Diabetes Prevention, Step 2: Slow Foods Rule!

Do you know which foods spike blood sugar quickly and which let it rise very slowly?

This is the second in a four-part series on preventing diabetes from the Cleveland Clinic. The author, Roxanne Sukol, M.D. M.S., is medical director of the Cleveland Clinic's Wellness Enterprise.

In the first blog entry in this series, I talked about two things: 1) the importance of learning to conserve your insulin, and 2) the fact that, in nature, carbohydrate-rich foods are virtually always found with their fiber structure intact. The fact of the matter is that we humans only figured out how to strip the fiber from carbohydrate within the past 200 years. Before that, all wheat was whole-grain wheat -- it didn’t come any other way; the majority of oranges were sold as oranges, not juice; and humans were just being introduced to a new product called “table sugar.”

In this post, we will begin learning about how to conserve our insulin. What is insulin? Insulin is a hormone that is made in the pancreas, where it remains, safely stored, while it awaits its release. When you eat items that require a lot of insulin, your pancreas releases a large load of insulin into the bloodstream. It’s okay if that happens once in a while; your pancreas will make more to replenish your insulin stores. But if you continue to use gobs and gobs of insulin all the time, which is the case with the standard American diet, the day will most likely come when your pancreas begins to have trouble keeping up with the demand. You don’t ever want that to happen. Instead, you want to keep your pancreas healthy all your life, so that it continues to be able to make and store all the insulin you might ever need. You don’t ever want your pancreas to get too tired to make and store enough insulin to satisfy the demand.

How do you protect your pancreas’s ability to make insulin? With a few shifts in your food choices. Here’s what you need to know to get started:

Every time we eat, our bodies break down food into glucose (blood sugar) and transfer it into the bloodstream to be distributed throughout the body to all our cells. Food that is easily broken down gets absorbed very quickly. Food that is not so easily broken down takes a while to get absorbed. The more broken down a food is to start with, whether chemically (think microwaved oatmeal) or physically (think mashed potatoes), the more rapidly we absorb it. It’s like eating pre-digested food. When some of the work of digestion is done for us before we’ve even taken a bite, our own work is lessened. If that happens occasionally, it’s usually fine. But if that happens all the time, day in and day out, that’s not good.

What happens to food that has been completely broken down in our guts, and has then been absorbed into our bloodstreams? The pancreas releases its stores of insulin, which immediately circulate throughout the bloodstream to “catch the glucose,” and then escort the glucose through special doors into all the cells. The insulin acts as a specialized valet service.

Now, let’s take a look at how that valet service works. Say you were invited to a party, a huge party. A really huge party. At exactly 7 p.m., like it says on the invitation, 1000 cars show up at the party center. They’d better have a lot of valet staff there to park all those cars.

But they could have had an open house. The invitation could have welcomed people to show up any time between 3 and 9 p.m. At the end of the day the party center still would have parked 1000 cars. But it would not have taken nearly as many valet staff.

Okay, now imagine the cars are the sugar, and the valet staff are the insulin. If you eat something that you absorb very quickly, you’re going to need a lot of insulin to catch it and escort it to the cells of your body. If you eat something that you absorb slowly, on the other hand, it won’t take nearly as much insulin to do the job.

So how can you decrease the amount of insulin that you use? By increasing the percentage of slowly absorbed foods and decreasing the percentage of quickly absorbed foods that you’re eating. Foods that we absorb slowly include protein, fat (stick to the healthy ones) and fiber. Foods that we absorb quickly include refined carbohydrates like sugar and white flour. Do you see the pattern?

This means that in order to conserve your insulin, you want to start shifting your diet in the direction of high-fiber and protein-rich foods that you absorb more slowly, like nuts. And move away from foods that you absorb more quickly, like candy. Eat more fruit and fewer muffins. Eat more fresh vegetables and less white bread. Remember which foods are high in protein: meat, eggs, fish, beans, nuts and dairy. And don’t be afraid to eat foods that are rich sources of healthy fats, like fish, nuts, avocados, and olives. We absorb all of these things very slowly. And that decreases the amount of insulin we use.

Next: Did you know that insulin works better at certain times of day than others? In my next post, you’ll learn even more about how to conserve your insulin. Next in this series...Step 3: Remake Breakfast!

Visit Cleveland Clinic Wellness to learn more about how stress, diet and exercise can affect diabetes.

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