount of monounsaturated oil in your diet, eat lots of vegetables and consume moderate amounts of protein.
If herbs are more your thing, there are also a number of traditional ingredients that help lower blood glucose levels and eliminate spikes.
Dr Barclay cites American ginseng; Fenugreek; Coccinnia indica (leaves); bitter melon (Momordia charantia); and milk thistle as ingredients to lower blood sugar levels.
However, he also advises that people consume herbal products with caution.
“Although they may lower people’s blood glucose levels, there are issues with quality that likely effect the amount of the active ingredient – which typically we haven’t yet identified.
“That means it’s unlikely that each batch will have the same effect on blood glucose levels.”
Although food can play a positive role in regulating blood sugar levels, Dr Barclay reminds Australians that there is no such thing as a ‘one-size fits all diet’ that will work for everyone, giving our differing DNA and states of health.
Charlene Grosse agrees and says people should choose a dietary pattern that suits their personal tastes, cultural background and individual risk of diabetes.
“Those from an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander background, as well as those from Pacific Island, Indian subcontinent or Chinese cultural background are more susceptible to developing raised blood sugar levels and type 2 diabetes,” says Grosse.
“This could be because these cultures are more likely to have less muscle and more abdominal fat, which increases insulin resistance.
“Even though Indian newborns have a lower average body weight compared to white newborns, Indian newborns have higher levels of body fat and insulin.”
Grosse reminds people from susceptible populations to reduce their risk of diabetes and fluctuating blood sugar levels by eliminating processed sugars from their diet.
“The focus should also be on helping these cultures understand their risk [of diabetes, living] in a westernised society, and they should aim to manage their weight, be more physically active and follow a high-fibre, low-fat diet.
“Eating healthy and being physically active can be powerful tools in reducing risk of diabetes in susceptible populations.”
It is recommended that anyone with impaired glucose tolerance or diabetes should also consult with an accredited dietician before they dramatically change their eating patterns.
And remember that everyone is different.
“There’s more to food than nutrients – they are an important part of our personal and cultural lives, and one of life’s pleasures. People should choose a dietary pattern that they enjoy that suits their personal and cultural background,” says Dr Barclay.
What happens if you go sugar-free cold turkey? Six brave souls are finding out on. Watch Sugar Free Farm On Demand now.
Lead image from Getty.