What and how you eat directly impacts your risk of developing type 2 diabetes. So, it’s simple logic to make a habit of reducing the stuff that most directly leads to the deadly disease: sugar.
An estimated 34 million Americans have diabetes, more than 10% of the U.S. population, according to the National Institutes of Health. Another 88 million adults or 34.5% of Americans have prediabetes, a disorder characterized by blood sugar levels that are high but not yet to the level indicating type 2 diabetes.
When your body doesn’t produce enough insulin or uses it ineffectively to keep your blood sugar in a healthy range, that’s called insulin resistance. Your cells become numb to the hormone and can’t efficiently use glucose for energy. Insulin resistance often leads to type 2 diabetes.
Eat as if you already have diabetes.
If understanding the devastating potential outcomes of a diabetes diagnosis has renewed your interest in being more aware of your sugar intake, great! But here’s another idea: Instead of focusing on cutting carbs and sugars out of your diet, establish eating habits that prevent diabetes. Since sacrificing the foods you love can be so unpleasant, focus on how you can eat healthy without denying yourself. That gets to the most crucial eating habit for avoiding diabetes, according to many nutrition experts:
“The diet we should all be on is the optimal diet of people with diabetes,” says registered dietitian nutritionist Wendy Bazilian, Dr.PH, RDN, a doctor of public health and exercise physiologist certified by the American College of Sports Medicine. “You want a stable, steady release of blood glucose to enter the cells to make energy efficiently.”
This is because stable blood sugar is critical to optimal metabolic health. And it affects many facets of your overall health—your energy, sleep, mood and cognition, and immune system function.
How to start this habit
“Uneven eating patterns, like skipping meals and eating heavily at dinner because you’re starving, cause too many blood sugar spikes, which increases risk for diabetes,” says registered dietitian Catherine Sebastian, MS, RD, manager of health communications at The Wonderful Company.
That advice may sound radical, but it’s very logical and doable, because it’s essentially the same healthy eating style that supports heart health, reduces inflammation, prevents weight gain and obesity, and reduces risk of certain cancers.
Next step: taking baby steps
Another important thing to consider when “eating like you already have diabetes” is that you don’t need to cut out carbs completely.
“Cutting out carbs is a misconception,” says Sebastian. “You want carbohydrates that contain fiber. And you should always have a protein source in every meal.”
And some fat, adds Dr. Bazilian. “Have protein, fat, and carbs in your meal.” Having the three macronutrients ensures you’re getting nutrients, including fiber, that slow the absorption of sugars into the bloodstream as well as promote satiety.
Making a habit of eating like someone who already has diabetes can be challenging, just as establishing any routine can be. The key is to make a decision to commit to your health and well-being before making any changes to your day-to-day life, says Nick Frye, MS, a licensed clinical professional counselor and behavioral counseling manager for OPTAVIA, a weight loss and health coaching company.
The first step is finding your “why,” “which is what we call the fundamental choice,” he says. “It’s an intentional commitment to identifying and following your north star. It’s a mindset shift that sets direction and foundation for future action. All other habits to come are made in service to your fundamental choice.”
So, for example, if eating like a diabetic is the habit you want to adopt, the first step is to determine what you want to get out of that habit. If it’s “to optimize my health and avoid diabetes,” personalize it with something emotionally meaningful to you, like “so I can be healthy enough to dance at my granddaughter’s wedding in 20 years.”