The Mediterranean Diet: Your Key to Controlling Diabetes

This is an ideal receipe for people who want to enjoy bread but need it to be gluten free.
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The Mediterranean Diet is the diet of choice if you have type 2 diabetes. Why? Research tells us that people who switch to the Mediterranean Diet have better control of their diabetes. They have lower blood glucose levels and fewer complications. Many are able to delay taking diabetes medications, and some achieve normal blood glucose levels without using medications.

The Mediterranean Diet is a healthy and delicious way of eating that can be maintained for life. It is easy to adopt, affordable, and good for the planet. Who said that healthy eating had to be expensive and complicated? Read on to find out what the Mediterranean Diet is and why it works. And most importantly, how to start eating the Mediterranean way to keep your diabetes well under control!

Why Good Control of Type 2 Diabetes Is Important

Type 2 Diabetes (T2D) is a complex disease in which our body loses its ability to use and store glucose. Glucose is a type of sugar found in most foods. It works as a universal source of energy that our body uses to run every organ, from brain and muscles to liver and kidneys.

When we have T2D, our organs cannot properly use glucose and begin to “starve” without the energy it provides. At the same time, the glucose from food that cannot enter the organs builds up in the bloodstream. If diabetes is poorly controlled, glucose levels stay high long-term and begin to damage our blood vessels from the inside. This leads to heart disease, kidney disease and other complications of diabetes.

Healthy eating, physical activity and weight management can help control T2D and prevent these complications. It is in your power to live a long, healthy life despite your diagnosis!

Healthy Weight in T2D Control

If you are overweight, even modest weight loss of 5-10% can improve diabetes control. Ask an Accredited Practicing Dietitian how to lose weight safely and for good.

Physical Activity in T2D Control

Regular physical activity has a powerful effect on blood glucose levels and helps maintain healthy weight. Achieving the recommended amount of physical activity is best, but even a small amount will help control your diabetes. An Exercise Physiologist can help you choose exercise that is effective, safe – and enjoyable!

Looking for the Right Diet for T2D

Diet is a powerful tool for health and longevity. For several decades, researchers and health professionals have tried to find the best diet for managing T2D by changing the balance of diet components (carbohydrates, fat, and protein). First, let’s remind ourselves what these components are.

Carbohydrates are made of glucose, a universal form of energy for all body functions. They are found in starchy foods, such as grains, legumes, root vegetables, pasta and flour. Carbohydrates are essential for all people, including those living with T2D. Avoiding all carbohydrates is not helpful for T2D. Instead, choose the right type of carbohydrates! High-GI carbohydrates (white bread and pastries, cakes, biscuits and other sweets) get into the blood stream quickly and cause a rapid, high increase of blood glucose. These foods make it harder to control T2D. Low-GI carbohydrates (whole grains and beans) provide a slow, sustained supply of glucose for body functions. These are the foods of choice for good T2D control.

Fat is an important building block and energy source for our cells. It comes in saturated and unsaturated varieties. Saturated fat is solid at room temperature and is found in animal foods (meat and dairy) as well as coconut oil and chocolate. Too much saturated fat is not healthy for the body and can make T2D worse. Unsaturated fat is liquid at room temperature and is found in plant oils (olive, canola, sunflower oil), as well as avocados, nuts, and seeds. An important type of unsaturated fat, called omega-3 fat, is only found in fish, seafood, and few plant foods (flax seed, hemp seed, walnuts).

Protein is found in abundance in animal foods (meat, fish, eggs, and cheese) and some plant foods (beans, whole grains, nuts, and seeds). It is an important building block for the body. Not all protein is created equal: high intake of red meat, and especially processed meat, increases the risk of heart disease, cancer and T2DM. Lower intake of red meat and higher intake of plant sources of protein such as legumes lowers the risk of chronic diseases and supports longevity.

Over 30 years ago, scientists thought that fat was the “culprit” and proposed a low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet for T2D management. There was little understanding of how different types of fat affect the body, and many people started to believe that all fat is “bad”. We know now that many plant and animal foods high in unsaturated fat (e.g. nuts, seeds, fish) are essential for health, and many show great promise for T2D control (e.g. extra virgin olive oil and walnuts). The low-fat, high-carbohydrate diet idea also led many people to believe that all carbohydrates are healthy. In fact, excessive high-GI carbohydrates make it very hard to keep blood glucose levels in check.

Later, low-carbohydrate diets showed promise for weight loss and improvement of blood glucose levels in people with T2D. However, low-carbohydrate diets are very difficult to sustain long-term because carbohydrates are an essential energy source that the body demands if restricted. Most people slip back into their habitual eating patterns and regain the weight within 1 year. Also, a low-carbohydrate diet often means high animal protein intake. We now know that high intake of animal protein, especially red and processed meat, increases risk of heart disease, cancer and early death. On the other hand, eating more plant foods, fish and dairy and less red meat lowers the risk of chronic diseases, especially heart disease and T2DM.

The Mediterranean Diet Is the Best Diet for T2D Control

The Mediterranean Diet is the most scientifically studied way of eating in the world. Science shows that it helps prevent diabetes, heart disease, some cancers, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, and supports good mental health and longevity. It is also the best diet for those already diagnosed with diabetes. People with T2D who follow the Mediterranean Diet have lower blood glucose levels, better insulin sensitivity, more successful weight loss, and lower risk of heart disease, compared to other diets. Many people delay their need for diabetes medications, and some achieve normal blood glucose levels (diabetes remission) without medications.

What Is the Mediterranean Diet and Why It Works So Well

The Mediterranean Diet is not a “diet” that you “go on” for a few weeks to lose weight. It is a healthy and tasty cuisine, a traditional way of cooking and eating in the Mediterranean region for countless generations. The Mediterranean Diet and lifestyle is the reason that people in the Mediterranean region enjoy long, healthy lives and have low incidence of heart disease and diabetes.

The Mediterranean way encourages home-cooking of meals using a variety of fresh, local ingredients and enjoying the meals in good company. Instead of restricting certain foods, it’s a positive, food-loving approach to eating. It includes healthy and nutritious foods that nourish the body. It celebrates food and the pleasure of eating, and satisfies our craving for variety. It uses ingredients that are accessible and mostly inexpensive, and simple cooking methods. This makes the Traditional Mediterranean Diet easy to adopt and sustainable for life.

Researchers believe that the main features of the Mediterranean Diet that make it so effective are:

Key Elements of the Mediterranean Diet

Liberal use of extra virgin olive oil

provides healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants (polyphenols, carotenoids) and anti-inflammatory substances (oleocanthal)

Lots of fresh vegetables, especially tomatoes, leafy greens, onions and garlic

tomatoes and leafy greens are rich in antioxidants, and onions and garlic contain substances that protect from infections and cancer

Liberal use of extra virgin olive oil

provides healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants (polyphenols, carotenoids) and anti-inflammatory substances (oleocanthal)

Lots of fresh vegetables, especially tomatoes, leafy greens, onions and garlic

tomatoes and leafy greens are rich in antioxidants, and onions and garlic contain substances that protect from infections and cancer

Liberal use of extra virgin olive oil

provides healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants (polyphenols, carotenoids) and anti-inflammatory substances (oleocanthal)

Lots of fresh vegetables, especially tomatoes, leafy greens, onions and garlic

tomatoes and leafy greens are rich in antioxidants, and onions and garlic contain substances that protect from infections and cancer

Liberal use of extra virgin olive oil

provides healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants (polyphenols, carotenoids) and anti-inflammatory substances (oleocanthal)

Lots of fresh vegetables, especially tomatoes, leafy greens, onions and garlic

tomatoes and leafy greens are rich in antioxidants, and onions and garlic contain substances that protect from infections and cancer

Liberal use of extra virgin olive oil

provides healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants (polyphenols, carotenoids) and anti-inflammatory substances (oleocanthal)

Lots of fresh vegetables, especially tomatoes, leafy greens, onions and garlic

tomatoes and leafy greens are rich in antioxidants, and onions and garlic contain substances that protect from infections and cancer

Liberal use of extra virgin olive oil

provides healthy monounsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants (polyphenols, carotenoids) and anti-inflammatory substances (oleocanthal)

The Mediterranean Diet Pyramid

Have a look at the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid above. You will notice that it rests on the foundation of lifestyle and social activities: regular physical activity, adequate rest, conviviality (spending a lively and friendly time with others), cooking and eating a variety of local, seasonal, and eco-friendly foods. Do not discard these activities as they are an inseparable and essential part of the Mediterranean lifestyle and contribute to the long, healthy lives that the people of the Mediterranean have enjoyed for generations.

There is also water and herbal teas. Good hydration is an essential element of good health. Switching from sweetened drinks to water is one of the best things you can do to live a long, healthy life.

Then, there are foundational foods enjoyed at every mail meal: 1-2 serves of fruit, >2 serves of colourful vegetables, and 1-2 serves of whole grain cereals. Olive oil sits at the centre of every meal, used for cooking and dressing of salads. Notice that these foundational foods are all plant foods. Animal foods don’t need to be included at every meal.

At the next level there are healthy foods eaten daily: 1-2 serves of olives, nuts or seeds, and 2 serves of dairy per day. The best dairy products are low-fat and fermented (yoghurt or fermented cheese e.g. feta). Various herbs and spices add health benefits and flavour, so less salt is needed.

At the next level are the foods enjoyed weekly: 2 serves of white meat e.g. chicken, >2 serves of fish or seafood, 2-4 serves of eggs and >2 serves of legumes. Red meat is enjoyed 1-2 times a week, and processed meat less than once a week only as a treat. This brings a variety of animal and plant protein sources and lowers health risks from excessive consumption of animal protein.

At the top of the pyramid are sweets that can be enjoyed 1-2 times a week as a treat.

About Alina

Alina’s background is in biomedical research, but she has always loved food and cooking. While completing her PhD and post-doctoral work in the field of inflammation, Alina became fascinated by the connections between food, gut, hormones, inflammation, and health.

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