Instead of a sugar-free diet, people with diabetes might do better on a hang-up-free diet.
Karen Chalmers, MS, RD, CDE, director of nutrition services at Joslin Diabetes Center, wants to get the truth out. According to Chalmers, the truth is that there is no such thing as a “diabetic diet.”
“With proper education, and within the context of healthy eating,” declares Chalmers, “a person with diabetes can eat anything a nondiabetic eats.”
A Carbohydrate is a Carbohydrate is a Carbohydrate
Chalmers wants to dispel the notion that people with diabetes cannot eat sugar.
“There’s a misconception out there that goes like this,” she says. “As long as I don’t eat sugar, it’s okay.”
Sugar has little to do with healthy eating. Sugar is a carbohydrate that raises your blood glucose levels, just like fruit, potatoes, pasta and many other foods. Just like you should not eat potatoes all day long, you should not eat sugar all day long, but anything in moderation is fine.
“There aren’t any foods that are off-limits,” says Chalmers, as long as they are part of a balanced diet, according to the Food Guide Pyramid, and, as long as all carbohydrates are included in one’s insulin regimen.
Those who do not take insulin cannot get that quick lowering of glucose after eating carbohydrates, so they should be extra sure to get a healthy amount of carbohydrates daily, according to the Food Guide Pyramid. Chalmers says that both type 1s and type 2s “just need to learn how to spend their grams of carbohydrate wisely over the course of the day.”
Getting the Word Out
Chalmers laments the misconceptions that still exist about sugar and diabetes, both in the general public and the health care community.
“People probably get more advice from their neighbors than their health care professionals,” says Chalmers. She and other Joslin diabetes educators are launching a national press campaign to dispel the sugar theory. They have written a book, due out this fall, about this and other diabetes misconceptions. They also hope to spread the word to health care professionals, to help their patients learn more about nutrition.
Here’s an all-too-typical doctor-patient exchange on nutrition, says Chalmers.
“How’s the diet?” asks the doctor.
“Fine,” says the patient.
And it ends there.
Chalmers wants doctors to be more aggressive in making sure that people know about proper nutrition. Sometimes, it goes beyond just education and into the psychology of eating.
Emotions of Eating
For many Americans, eating equals guilt. For a person with diabetes, an obsession with food, and guilt about food, can be overbearing.
“How you eat is just as important as what you eat,” says Chalmers. “If you feel guilty about eating, you can’t enjoy it, and it’s not healthy.”
Misconceptions in the public can make it worse for someone with diabetes. With so much internal pressure about eating the right things and calculating insulin correctly, they do not need an uninformed person criticizing their food choices.
“If you feel pressure, you get anxious about food,” laments Chalmers.
So, What Should I Eat?
If you’re feeling guilty or confused about food choices, you should get some help from a professional who is up to date with nutrition news. If a doctor or nurse tells you not to eat sugar, it is probably time to find someone new.
Chalmers suggests seeing a certified diabetes educator, preferably one that is also a registered dietitian, and making sure that he or she is versed in the latest research on nutrition.
First and foremost, says Chalmers, follow the food guide pyramid. If this is confusing or too challenging, find a knowledgeable professional to help you make positive changes.