Earth-Friendly Approach to Managing Diabetes

October 12, 2021

What’s an earth-friendly diabetic diet? Managing your diabetes in an environmentally conscious way will benefit your health as well as the planet’s! 

It’s candy month! Who doesn’t love roaming the aisles of the grocery to see all the festive Halloween candy? Or to bake a delicious batch of monster cookies!? Admittedly, it’s hard to resist. But we hear a lot about too much refined sugar and ultra-processed foods, and the negative consequences to our health. One of the most popular non-communicable diseases mentioned often is diabetes. Rightfully so, there are 1.5 million Americans diagnosed with diabetes every year, and the numbers are on an upward trajectory.

Bottom line is diabetes is becoming more and more common. So what should you know about diabetes?

Diabetes, or diabetes mellitus (DM), is a disease defined by an increased blood glucose concentration (sugar in our blood) due to our insulin not working properly or problems with insulin secretion, or both. Insulin is a hormone produced by the pancreas that aids in our body’s use of glucose for energy. There are 3 main types of DM. Those with Type 1 do not make insulin due to the destruction of the cells in the pancreas that make insulin. They typically require insulin injections as part of their treatment. Those with Type 2 may develop this for a few reasons related to genetics and environmental factors, and this type accounts for most cases of diabetes. Type 2 is caused by a combination of insulin resistance (where your body is desensitized to the action of insulin) and failure of pancreatic cells in producing insulin. Not all require insulin injections as treatment. Type 2 can be managed through diet and exercise, lifestyle, and healthy behavior. And lastly Gestational Diabetes is a form of diabetes that is seen in pregnant women, caused by insulin resistance and increase in hormones that promote reducing insulin production. Consequences of untreated DM include hypo- and hyperglycemic episodes in the short-term, and diseases such as dyslipidemia (increased lipid/fat levels), hypertension (high blood pressure), kidney disorders, eye issues, and nerve damage, in the long-term. 

As dietitians we are trained to counsel in the management, and sometimes, even the reversal of this disease. The dietary management of diabetes aims to keep blood glucose in appropriate ranges and prevent the disease from progressing, by counseling patients with diabetes in balancing macronutrients, most importantly carbohydrates. And if need be, calculate insulin requirements in ratio with carbohydrates eaten. This management is not just what to eat and what not to eat, this is lifestyle management. And at Dining with Nature we talk about our health and the planet’s health, that they are all connected. So how can someone with diabetes manage their lifestyle in an environmentally-conscious way?

Diabetes dietary management is already rooted in an earth-friendly approach. The foundational elements of the diet build a positive relationship with our food and our planet.

  • Revolve your meals around plants. Management of diabetes requires a balance of macronutrients, ensuring that our carbohydrate, fat, protein, and overall energy intake are balanced so as not to eat too much or too little of what is needed and cause an extreme reaction. The carbohydrate counting and exchange system created by the American Diabetic Association, often used in counseling for diabetes, emphasizes fruits, vegetables, and whole grains as 3 of the 5 food groups, with protein and fat as the other 2. This encourages someone with diabetes to utilize these 3 main food groups of plants, as key components of their diet, similar to a plant-based diet!
  • Decrease intake of highly processed foods. The overuse of salt, sugar, and fat in highly processed foods is a major concern for someone with diabetes, and they are taught how to read food labels in order to be mindful of their food choices that can create an imbalance. This awareness of food products and their nutritional makeup leads to a decreased intake of highly processed foods, and more of a reliance on natural and basic products such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, meat, poultry, fish, nuts, and legumes. Filling your diet with these main staples, is a proven healthy lifestyle that benefits both you and our planet.
  • Meal planning. A key ingredient to a healthy lifestyle is planning meals. A task not many people are eager to do. But someone with diabetes who is managing their intake, requires a more conscious effort to know what their meals and snacks will be. Not only is this necessary for their health but meal planning has greater consequences in terms of reducing food waste and smart shopping. Taking time to map out what you plan to eat that week, day by day, and what exactly what food items you need in the house to make that happen, will prevent waste, ensure proper blood glucose control, and keep your grocery bills low!

These key lifestyle components of a diabetic diet are important parts of controlling the disease, promoting health, and caring for the environment. It may not seem like clinical care is connected with our food environment, they are actually often closely related and may bring more positive outcomes if used in patient care.