Presented by Leah Groppo, MS, RD, CDE
Clinical Dietitian III, Certified Diabetes Educator
May 23, 2019
You may not realize it, but you’re an expert. Nobody else knows more than you do about what food you like and what you don’t.
So when it comes to motivating you to eat healthy food, you know best how to do that. Doctors may give you information, but you hold the key to finding what strategy works for you. It’s different for everyone, says Leah Groppo, a dietitian and diabetes educator.
Only you know what vegetable you like to eat. Or which one you don’t. The trick is to find one that’s tasty enough that you can eat it often, instead of starchy potatoes or chocolate-chip cookies.
“Everybody has to be an expert in their own lives,” said Groppo, who sees people with prediabetes or diabetes in the endocrine clinic at Stanford Health Care.
Food holds the key
Eating habits are crucial to getting control of diabetes and prediabetes. “Nutrition has a huge impact on our blood glucose,” said Groppo. About 90 percent of the patients she sees at the endocrine clinic at Stanford Health Care have prediabetes or diabetes.
Most of her patients already know certain foods are likely to raise sugar levels in their blood. They know they’re not supposed to eat a lot of cookies, pastries, and pies.
But certain nutritional strategies help people lower their blood sugar levels more than others.
Finding a plan that helps you eat healthy food that you really enjoy is something only you yourself can figure out.
Skip what you hate
Groppo is there to help. “If you try quinoa and you don’t like it, you don’t have to keep eating it,” she told the audience at a presentation at the Stanford Health Library. Instead, find a similar food that you enjoy.
She has a bag of little-known tips on nutrition to help people make major changes in their lives. Whether your goal is to lower blood sugar, lose weight, or get control of your blood pressure, each one of us can find the way to do it, she said. Among the tips she had:
- Find 1 or 2 things you are willing to change now. “When you ask somebody to do 50 things, it’s overwhelming,” she said. “But if you do one thing that’s actually going to have a really big impact, that’s one thing that people are willing to grab.”
- Get specific. That might mean setting a goal of eating 2 cups of vegetables you like at dinner 3 nights a week. Or it might mean eating a mix of rice with beans, rather than rice alone.
- Be consistent. Going on a diet for 3 months—even if you lose 20 pounds and lower your blood sugar—doesn’t help in the long run if you can’t keep it up. Instead, find a healthy food plan you can enjoy eating forever.
- When you choose a plan, pick one that you can start tomorrow. If you delay until next week, or next month–until you’ve finished that big work project or your kids are off school for the summer—you might never get started.
- Think about smaller portions. Instead of trying to swear off all cookies for the rest of your life, let yourself eat half a cookie if you’re with a friend to split it.
No cookies ever?
“There’s this whole concept about diets that cuts lots of foods out—like I can never have a cookie again if I’m on this diet,” Groppo said. “This black-and-white idea tends to not always work in the long run.”
The first step is to pick your most important goal, Groppo said. It helps to make it:
- Set the number that’s your goal for blood sugar level.
- Figure out when and how much to walk or jog. That might be to take 10 minutes out of your 30-minute lunch break every day to go on a walk. It could be going jogging for 30 minutes, 3 days a week.
- Pick the weight you want to lose, such as 20 pounds or 15% of your body weight.
Keep in mind what your specific goal is when choosing a measurable plan.
“If I want to lose 20 pounds, walking for 10 minutes, 3 days a week—if that is your only change—is not really going to get you there,” Groppo said. It may improve your health in other ways, though, like lowering your blood sugar for the rest of the day. To lose weight, though, you might need to think about your overall calorie intake and reduce it.
Choosing a healthy eating plan that’s best for you can have the biggest impact on your blood sugar. But avoiding sugary foods is only part of that. Some non-sugary, starchy carbohydrates are culprits as well.
That’s because once your body starts to digest carbohydrates, they are broken down into sugar. A prime example is a bagel. It is high in refined (processed) carbohydrates.
Today’s bagels are bigger than they were 15 years ago, so they pack more than twice as many grams of carbohydrates than the 30 grams they used to have. “Now bagels typically are around 60 to 72 grams of carbs. That’s the equivalent of 4 slices of bread, because they’re super dense,” Groppo said.
Pizza: sugar in disguise
Another common carbohydrate culprit is pizza. “Pizza actually raises your blood sugar because the carb in the crust is a required part. Then the red sauce has sugar in it, as well. So it bumps up your blood sugar.”
Carbohydrates even lurk in some starchy vegetables like corn, peas, and potatoes.
If the carbohydrates come from processed foods, that makes blood glucose spike higher. The more a food is processed, the faster the body can digest it. Groppo said she once worked with a cardiologist who called processed foods “pre-digested.”
The faster the body digests a processed carbohydrate, the faster sugar levels rise in the blood. To explain how foods become processed, Groppo used corn as an example:
- Corn kernels from the husk are the least processed form of this vegetable. “That’s as whole as corn gets,” she said.
- Corn meal is made by making corn into a grain. “That’s more processed,” she said.
- Corn flakes are highly processed. If you eat them for breakfast in the morning, even the non-sugar corn flakes can spike up blood sugar very fast.
- Corn syrup is the most highly processed form of all.
“If we eat the same amount of carbohydrates in grams of corn kernels or corn syrup, our blood sugar would rise significantly faster from corn syrup—even though it’s the same amount of carbs,” Groppo said.
Think about eating foods that are as close as possible to how mother nature made them.
This doesn’t mean you can never eat processed foods. It just means we don’t want them to be the bulk of your food choices, Groppo said. To limit the impact of carbohydrates, she recommended mixing them with protein or even some fats in your food. Examples include:
–Eating toast spread with avocado and a boiled egg on top doesn’t raise blood sugar as much as eating a plain piece of toast.
–Mixing rice with beans can slow down digestion so that blood sugar doesn’t rise as fast or high as with plain white rice.
Get your body going
Although eating healthy food is one of the best ways to lower blood sugar, Groppo is also a big fan of getting exercise often. When you use your muscles during exercise, they need fuel for energy. So your body automatically sends glucose (sugar) from your bloodstream to your muscle cells for their fuel. That lowers your blood sugar level.
You have many choices for exercise: gardening, walking, swimming, or riding a bike. Best of all, the blood-sugar lowering benefits of a good workout can last around the clock.
“I’m putting in 30 minutes for 24 hours of benefits,” she said. “You can’t get that from most things.”
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