When I was pregnant, I found out I had a condition called gestational diabetes. Through no choice of my own, and out of terror at the thought of birthing a 20-pound infant, I was forced to acquire knowledge about glucose levels, the glycemic index, complex carbohydrates, and refined sugars. Of course, I was pregnant at the time… so thanks to pregnancy brain, much of that knowledge was swept right out of my head by rampant hormones. Still, I retain some of the basics, since as a prediabetic I still need to apply them daily; mostly. I know what foods make a huge difference in the way my own body processes food. So, by popular demand, I write this entry… which could easily be several entries, because there is so much to say about the matter.
I’ll warn you: I am not a doctor, nor a dietitian. I speak in layman’s terms because, frankly, they’re all I have. I can say with absolute truth that the information I’ll share here has worked for me, as evidenced by lower glucose readings. I hope you can get some ideas about how to improve your own eating habits. (And no, I don’t always do every single thing that I’ll list here. Sorry. Yep, hypocritical, I know.)
To put it basically, your body needs a considerable amount of food in its most raw forms. In short, the more processed and “done” a food is, the worse it is for your body. Anything that’s bleached or refined does too much of the work for you, and therefore causes your blood sugar to spike after you eat it. That’s not good for anyone, especially diabetics. What you need to understand is that all food has carbohydrates, or carbs. Some of the carbs are good and complex, and some are easy, empty carbs that do nothing for you but give you a quick energy and then make you sleepy. At least that’s what they do to me. Sometimes, they can even make you dizzy, light-headed, or nauseous once the spike is over.
There’s a tricky part about watching your sugar levels. It’s not just about avoiding sweets; it’s much more than that. All those boxed meals and crackers and white pasta and white bread and quick oatmeal and egg noodles… boy, they’re yummy in moderation, but eating them is practically the same as ingesting a chocolate bar or piece of cake. Maybe worse. They convert very quickly to sugars in your body, even though they don’t look like sugars going in. And that’s bad.
Anyway. The glycemic index is this giant index of food; each food is assigned a rating in the index, so it’s kind of like a scale. These ratings were determined by testing blood samples in healthy folks who’d eaten the foods; the ratings show whether the food in burned up quickly by your body, or whether it’s used more slowly and gradually, thus sticking with you longer and not causing blood sugar spikes. (BTW, you want to eat the slower, more gradual food.) Many food labels are beginning to include this GI rating to help people eat better. In short, foods that have a high GI rating are things made with bleached or enriched flours and sugars, like regular pasta, baked goods, white rice, etc. The foods that are low on the GI scale are veggies, most fruits, whole grains, that sort of thing—hence the whole grain train that’s making its way around the U.S.A. It’s easy to learn more about the glycemic index—just Google the phrase and have a field day. I’m no expert, so I’ll let you do that for homework.
Ideally, when you eat a meal, your plate should look like this: about ½ vegetables or vegetables/fruits, ¼ cereals/breads, and ¼ lean meat or protein. Plus, we eat monstrous portions in this country; therefore, in order to achieve that ideal plate, you’ll likely have to downsize each of those portions from what you’re expecting. Shocking, I know. If you haven’t yet done so, consult the labels on food packaging and finding out what THEY consider to be a serving; it’s quite eye-opening.
And remember, you’re not just shooting for low GI-rated, low carb foods. Your body needs carbs to be healthy. You just want to find the carbs that will take your body a longer time and more effort to digest. And you can’t rely solely on meat and cheese and the like—they’re often high in fat, and you don’t want to pig out on those and give yourself low glucose levels, but have a heart attack instead.
Okay. I’ve rambled long enough. I’ll get to the nitty gritty now. Just as love covers a multitude of sins, there are certain foods that cover a multitude of bad eating choices. Read on to hear about the foods that “cover” me.
Veggies: The magic vegetables that I’ve found are definitely spinach, celery, and baby carrots. They’re both best raw, of course, but spinach can be sautéed in olive oil with garlic, or used in soups, and likewise for celery and carrots—you just don’t want to cook them to death. Any dark, leafy greens are great. Brightly colored produce is good for you, so when they’re on sale, I try to work in red and yellow peppers. Some other great vegetable choices? Cauliflower is one (it’s great roasted with olive oil); zucchini, squash, and eggplant are good choices too—and in summer, you can slice ‘em and cook ‘em on the grill brushed with oil! Yum.
Fruits: Some are high in natural sugar. A reasonable sized apple, blueberries and other berries, grapes, melons—all are fine if I don’t overdo it. The problem with fruit isn’t typically the fruit itself—it’s what we do to them before we call them “good.” Eating your strawberries piled with Reddi-Whip is probably going to make them less beneficial for you. Also, canned fruits in regular syrup are off the charts. Don’t even bother unless you find some with no added sugar. Bananas? The more ripe they get, the higher in sugar they are.
Cereals: The more old-fashioned oatmeal you can work into recipes, the better. We actually started to make our own Muesli cereal so we can control exactly what goes into it—especially sugar, including the dried fruits, which are great energy foods but are very high in carbs. Wheat cereals and bran cereals are typically pretty good choices. Look at the carb counts on the labels of store-bought stuff and compare. Don’t forget to consider the serving size! Health-wise, a whole cup of crisped rice doesn’t hold a candle to a half-cup of shredded wheat.
Breads, pastas, and rice: The good news is yes, you can still eat them. You just need to eat less, and eat the right kind. I love Barilla Plus, which is awesome and tastes almost like regular pasta; another good one is the Barilla Whole Grain variety. Rice? Brown is a better choice, but be creative—try a wild rice mix, or the best type I’ve found, Basmati rice. I don’t know where it got the name, or whether it merits a capital letter, but it is much better for my glucose levels than plain old white rice. Jasmine rice also seems to be better than plain white. Whole wheat breads are the best for you—but whole wheat flour had better be the first ingredient, or the loaf is misrepresenting itself. Any grainy bread is good, really—crusty helps, too. The worst? White sandwich bread, especially the kind that makes a doughy ball when you roll it up in your fingers. The very worst for me? Mancini’s regular Italian. Sorry, Pittsburghers—it’s great stuff, but not for diabetics.
Beans: They’re good. Use them in stews, casseroles, skillet meals. If you use the canned ones (and most of us do), then rinse them before you use them. And if you don’t eat meat, use even more.
Nuts: These make great snacks, in moderation. Peanut butter, too. Yes, they’re high in fats, but it’s the good fat, not the saturated kind that clogs your arteries. Plus, peanut butter gives you protein, which is good. Get used to throwing some sunflowers or pine nuts in your salads, and always use peanuts in stir-fried meals.
Meat: Of course lean is best. Fish is especially great. Be warned, though—when you fry the fish, you reverse all the good stuff about it. Bake it, cook it in a pan, grill it in foil boats, but don’t coat it with egg and crumbs and toss it in boiling oil every time you have it; make fried fish the exception. I’ve also had great luck with venison, much to the chagrin of all you people who won’t touch it. A small amount—of lean beef, sausage that’s drained after cooking, and chicken—will go a long way in flavoring dishes and making them a bit more complicated for your stomach. Eggs are in this section too, I suppose—I’m not a big egg person, but I’m sure they’re fine in moderation.
Dairy: You need it. I should drink skim milk, but I don’t because I don’t want to buy two varieties of milk all the time. So, 2% works for me. Yogurt is also excellent, but don’t buy the fruity, sugary containers that you love. Buy the economy-size vanilla (I’d say plain, but no one eats it, including me) and then mix it with some cereal or a little bit of fresh fruit. Or, to save time, you can buy the light yogurts with artificial sweetener—yes, they still have that aftertaste, but they’re not bad, and you’ll really cut out a lot of sugar, plus do your stomach a favor. And cheese is great, cottage and ricotta cheese too. Use them in quiche or in sauces—a little goes far.
Fast food: It’s bad for you. If you must, get the side salad with the sandwich instead of fries. The taco salad at Wendy’s is always a safe choice, as are the big grilled chicken salads at McDonald’s. Other fast foods, or restaurant foods like Chinese and Mexican? They’re deadly. If you prepare the same thing yourself at home, with fresh ingredients, it makes a big difference. For example, I’ve seen my glucose readings differ by 30 points if I ate a small, frozen burrito vs. making the same (larger) burrito myself.
SUGAR: Don’t keep sugary stuff in the house. You’ll eat it. I love to bake, so I’ve come up with some recipes that are more forgiving because they incorporate some of these magic foods. But the truth is that I can’t have those in the house either—I just can’t leave them alone. So, be wise and don’t tempt yourself unnecessarily. And YES, you can get used to using Splenda in your coffee and tea. It does help. Not the same… but you get used to it.
Boy. This was a long post. And I could go on. But I won’t. You have some basics now. If none of this is new information to you, then sorry for wasting your time. If you found an error in my facts, then please let me know so I can amend the entry. And honestly, it’s just about common sense, changing the way you shop and cook, a little at a time. Eat the stuff you can’t go without—but put it alongside something that will help cover the bad food. Pizza? Add a salad and cut out a slice. Mac and cheese? Make your own from scratch using whole wheat macaroni. Haluski? Make it with whole grain noodles and extra cabbage. You can make this work! You can make a difference! You’ll feel better! Your body will thank you! And best of all, you’ll decrease your chances of developing some of the nastiest, most harmful diseases known to man.
Sorry, though—you will spend more money on healthy food. There's always a cost, right? Enjoy—and healthy eating!