Dispelling diabetes myths

By PATTY HAMMOND

Special to the OBSERVER

Have you ever wondered if what you eat causes diabetes? Or if what you drink affects your blood sugar? If you’ve seen Paula Deen in newspapers, on magazine covers, or on your TV recently you may have started to think more about the issues surrounding diet and diabetes.

Deen is well known for her love of butter, cheese and cream. If you’ve watched her cooking show you’ve seen her create, eat and rave about all sorts of wildly fattening food. Her dietary habits finally caught up with her about a year ago when she was diagnosed with diabetes.

Based on her doctor’s advice, Deen wisely lost weight. What did she do?

Well, at first she claimed it was by giving up her sugary beverage of choice, sweet tea. That certainly helped, but in recent days she’s been talking more about moderation. She admits she’s still eating things she loves, but she’s using less fattening food preparation methods, eating calorie dense foods far less frequently, and, when she does eat them, she eats a much smaller portion. She’s eating more greens and is making sure half of her plate is full of vegetables. She’s also talked about limiting the amount of carbohydrates she’s eating, saying that when she does eat carbs, she’s eating them with sources of protein to help slow blood sugar spikes. Perhaps most importantly, she’s eating more slowly. Deen claims to be amazed at how making these little changes have made such a huge difference in her life.

However, when first diagnosed, Deen struggled with her new diagnosis as much as anyone else. Thankfully, recent research findings have made it easier to understand diabetes, so let’s dispel some popular myths about the condition.

The first thing most people ask when diagnosed with diabetes is, “What can I eat?” or “What foods are allowed on a diabetic diet?” The answer is simple. There is no one specific diet for diabetes. Deen is right. Smaller portions of the foods you love can help you control your blood sugar and manage your weight. Most diabetics can still eat the same foods as their family and friends, if everyone is making healthful selections. Dietary recommendations for everyone, whether or not they have diabetes, include eating a variety of low fat foods from all food groups. Ideally, everyone should be eating a diet primarily consisting of whole grains, lean proteins, fruits, vegetables, and low fat dairy.

Some people mistakenly think that simply eating too many sweets causes diabetes. Most are not only talking about candy and cake, they’re also referring to fructose, which is found in so many of the food and beverage products we consume. Fructose alone has been portrayed by some as a primary cause of diabetes.

It’s true that eating too much sugar, in any of its forms, will likely lead to weight gain, so it’s easy to assume that it will also lead to diabetes. It’s also true that obesity and diabetes rates have risen in the U.S. right along with the increase in consumption of sweetened beverages and the increased addition of fructose and other sweeteners to many of the foods and beverages we consume.

So it also pays to be aware that many foods you might not think of as particularly sweet can contain quite a bit of sugar. Even condiments like ketchup. Reading labels can be a real eye opener. Read labels to be sure the foods you eat don’t contain too much sugar. Pay close attention to the ingredients that you don’t understand. For instance, if they end in “ose,” they’re probably sugar.

However, what’s most important to note here is that when we eat or drink foods containing sugar, that extra sugar is usually replacing other foods in our diet. That means we’re probably eating fewer foods like whole grains, lean protein and vegetables, foods that actually provide health benefits. So, whether or not we’re diagnosed with diabetes, we’d all be well advised to reduce the amount of sugary things we eat and drink.

When told to reduce the amount of sweetened beverages they consume, the first thing many people worry about is their coffee consumption, especially if they use cream and sugar. Interestingly, research has found that people with a daily coffee habit have a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes, but if you don’t already drink coffee, there’s still not enough conclusive evidence to recommend you start. You need to weigh the potential benefits against possible side effects. Coffee can cause stomach pain, insomnia, shakiness or irregular heartbeat, so if you don’t already have a coffee habit, a diabetes diagnosis is not a good reason to start one.

Some people also think diabetics must avoid all white food, including white flour and rice. It is true that these white foods have been highly processed and that processing means they’re quickly digested and raise blood sugar rapidly. Consequently, wise people limit the amount of white food they eat, replacing white flour and rice in their diet with whole wheat flour and brown rice. They also eat fewer starchy carbohydrates, including starchy grains, fruits and vegetables, making sure that less than half of their calories come from those food sources, and they make sure that the foods they do eat are high in fiber and low in glycemic index.

Others think they must avoid fruit because it is so high in sugar. You shouldn’t completely avoid fruits because many fresh and frozen unprocessed fruits, if they are no sugar added, can be high in fiber, antioxidants and vitamins that are good for your health and weight. It is true that you should limit the amount of canned and dried fruit you eat and you shouldn’t drink too much fruit juice. Instead, eat a couple of servings of whole fruit every day. Small portions of fruit eaten with a protein like nonfat yogurt, an ounce of cheese or a few nuts will have only a small impact on your blood sugar.

The bottom line is, if you want to prevent diabetes, or manage it once you have it, simply trade convenience foods for whole foods, use healthy preparation methods, and make sure at least half of your plate contains a lot of delicious and nutritious vegetables. Then replace sugary drinks with water or unsweetened beverages. It is possible to easily and successfully manage diabetes. Maintaining a positive attitude and embracing a healthy lifestyle is all it takes.

If you’re looking for more ways to reduce your diabetes risk, increase your physical activity level or seeking other new ideas to help you live a healthier lifestyle, Cornell University Cooperative Extension’s Eat Smart New York program may be just right for you. Interactive classes include fun activities and new ideas to help people incorporate exercise into their busy lives, improve their nutritional status, and save money. Classes can be scheduled at convenient times and locations throughout Chautauqua County and bilingual education is available. For more information call 664-9502, Ext. 217.

Patty Hammond leads Family and Consumer Science Programs at Cornell University Cooperative Extension of Chautauqua County. Her column is published on the first Sunday of each month.