By Janet Helm, MS, RD
Now that the Paula Deen brouhaha is past us, what can we learn from it? To me, the positive outcome is the attention it’s brought to the role of diet in managing type 2 diabetes. No amount of medication (even $500-a-month injections) can override careless eating. Yet, what you need to eat if you do have diabetes is not as restricted as many people think.
Sure, it’s probably best to forgo Paula’s famous bacon and egg burger that’s served inside two glazed donuts or her deep-fried mac n’ cheese, but a ‘diabetic diet’ (an outdated term no longer used) is not all that different from the basic tenets of healthy eating. Now experts say people with diabetes should follow the same type of eating plan as the rest of us, with an emphasis on fiber-filled whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean protein, low-fat dairy, and ‘good’ fats. Even so, there’s been an onslaught of sugar-free, diabetes-friendly foods showing up in supermarkets, and some experts believe the growing popularity of ‘diabetic foods’ simply perpetuates a myth.
“What is a diabetic food?” asks registered dietitian Hope Warshaw, a certified diabetes educator and author of the American Diabetes Association’s book Diabetes Meal Planning Made Easy.
“There are no special foods that people with diabetes need to eat,” she says. “We do a disservice to people by having them think they need to run out and buy special foods.”
Warshaw says the nutrition recommendations for people with diabetes are the same as the general public – no rigid diet and no need to go low-carb or limit your selections to sugar-free foods. In fact, the no-sugar myth is one of the biggest misconceptions about diabetes, according to registered dietitians Karen Chalmers and Amy Campbell, authors of the American Diabetes Association’s book 16 Myths of a Diabetic Diet. This easy-to-read book busts the most common myths about diabetes and cleverly compares the old and new methods for managing the disease.
Sugar has always been intrinsically linked to diabetes. It was even referred to as ‘sugar diabetes’ in the past because people mistakenly believed that eating too much sugar was the cause. For years, people with diabetes were advised to eliminate all sweets to avoid overloading the blood with glucose. Now researchers recognize that sugar has an impact on blood glucose that’s similar to other carbohydrate-containing foods. Today’s emphasis is on keeping track of total carbohydrates rather than strictly avoiding all sugar.
All Carbohydrates Not Created Equal
Even if all carbohydrates impact blood glucose levels in similar ways, they do differ nutritionally. Experts still advise choosing whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes – in place of concentrated sweets or ‘simple’ carbs.
Sugary foods and beverages can add a lot of empty calories and make it more difficult to maintain a healthy weight, which is important for managing type 2 diabetes. So that’s where some sugar-free options that contain minimal calories (particularly beverages) can be helpful. However, some of the products on the market may not be as beneficial as people think. Many sugar-free candies, cookies, cakes and ice creams contain nearly the same amount of calories and carbohydrates as their real-sugar counterparts. That’s particularly true for sugar-free foods made with polyols or sugar alcohols (such as sorbitol, mannitol and xylitol).
Diabetes cookbooks are changing to reflect the new thinking and you’ll start to see books that no longer have such a heavy reliance on artificial sweeteners. One example is Jackie Newgent’s The All-Natural Diabetes Cookbook, which uses real sugar in recipes and emphasizes unprocessed, whole-food ingredients.
You can even have your favorite comfort food if you have diabetes, as demonstrated in the American Diabetes Association’s latest book The Diabetes Comfort Food Cookbook by culinary nutritionist Robyn Webb. The book features lasagna, meat loaf, mac n’ cheese, and cake — along with the message: “Just a tweak here and there and familiar foods can remain favorites, guilt-free, and enjoyed every day.”
Maybe Paula Deen won’t have to make so many changes after all. But a few tweaks would certainly be good.