“What food to prevent diabetes” is a common search term for many people, and it’s easy to understand why. A balanced diet and a healthy weight play very important roles in preventing diabetes. 

The consensus (according to Diabetes Australia) is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to food and preventing diabetes. It is strongly recommended that you consult a qualified health professional to ensure that your diet is structured in a way that both suits you and prevents diabetes.

This article will give you an introduction to the different aspects that make up a balanced and healthy diet.

What are the different types of diabetes, and can they be prevented?

Diabetes is a group of conditions where there is too much glucose (sugar) in the bloodstream, which can lead to complications such as: 

  • heart attack; 
  • stroke; 
  • kidney disease and dialysis; 
  • limb amputation;
  • mental health issues (such as depression and anxiety); and 
  • blindness.

When you digest carbohydrates, your body converts them into a sugar known as glucose, which is then supposed to be converted into energy by insulin. However, with diabetes, the body is unable to produce insulin properly, resulting in too much glucose in the blood.

There are three main types of diabetes:

Type 1 Diabetes

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune condition in which the pancreas is unable to make insulin. This is because the body’s immune system destroys the beta cells in the pancreas that produce insulin.

Ten-to-fifteen percent of all people living with diabetes in Australia have type 1 diabetes (Source: Nutrition Australia). It can appear at any age, but most commonly presents in childhood and early adult life. 

In order to treat type 1 diabetes, you need insulin (delivered through methods such as injections or pumps) to compensate for the body’s inability to produce insulin by itself. Type 1 diabetes cannot be prevented through healthy eating, but maintaining a balanced diet is recommended regardless.

Type 2 Diabetes

Type 2 diabetes is the most common form of diabetes in Australia, accounting for 85-90% of all diabetes cases (Source: Nutrition Australia). It develops when cells within the body are resistant to insulin. 

While its direct cause is unknown; risk factors include family history, ageing, conditions such as pre-diabetes or gestational diabetes, being overweight or leading an inactive lifestyle. Diagnosis is usually in older adults, but it is becoming more common in adolescence as well as children.

However, unlike with type 1, it may be possible to prevent the development of type 2 diabetes with a balanced diet and an active lifestyle.

Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes is a specific type of diabetes that occurs during pregnancy. It needs to be managed carefully to protect the health of both the mother and baby. In most cases, a healthy diet and lifestyle changes can keep the glucose levels within a healthy range. 

Gestational diabetes usually goes away once the baby is born, although in some cases medication may be needed. Women who experience gestational diabetes during pregnancy are at higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes later in life.

What Food Should My Diet Contain To Help Prevent Diabetes?

You should be consistently eating a balanced diet that encompasses all five of the food groups:

  • Vegetables and legumes/beans
  • Grain (cereal) foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high fibre cereal varieties
  • Lean meats and poultry, fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds, and legumes/beans
  • Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or alternatives with mostly reduced fat
  • Fruit

In the next section, we’re going to cover what you should look out for (as well as what to avoid) when it comes to the nutritional value of your diet.

Saturated fat

This is the kind of fat that you want to avoid adding to your diet, as it raises your bad cholesterol levels. In order to avoid saturated fats, it is recommended that you;

  • Consume low fat dairy products whenever possible (i.e. low fat milk, yoghurt, cheese, ice-cream, custard, etc.)
  • Choose lean meat and trim off the fat before cooking
  • Remove the skin from chicken, duck and other poultry (where possible, before cooking)
  • Avoid using butter, lard, dripping, cream, sour cream, copha, coconut milk, coconut cream and hard cooking margarines
  • Limit pastries, cakes, puddings, chocolate and cream biscuits to special occasions
  • Limit pre-packaged biscuits, savoury packet snacks, cakes, frozen and convenience meals
  • Limit the use of processed deli meats (devon/polony/fritz/luncheon meat, chicken loaf, salami etc) and sausages
  • Avoid fried takeaway foods such as chips, fried chicken and battered fish and choose BBQ chicken (without the skin) and grilled fish instead
  • Avoid pies, sausage rolls and pastries
  • Rather than creamy sauces or dressings, choose those that are based on tomato, soy or other low fat ingredients
  • Limit creamy style soups

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats

These kinds of fats can help ensure that you get the essential fatty acids and vitamins that your body needs.

Polyunsaturated fats include:

  • Polyunsaturated margarines (check the label for the word ‘polyunsaturated’)
  • Sunflower, safflower, soybean, corn, cottonseed, grapeseed and sesame oils
  • The fat found in oily fish such as herring, mackerel, sardine, salmon and tuna.

Monounsaturated fats include:

  • Olive oil
  • Some margarines
  • Avocado

You can find both polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats in:

  • Seeds
  • Nuts
  • Nut spreads
  • Peanut oil

If you’re looking for ways to include healthy fats in your diet, you can do the following:

  • Stir-fry meat and vegetables in a little olive oil (or oil spray) with garlic or chilli
  • Dress a salad or steamed vegetables with a little olive oil and lemon juice or vinegar
  • Sprinkle sesame seeds on steamed vegetables
  • Use linseed bread and spread a little olive oil margarine
  • Snack on a handful of unsalted nuts, or add some to a stir-fry or salad
  • Spread avocado on sandwiches and toast, or add to a salad
  • Eat more fish (at least three times a week) because it contains a special type of fat (omega-3) that is good for your heart.
  • Do more dry roasting, grilling, microwaving and stir-frying in a non-stick pan

Additionally, avoid deep-fried, battered and crumbed foods.

Carbohydrates

This part of your diet is important to get right, as it’s carbohydrates that are converted into glucose by the body, which means they will have the highest impact on your blood glucose levels.

Everyone’s carbohydrate needs are different depending on various factors such as gender, physical activity, age and body weight. If you are living with diabetes, it is important that you consult an Accredited Practising Dietitian to work out the amount of carbohydrates to eat at each meal and snack.

All carbohydrate foods are digested to produce glucose but they do so at different rates – some slow, some fast. The glycemic index or GI is a way of describing how quickly a carbohydrate food is digested and enters the bloodstream.

Low GI carbohydrate foods enter the bloodstream slowly and have less of an impact on blood glucose levels. Examples of low GI foods include: 

  • traditional rolled oats
  • dense whole grain breads
  • lentils and legumes
  • sweet potato
  • milk
  • yoghurt
  • pasta
  • most types of fresh fruit. 

The type of carbohydrate you eat is very important as some can cause higher blood glucose after eating. The best combination is to eat moderate amounts of high fibre low GI carbohydrates.

Sugar

It is impossible to completely remove sugar from your diet. However, it is important to avoid foods and beverages that are high in sugar content.

  • Don’t regularly eat high energy foods such as sweets and lollies
  • Don’t drink sugar-rich beverages such as soft drinks
  • Don’t cook recipes that are high in sugar content and low in nutritional value

Protein

Protein is a necessary component of any diet as it’s responsible for body growth and repair. The main protein foods are;

  • Meats, chicken, fish, & tofu
  • Eggs
  • Nuts & seeds
  • Cheese

The above foods do not affect blood glucose levels. However, there are certain protein-rich foods that also contain carbohydrates and therefore can affect blood glucose levels. These include:

  • Milk
  • Yoghurt
  • Lentils and Legumes

These foods should still be included as part of a healthy diet.

Hydration

Water is needed for most of the body’s functions and the body needs to be kept well hydrated every day. Water is the best drink to have because it contains no extra kilojoules and won’t have an effect on your blood glucose levels. Other good choices are:

  • Tea, coffee, herbal tea, water, soda water, plain mineral water
  • If you want a sweet drink occasionally products labelled ‘diet’ or ‘low joule’
  • If you choose to drink alcohol limit your intake to no more than 2 standard drinks per day with some alcohol free days each week.

Diet Guidelines (For people both with and without diabetes)

Regardless of whether or not you have diabetes, you should aim for a balanced diet. The following are basic healthy eating tips for both people with diabetes and without diabetes:

  • Eat regular meals and healthy snacks spread over the day
  • Base meals on high fibre, low GI carbohydrate foods
  • Limit the amount of saturated fats you consume on a regular basis
  • Avoid excess sugar and added salts
  • Keep your weight within the healthy weight range by matching the amount of food you eat with the amount of energy you burn up each day

How can the Life! program help me reduce my risk of diabetes?

To help you reduce your risk of diabetes, the Life! Program offers a 3-minute health check that helps calculate your risk of diabetes. The results of this easy to use health check will help you find the next step in your journey towards a lower risk of diabetes.

The Life! program is a free healthy lifestyle program that helps you improve your eating habits, increase your physical activity and manage stress. You can choose from a group course or the telephone health coaching service. 

Our experienced health professionals will help you make small changes to your lifestyle so that you can achieve your health goals and reduce your risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Life! is funded by the Victorian government and managed by Diabetes Victoria. You can check your eligibility for the program here.

Sources

https://nutritionaustralia.org/fact-sheets/diabetes/

https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/conditionsandtreatments/diabetes-and-healthy-eating

https://www.diabetesaustralia.com.au/food-activity/eating-well/what-should-i-eat/

https://www.diabetesaustralia.com.au/wp-content/uploads/healthy-eating-for-children.pdf 

https://www.diabetesaustralia.com.au/wp-content/uploads/healthy-eating-for-adults.pdf

https://www.eatforhealth.gov.au/sites/default/files/content/The%20Guidelines/n55a_australian_dietary_guidelines_summary_131014_1.pdf