So, you have been diagnosed with diabetes. You know that there are a lot of changes coming your way, including changes to what and how much you eat.
If you’re overweight, your healthcare provider may recommend that you lose some weight for the sake of your health. But even if you’re not carrying those extra pounds, you now understand that everything you put into your body is going to affect how you feel.
People with diabetes often struggle with how to find just the right diet. While there is no single correct choice or answer — and your diet selection is something you should discuss with your healthcare team — research shows that some diets are more beneficial than others.
The Mediterranean diet has many benefits. Numerous studies now support the idea that a primarily plant-based diet, which is low in red meat and uses olive oil as the primary source of fat, can benefit people with diseases involving chronic inflammation — including metabolic syndrome, diabetes, obesity, atherosclerosis, cancer, pulmonary disease and cognitive disorders.
Several studies focus specifically on the beneficial role the Mediterranean diet can play in glycemic control and in preventing cardiovascular disease, the number-one killer of adults with diabetes.
In a 2011 study, researchers found that adherence to a traditional Mediterranean diet (supplemented with virgin oil or mixed nuts), with no calorie restrictions, reduced the risk of developing diabetes by 52 percent (compared to a low-fat diet), in people at high risk for cardiovascular disease (a population considered more likely to develop type 2 diabetes). Participants in this study lowered their risk for diabetes without any significant changes in body weight or increases in physical activity.
Another study in 2014, by researchers in Italy, found that people with newly diagnosed type 2 diabetes were better able to lower their A1C levels and delay the need for diabetes medications when adhering to a Mediterranean diet, compared to a low-fat diet.
WHAT IS THE MEDITERRANEAN DIET?
The term Mediterranean diet was first used in the 1960s by researcher Ancel Keys when describing the eating habits of people living near the Mediterranean Sea. Keys noticed that people living in this region — who had a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, bread, cereals, olive oil, low-to-moderate amounts of fish, poultry and alcohol, with little red meat — experienced fewer chronic illnesses and lived longer than people living in other regions of the world.
Today, health experts, including those at the Mayo Clinic, advise people interested in a Mediterranean diet for health purposes to incorporate the foods that follow into their meal plan.
Plenty of plants: The bulk of all meals should come from a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Eat a rainbow. Aim for seven to ten servings a day of plant-based foods. Branch out from the basics and try some figs, dates or pomegranates, avocado and eggplant.
Whole grains: Whether you’re eating bread, cereal, rice, tortillas or pasta, make sure you’re choosing whole grains. Try brown-rice pasta or quinoa for a different flavor.
Nuts and legumes: If you need a snack, munch on almonds, cashews, pistachios or walnuts. Avoid peanut butters with hydrogenated fats, opting for the natural varieties instead. Want to try another type of spread? Go for tahini, made of sesame seeds. Kidney beans, chickpeas and lentils are good sides.
Spices: Season meals with herbs and spices instead of using salt. Toss in garlic, chili powder, saffron, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg or mint. You’ll add flavor as well as health benefits and may actually enjoy the change.
Skip the butter: Substitute olive oil or canola oil for butter or margarine. Try dipping whole-grain breads in flavored olive oils instead of spreading butter on top.
Eat more fish: Eat fish at least once or twice a week. Try fresh or water-packed tuna, trout, mackerel or herring. Salmon, sardines and halibut are all rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Grill or bake — don’t fry the fish — for the healthiest results.
Eat less red meat: You don’t have to eliminate red meat, but do cut back on it. Limit yourself to no more than a few servings per month. When you do eat it, make sure it’s lean and in small portions, about the size of a deck of cards for a single serving. Skip the bacon, sausage and high-fat meats as much as possible.
Switch to low-fat dairy: Choose skim milk, fat-free yogurt and low-fat cheese over full-fatted products.
Red wine with dinner? With your doctor’s approval, feel free to enjoy a glass of red wine with dinner. A 2015 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that people with type 2 diabetes who followed a Mediterranean diet and drank five ounces of red wine (compared to white wine or mineral water) with their meal improved their lipid profiles by increasing HDL (good) cholesterol. Some also improved their blood glucose control. What’s more, they slept better.
Because so much research has been done on this type of diet, recipes abound. Even if you don’t switch completely to eating like you’re living along the coast of Italy, Greece, Morocco, Turkey or Israel, why not experiment with some regional dishes and flavors? Try an artichoke heart and feta salad, cauliflower soup with paprika, cumin and fresh dill, chickpea patties, or roasted broccoli with lemon-garlic vinaigrette. You may find you like the change.
And if it helps you improve your health? You’ll eat better and feel better.