30th August 2023
Exploring the relationship between diabetes and diet
In this week’s blog, we are looking at the role of a healthy diet in maximising health outcomes for patients with diabetes.
What makes a healthy diet?
Eating well is important for all of us as part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but for patients with diabetes it is a crucial element of health management. It has various beneficial effects, including maintaining a healthy weight, improving metabolic control, and of course contributing to an individual’s general wellbeing.
These are things that most of us already know about healthy eating and diabetes, but what may be less well-known is that there is no special ‘diabetic diet’. The diet for people with diabetes is, by and large, the same as that recommended for the rest of the population: a healthy, balanced diet that is:
- low in saturated fat
- low in sugar
- low in salt
- high in fibre-rich foods such as fruit, vegetables, and cereals.
The Eatwell Guide illustrates the proportion of each of the five major food groups needed to achieve a balanced diet and is a useful visual resource to help patients plan their daily meals. Patients should aim to eat more from the bigger sections and less from the smaller ones.
What about carbohydrates?
A healthy diet for people with diabetes can also include carbohydrates at each meal, especially if brown or wholemeal varieties are chosen. However, because carbohydrates have a direct effect on blood glucose levels, regulating the amount of carbohydrate consumed is the key to controlling and maintaining glucose levels.
There are two types of carbohydrate foods: starchy foods (bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, cereals) and sugary foods (biscuits, cakes, sweets, jams etc). As healthcare professionals we know that both starchy and sugary foods break down into glucose and so all have an effect on blood glucose levels, but you may find that your patients believe that reducing their consumption of ‘sweet treats’ is enough to successfully control their diabetes. You may wish to direct them to the Diabetes UK website for information about managing carbohydrate intake correctly.
How can I support patients to maintain a healthy diet?
One of the best ways to support your patients is to remember that the ‘best’ diet for an individual may vary according to their cultural background and / or socioeconomic status, and any co-morbidities or other health priorities. A holistic discussion of a patient’s current lifestyle and their beliefs about diet and exercise can help to identify options that feel achievable, and that the patient is more likely to maintain.
Low carbohydrate diets are increasingly being discussed as a means of achieving sustained remission of Type 2 diabetes, and for many patients who need to significantly lower their BMI, such diets can be an ideal option. However, for patients whose diet may be largely rice-based, or for those who rely on cost-effective food such as pasta and potatoes, you may need to explore alternative eating plans.
Similarly, for patients with diabetes who are identified as also being at increased risk of cardiovascular disease, or those who are hypertensive, a cardioprotective diet that prioritises reducing salt and saturated fat consumption may be the most appropriate choice. This may be challenging for individuals who rely on convenience foods or snacks, so you may find it helpful to research resources that support quick and easy healthy meal preparation in order to signpost and pre-empt any concerns.
Want to learn more?
You can also improve your patient care by developing your knowledge and know-how. Our accredited diabetes short courses are available at diploma and undergraduate levels, and our postgraduate modules offer specialisms in improving glycaemic control and reducing cardiovascular risk. This breadth of choice allows you to select the most appropriate level for your current role or for career progression – visit our Online Shop for more information.
Butler, T., Kerley, C., Altieri, N., Alvarez, J., Green, J., Hinchliffe, J., Stanford, D., and Paterson, K. (2020). Optimum nutritional strategies for cardiovascular disease prevention and rehabilitation (BACPR) [Online]. Available at https://heart.bmj.com/content/heartjnl/early/2020/02/25/heartjnl-2019-315499.full.pdf (accessed 23/08/2023)
Unwin, D., Delon, C., Unwin, J., Tobin, S., and Taylor, R. (2023). What predicts drug-free type 2 diabetes remission? Insights from an 8-year general practice service evaluation of a lower carbohydrate diet with weight loss. BMJ Nutrition, Prevention & Health, 6(1). doi: 10.1136/bmjnph-2022-000544