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Can you control diabetes with diet and exercise?

April 8, 2022 • read

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Can you control diabetes with diet and exercise?

Diabetes influences your quality of life and increases your risk of developing other diseases. It affects the way your body processes the food you eat and it’s chronic. With appropriate treatment, however, diabetes can be managed effectively. 

Diet especially has an outsize effect on how the disease manifests for you. From helping to manage your diabetes to preventing it from developing entirely, what you eat plays a crucial role in your diabetes journey. Here’s everything you need to know about diabetes and your diet. 

What are some of the dangers of diabetes?

In the short-term, diabetes leads to high blood glucose, also known as hyperglycemia. This can induce uncomfortable symptoms like blurred vision, an increasing need to urinate, and extreme thirst. While unpleasant, these symptoms are temporary, as long as you act on them.

Leaving your diabetes unaddressed or undertreated, however, has a cascade effect. This can trigger a number of other health issues including:

  • Diabetic neuropathy — also called nerve damage, this condition can affect nerves throughout your body, but is especially common in the legs and feet. Symptoms may include digestive issues or tingling, burning, numbness, and pain in your lower extremities.
  • Peripheral artery disease (PAD) — involves damage to your blood vessels, causing them to narrow. This results in a smaller volume of blood travelling to certain parts of your body, usually your legs and feet, which impedes your body’s ability to heal. In its worst-case scenario, PAD can progress to the point where blood flow in the arteries becomes entirely blocked. This can lead to gangrene and amputations.
  • Limb loss and amputations — if you have nerve damage in a part of your body, the loss of feeling can inhibit your ability to feel wounds. This gives small sores and wounds the opportunity to worsen. This, coupled with PAD which inhibits healing, puts you at higher risk for infections, especially in your feet and legs. In some cases, your medical team may recommend seeing a surgeon to amputate a limb in order to stop the infection from spreading to other parts of your body.
  • Gastroparesis — unchecked diabetes can affect how you digest your food. Also called gastric stasis, gastroparesis means that your stomach takes too long to digest and process your food. This may cause a lack of appetite, nausea, vomiting, or intestinal blockage.
  • Diabetic kidney disease — uncontrolled high blood sugar levels can damage small blood vessels in your kidneys. This results in the kidneys not being able to filter blood properly. Because of this, small particles of protein spill into your urine. As kidney disease waste products such as urea build up in your blood, your body isn’t able to get rid of them, which eventually results in kidney failure.

What are some ways to manage your diet for diabetes?

In both type 1 and type 2 diabetes, your body’s insulin production is affected. With type 1 diabetes, you can’t make the insulin you need to process all the glucose (sugar) in your diet. In type 2, your body can’t properly use the insulin your pancreas makes. Since the excess sugar that builds up in your blood can’t be used for energy or fully expelled in your urine, it’s mostly stored as fat. 

Monitoring your blood sugar and taking insulin as prescribed are necessary for controlling your diabetes. But addressing your diet is also a crucial part of the equation, especially as type 2 diabetes is typically brought on by diet and lifestyle choices.

Research shows that with specific lifestyle modifications, type 2 diabetes is reversible. Low-carbohydrate diets like the keto diet, for example, help to both lower your blood sugar levels and decrease fluctuations in them. These diets also have strong weight-loss potential, which is an important component of diabetes management.

Whether you’re aiming for management or complete reversal, however, your condition will almost certainly worsen if you don’t maintain a healthy diet and regular exercise regime. Here’s how you can keep your condition in check by managing your diabetes with diet: 

  • Choose whole foods. The more processed the food, the more likely it is to be full of added sugar or refined carbohydrates. Since both are big no-nos for a diabetic diet, choose unprocessed, whole foods whenever possible. 
  • Plan your snacking strategy. Restricting yourself to three meals a day can leave you hungry and vulnerable to making poor diet choices. Tiding yourself over between meals with granola or protein bars might seem like a great option, but many of them are loaded with sugar. Plan for healthier snacking options like nuts, cut-up veggies, and whole pieces of fruit.
  • Ditch the pop. There’s a huge association between your intake of sugary drinks and diabetes. A number of studies show that drinking pop increases your risk of developing diabetes. And the more you drink, the higher your risk.

    Switching to diet won’t help either. While it’s unclear if it’s a causal relationship, drinking one or more diet drinks a week correlates with a 67% increase in your risk for diabetes. Stick to water whenever possible.

How do diabetes patients monitor their diet and exercise?

According to Diabetes Canada, exercise can help you manage diabetes as well as certain medications. Your exercise program must be tailored to you, however, especially if you have other diabetes-related health concerns like nerve damage or heart health issues. Before you begin a new exercise regime, make sure to discuss it with your healthcare provider. While 150 minutes of exercise a week is the ultimate goal, if you’re not used to being physically active, you’ll likely need to start low and go slow. 

Furthermore, if you’re taking insulin, you’ll need to monitor your blood sugar before and after exercise. Before beginning to exercise, your blood sugar should be at 5.6 millimoles per litre (mmol/L) or above.

Exercise lowers your blood sugar, and strenuous exercise can cause your blood sugar levels to drop precipitously. This can trigger irregular heartbeat, irritability, shakiness, and even fainting. If working out causes your blood sugar to go below 4 mmol/L, it’s a medical emergency.

If your blood glucose level is at 14 mmol/L or above, however, it’s too high for exercise. At this level, you have too much sugar in your blood, also known as hyperglycemia. A blood glucose reading of 14 mmol/L with ketones is a medical emergency. 

Testing before a meal is called taking your pre-prandial blood sugar level, and it can show you how your diabetes is progressing. If your level is high, your body is having trouble lowering your blood sugar. If you take insulin and your level is abnormally low, it may indicate that you’re taking too much insulin.

Testing blood sugar after a meal helps you to understand how your nutritional choices impact your health. Meals full of refined sugars and carbohydrates will send your blood glucose levels skyrocketing, while healthier choices won’t spike them in the same way. This gives you the opportunity to adjust the way you eat.

Diabetes and your heart

Diabetes enacts some of its most severe effects on your heart. Being overweight or obese, diabetes, and heart disease often go together, and if you have diabetes, you’re twice as likely to have a stroke or heart disease than someone without it.

To begin, high blood sugar is a catalyst for developing high blood pressure and inflammation, both of which lead to atherosclerosis, or hardening of your arteries. 

If you have diabetes, you’re also more likely to have high cholesterol. Too much low-density lipoprotein (LDL) — the “bad” cholesterol — in your blood means plaque is more likely to form on the insides of your blood vessels. This causes them to narrow and can even block them entirely. But the effects of diabetes on your heart don’t stop there.

Nerve damage and PAD aren’t just issues for your legs and feet. Diabetes can damage the blood vessels and nerves that surround your heart the same way it does the ones in your legs and feet. This can affect how your body circulates blood throughout your system and even how much blood your heart is able to pump.

How can I lower my heart disease risk if I have diabetes?

High blood sugar and being overweight heighten your risk of a cardiac event. This makes exercise and diet two of your most powerful tools for addressing the heart health issues diabetes brings on. 

Because your muscles use sugar to function, exercising regularly helps you manage your blood sugar levels. Aim for 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a week. Swimming, cycling, or even a power walk are all good options. 

Try to incorporate strength training too — it helps you build muscle which burns more calories at rest than fat. This means your body will burn more calories, even when you’re doing nothing.

Sticking to a diabetes and heart-friendly diet is another great way of lowering your risk of heart disease. Fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and good fats like avocados, fish, nuts, and seeds, are all great options. Stay away from saturated fats, junk foods, anything overly-processed, and limit fried foods.

Finally, don’t smoke, always take your insulin as directed, and limit or cut out alcohol entirely.

How do you prevent diabetes?

There’s nothing you can do to prevent type 1 diabetes since it’s genetic. Type 2 diabetes, however, is an entirely different story. Type 2 diabetes typically begins as prediabetes, where your blood sugar levels are high, but below the threshold for diabetes. At this stage, proper diet and exercise are essential to stop your prediabetes from progressing.

By making healthy lifestyle choices, you can delay and even prevent diabetes. Here’s how:

  • Maintain a healthy weight. Being overweight or obese increases your risk of developing diabetes.
  • Stick to water. Sugary drinks are a major driver of diabetes risk. If you don’t like drinking water, consider infusing it with lemon, lime, mint, or cucumber.
  • Get at least 150 minutes of exercise a week. Exercise helps to control your blood sugar and lowers your risk of diabetes.
  • Eat healthfully. Choose more vegetables, plant-based and lean proteins, whole grains, and good (unsaturated) fats over-processed foods and convenience meals.
  • Remove processed sugars, alcohol, refined grains, and fried food from your diet.
  • Don’t smoke. Not only is it bad for your heart, lungs, and breath, but evidence suggests a link between smoking and diabetes.

Exercise and proper nutrition are pillars of diabetes management, but it’s not always easy to know where to start. If you’re looking to manage your diabetes, a registered dietitian may be able to help. A registered dietitian can help to devise a nutritional plan that works for you and your condition. Book an appointment with a registered dietitian today and take control of your diabetes.

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