There is a lot of information out there on type 2 diabetes. Google searches will yield pages and pages of results with information about causes, treatments, and consequences if left untreated. With all of this information out there, there is also shocking inconsistency in the way type 2 diabetes is discussed in popular media and consumer health outlets.
Most articles or news stories about type 2 diabetes follow a similar framework – they state the percentage of individuals currently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, how the rate of type 2 diabetes diagnoses is on the rise, and all of the health complications that are associated with having this condition. These facts and figures are always presented as “staggering” and the consequences “dire”.
Many will go on to make statements like “type 2 diabetes is a completely preventable condition”, making anyone with the condition feel totally responsible for their diagnosis. They proceed to lay out a set of strict diet and exercise rules to which you must adhere to manage this condition. They’ll be framed as “simple” or “easy”, but they are usually totally unrealistic and thus, not sustainable. And finally, they’ll threaten that this is basically a death sentence if you don’t do as instructed.
That’s not the way this article is going to go.
That’s because, frankly:
- a lot of that information is just plain false (for instance, type 2 diabetes is not a “completely preventable condition” and won’t be until we can eliminate one’s genetic predisposition to the condition), or grossly oversimplified and misrepresented,
- and even if it were all true, the hysteria with which information about diabetes is often presented just isn’t helpful.
We don’t respond well to scare tactics and threats. In fact, we are more likely to shut down when information is presented in this way, rather than feel motivated to take charge of our health.
So, while there are steps one can take to reduce their risk of developing diabetes, risk cannot be completely eliminated (again, genetics). Additionally, if you already have diabetes, it’s not “all your fault” and managing your type 2 diabetes does not have to consume your life.
If you already have diabetes, it’s not “all your fault” and managing your type 2 diabetes does not have to consume your life.
At Green Mountain at Fox Run, we’ve been working with women with diabetes for as long as we’ve existed (and we’ve existed for 45 years, so we’ve got some experience). Over the years we’ve learned how to support women in managing their diabetes naturally, without strict diet rules or grueling exercise routines. We’ve also helped countless women with diabetes realize that they can lead full and rich lives, despite their diagnosis.
5 Steps to Manage Your Diabetes Naturally
1. Ditch the food “dos and don’ts” and aim for balance instead.
It’s not uncommon for people who have been diagnosed with diabetes to believe that there are now a whole bunch of foods that they cannot eat. I work with women regularly who report being told that, after they were diagnosed, they should avoid “anything white” as in white bread, white pasta, white rice, white potatoes, even bananas. Others believe that they must avoid anything that contains sugar, such as desserts and many fruits.
The rationale is that these are foods that contain a higher concentration of carbohydrate than other foods and will have a greater impact on their blood sugar levels. It’s true that the bodies of individuals with diabetes have a more difficult time processing large quantities of carbohydrate when consumed all at once. That said, it doesn’t mean that high carbohydrate foods are now off limits or “bad” for the body. Carbohydrate is still an essential nutrient (read as: required for life) for those with and without diabetes, as it is an important fuel source. It simply means that the body of someone with type 2 diabetes might need some extra support to help utilize this carbohydrate most efficiently and effectively.
Balanced Meals are Key to Naturally Managing Diabetes
One way we can provide that support is by aiming for balance in meals. I’m not going to introduce a strict formula for what balanced eating is, because there isn’t one. Rather, balanced eating is more a set of flexible principles. It essentially means building meals that include most of the major food groups most of the time.
- Starchy vegetables and grains provide the body with the all-important fuel: carbohydrate. Think potatoes and winter squash, as well as bread and rice.
- Fruits and vegetables are a great source of dietary fiber which helps slow down the release of carbohydrate from the digestive system into the blood stream.
- Protein foods (such as meat, fish, eggs, and beans) also help to slow the release of carbohydrate into the blood, while being particularly effective at regulating the hunger hormone, ghrelin. A slower rate of carbohydrate release enables the body to more easily respond to the incoming carbohydrate.
This all leads to more stable blood sugar levels, which in turns leads to a more stable appetite, and can even help to reduce food cravings.
The take-away here is that pairing carbohydrate with other foods, especially those rich in fiber and protein, helps with overall blood sugar management by controlling our body’s uptake of carbohydrate from the GI tract. So, rather than thinking about what you need to remove from your diet, think about what you can add to it to support your body.
Beyond supporting the body’s physiological needs, balanced eating also helps to reduce feelings of deprivation. One common challenge is that, when people feel like they “shouldn’t” be eating carbohydrates (or any other type of food for that matter) the desire for the forbidden food(s) increases. This can set the stage for eating behaviors that aren’t ultimately supportive for our physical or mental health. As those feelings of deprivation grow, the ability to resist the temptation weakens. Eventually we “give in” and eat the forbidden because we “already blew it” – we think, “what the hell, I might as well eat it all and start again tomorrow”. This becomes an unpleasant, repeated cycle which can compound our physical health issues and lead to a tormented mental state regarding food.
Finally, fun foods are also included here because pleasure is an essential part of a balanced and health supportive eating plan. Fun foods are those that might not have a lot of nutritional value, but certainly do taste good and are foods you enjoy eating. That means that enjoying a bowl of your favorite ice cream after dinner, having birthday cake at your daughter’s birthday party, and packing potato chips as part of your lunch are all allowed and even encouraged. Because when we make these foods allowed, it’s far easier to eat them in ways that are supportive for our bodies.
2. Introduce some routine into the timing of your meals and snacks.
It’s helpful to nourish the body consistently and predictably throughout the day. This is true for all people but can be especially helpful for people with diabetes. Providing the body with adequate fuel and a balance of nutrients throughout the day helps to keep blood sugar levels and appetite hormones nice and stable, which supports regulating our overall appetite.
When we go long hours in between meals or skip meals all together, the hormones in our body that regulate appetite shift and our blood sugar levels start to decline. These shifts lead the body to signal us that we are starting to get low on fuel and we’ll need to replenish the tank soon. The longer we wait, the more urgent the need, the more intense those signals become, and the less comfortable we feel. We might find ourselves feeling irritable, unable to focus, and distracted by the intense hunger pangs that continue to strike. Our desire for high load foods (high carb and high fat) intensify as well.
In these situations, we are naturally going to seek out foods most effective for boosting the blood sugar and meeting our immediate energy needs. High carbohydrate, high fat foods (like candy bars and potato chips) are great for this. So, we eat them. And often, we overeat them. Because, once we start eating, we are also likely to eat very fast. Again, our body is expressing an urgent need, it’s communicating that need via uncomfortable sensations, and we want those sensations to go away. The faster we eat, the faster we resolve the discomfort. Except that we often find ourselves then experiencing discomfort in the opposite direction, because once our body has time to catch up and process all that we have consumed, we realize that we’ve actually overcompensated and over consumed leaving us feeling too full. This is a scenario in which a person with diabetes may also find that their blood sugar levels spike, meaning they rise really high, really fast, because there is little present to help slow down the digestion and absorption of the carbohydrate that was so rapidly consumed.
All to say, eating at regular intervals helps us avoid overloading our system by preventing extreme fluctuations in feelings of hunger and fullness. And, we can make more intentional decisions about what food to eat because the need for fuel is less urgent and therefore doesn’t override our decision-making capacity.
What exactly do those regular intervals look like?
When I’m working with people around creating some structure in their eating routine we usually start with this basic framework: eat within the first 2 hours of waking and a meal or snack every 3-4 hours thereafter. From there we make modifications to accommodate their specific schedule and lifestyle.
3. Use mindfulness to tune into hunger (and non-hunger) cues.
At its core, mindfulness is defined as paying attention in the present moment without judgement. It’s noticing our experiences, in this case the sensations in our body surrounding hunger, fullness, and appetite, and thus, being able to respond to them.
When we can become more attuned to gentle hunger, we can address it before it turns into extreme hunger and the cascade of events previously discussed is set into motion. Additionally, when we become more attuned to gentle fullness, we can respond to it (if we so choose) before finding ourselves uncomfortably full and our blood sugar levels overly elevated.
Move over, once we become more aware of our physical hunger and fullness cues, we also become more aware of our non-hunger cues to eat. Those are things like emotional cues (like stress, anger, sadness, etc.), other physical cues (like fatigue, pain, hormonal shifts, thirst, etc.), and environmental cues (like certain people, places, or activities, etc.) that trigger our desire to eat. In these cases, it’s not a physiological need for fuel that is the root of the desire for food, but some other need we are trying to meet by using food (which may or may not actually be effective).
Mindfulness is defined as paying attention in the present moment without judgement.
Once we can start to identify these non-hunger cues, then we can better decide how we want to respond. Eating becomes just one of several options and we can experiment with to learn what other alternatives might be more effective. For example, if you identify fatigue as a trigger for late night snacking, perhaps you experiment with going to bed a bit earlier. If stress at work has you bee-lining it for the vending machine, perhaps you practice pausing to take five deep breaths first or doing a lap around the building to get some of that energy out. The idea is not to eliminate food as an option here, but to add to your menu of options so that it’s not the only option.
Then, of course, if we do decide to eat (because sometimes we will and that’s perfectly okay) trying to do it mindfully – that is slowly with intention and attention – to help us eat in a way that is more supportive to both our physical and emotional well-being. We’ll be able to:
- better recognize if food is in fact meeting the need we want it to. We’ll notice, “is this candy bar really as satisfying as I want it to be?”, and
- determine the point at which we achieve satisfaction, which often requires less food than we thought we needed.
How does this support blood sugar regulation? Mindfulness with eating helps us to eat in a way that is more consistent with the body’s actual needs. When we pay attention to cues we are better able to make decisions that support our overall well-being, including blood sugar control.
4. Move your body in a way that feels good.
Because diabetes management is about more than what we eat, thinking about how we move is another important element. At Green Mountain at Fox Run we emphasize the importance of joyful movement. That is movement that feels good in the body and recognizes “right” types of movement are different for every body.
For too many women with diabetes, exercise comes to be viewed as a necessary evil for supporting physical health. The problem is, when we look at movement from this perspective, it’s near impossible to sustain it long term. We start to resent it. Eventually, we give up on it all together because of the unpleasantness we associate with it.
If instead we can shift our perspective from “exercising because I have to” to “moving because it feels good” then we can cultivate a movement routine that we actually stick to and, dare I say, even look forward to and enjoy.
Joyful movement might be walking, strength training, Zumba classes, or water aerobics. It might be drumming, yoga, or dancing while singing in your kitchen – even gardening, or playing with your kids or grand kids!
Why is movement important for women with diabetes?
Movement is helpful for women with diabetes because it helps to regulate blood sugar levels by encouraging the body to use up blood sugar as a fuel source, and improves the body’s cells sensitivity to insulin, meaning less insulin is needed to return blood sugar levels to normal.
And, when we engage in movement/exercise that feels good and that we enjoy, it’s delivers a powerful dose of feel good chemicals, too. These may not directly impact blood sugar levels, but can indirectly by reducing stress and motivating us to continue to act in a way that supports our overall health and well-being.
5. Create tools to manage and relieve stressors in your life.
Stress can actually impact blood sugar levels independent of what you are eating and drinking. When we experience stress, the body activates the fight-or-flight response. This signals the body to release stored up energy, including stored glucose, into the blood in preparation to fight or flee leading to large and quick increases in blood glucose levels. In the body of someone with diabetes, because it is less able to handle influxes of glucose like this, those levels can remain elevated in the blood for a prolonged period of time. Chronic stress can lead to chronically elevated blood glucose levels that have nothing to do with diet. And, it is prolonged elevated glucose levels that contributes to many of the associated health risks.
Chronic stress can lead to chronically elevated blood glucose levels that have nothing to do with diet.
Additionally, when under stress, it can sometimes be difficult to make decisions that are in the best interests of our long-term health because we are so focused on our present moment needs and experiences. For example, we might know that certain eating behaviors (like eating a large portion of concentrated sweets all at once) won’t support blood glucose regulation, but in the moment, when we are experiencing stress, we are relying on the food to help meet an immediate need, which is to cope with the stressor.
Stress Reduction & Management Helps Overall Blood Glucose Management
So, finding ways to reduce stress in our lives and better cope with stressors that cannot be removed can be immensely helpful to overall blood glucose management.
- Are there any stressors in your life you could remove or reduce? If yes, what ones?
- For stressors that are unavoidable, how can you cope or more effectively relieve the stress they cause?
- How can you build more general self-care into your life to help you become more resilient to the stressors that life throws your way? A meditation practice? Journaling?
What about medications for diabetes?
Some people are able to manage their blood sugar levels through diet and lifestyle choices and changes. Others are not. Medications can play an important and necessary role in the management of type 2 diabetes and there is no shame in using these treatments. They can also serve as a wonderful complement to other strategies, such as those mentioned in this article, for those who are looking to keep medication use to a minimum.
The Take-Away for Managing Diabetes Naturally
Our bodies are all different and that means treatment plans for disease management need to be, too. These 5 steps – balanced, consistent, and mindful meals, joyful movement, and stress management – are a great starting place for anyone with diabetes and can serve as the foundation upon which you build and tailor a treatment plan that meets your individual needs.
If you have be diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, the Green Mountain at Fox Run program can support you in learning how to manage it in a way that is realistic, without being overwhelming. We’ll support you in not only learning how to nourish and move your body in a way that feels good, but how to care for your whole self to help you live that big, full life you desire and deserve.