According to the National Diabetes Information Clearinghouse (a service of the National Institutes of Health), 25.8 million Americans of all ages have diabetes and 79 million Americans aged 20 and over have pre-diabetes. Fifty percent of people aged 65 or older have pre-diabetes. That’s a lot of people with a lot of associated complications. These are 2010 statistics—the numbers are probably higher now. The older you get, the greater your risk. At least that’s what the data suggests. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Diabetes 101 (just the basics)
This is the super-abridged version. Diabetes is a complex metabolic condition and not something to take lightly. If you’re concerned about diabetes, consult with your doctor and have the appropriate lab tests to determine if you’re at risk.
In type 1 diabetes, the less common type and normally diagnosed in children and young adults, the pancreas fails to efficiently make insulin. Only about 5% of people with diabetes have this form. Insulin is a hormone that regulates blood glucose (sugar), so if your body doesn’t produce insulin, medical therapy is necessary. Genetics and a disordered immune system play a role in type I diabetes.
In type 2 diabetes, the pancreas produces insulin, but some of the cells ignore it. There’s a metabolic spectrum that includes insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, and type 2 diabetes. Obesity is a risk factor, but genetic predispositions and lifestyle factors unrelated to obesity can also contribute. Skinny people can have type 2 diabetes. It’s not simply about being overweight. When you eat a glazed donut and chug a 12 ounce can of Coke, your body quickly breaks down those fast-acting carbs, flooding your bloodstream with glucose (sugar). The pancreas responds and cranks out insulin to help ferry the excess sugar out of the blood and into muscle and fat cells where it can be used or stored.
Processed junk food—laden with white flour, sugar, HFCS, trans-fats (among other things)—is a major contributor to the rapid rise in diabetes. It’s these foods that give carbohydrates a bad name. It’s not so much that carbs undermine health, it’s the low-quality versions that send us into a disease tail-spin. If you google “low carb diets,” you’ll find close to 3 million results. An entire industry has been built around bad-mouthing carbs, and in some cases, rightfully so.
I’m a carb fan (whole food, plant sources, including fruit), but the truth is, we can live without carbs easier than we can live without certain fats and protein. Although there are “essential” fats and “essential” proteins, there are no “essential” carbohydrates. Having said that, carbohydrate-rich plants contain fiber, vitamins, minerals, and rich array of health-promoting compounds (phytonutrients) that are difficult to obtain unless you eat vegetables, fruit, legumes, nuts, seeds, and a few select gluten-free grains. If you’re avoiding carbs for medical reasons (insulin resistance, pre-diabetes, diabetes) or for weight loss, focus on nutrient dense whole foods. The problem isn’t so much carbs, it’s the overall diet, the type of carbs, and how the body processes them. A whole foods diet with an emphasis on plants helps the body enhance its ability to break down, absorb, and utilize carbs.
Longevity expert Dan Buettner has traveled the world studying the common factors that enable certain groups of people to live long, healthy, disease-free lives. Buettner coined the term “Blue Zones” for these regions where the world’s longest lived people reside. One common factor, among several, is diet: vegetables, fruit, whole grains, legumes, tea, honey, and in some cases, red wine. They consume lots of high-fiber carbs and most of their protein comes from non-animal sources. This is a carb-rich diet, but none of the food is processed, other than grinding the grains themselves. Diabetes is not an issue.
In a nutshell—it’s the quality of food we eat that impacts our genetic predisposition, metabolism, hormone function, and overall health. Don’t be afraid of high-quality, high-fiber carbs. Combine them with a little fat and protein to slow the digestive process. Good carb choices for blood sugar control are green vegetables (broccoli, chard, kale, asparagus, arugula, spinach, micro-greens) and dark colored berries (raspberries, blackberries, blueberries). These choices are less likely to increase blood sugar levels and are rich in health promoting nutrients.
1/2 cup (about 60 grams) serving size
PER SERVING: 32 calories; 7 g carbohydrate; 4 g fiber
NUTRITION BONUS: low calorie; low glycemic load; anti-inflammatory; high in fiber and vitamin C; good source of vitamin K, manganese, and magnesium
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