Cereal isn’t as harmless as you think
Today, more than 30 million Americans have diabetes. It’s the underlying cause of over 79,000 deaths per year — and contributes to hundreds of thousands more, according to the American Diabetes Association.
Type 2 diabetes is caused by insulin resistance, which occurs when the body cannot properly use insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar levels. There are a number of things that can cause insulin-producing cells to become exhausted and fail.
Top offenders include: inactivity, obesity, smoking, consuming too much alcohol, and regularly eating high-glycemic foods that spike your blood sugar, say Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health experts. But there are other, less talked about behaviors that can increase your risk of the condition.
Take these four dietary habits, for example. They may seem harmless, but nixing them could lower your likelihood of developing type 2 diabetes.
1. EATING ONLY “STARCHY” VEGETABLES
It’s great that you fit vegetables into your diet — they provide a healthy blend of nutrients, and a new study found that antioxidants found in produce could help reduce type 2 diabetes risk.
However, it’s best not to pair starchy vegetables with other carbohydrate-rich foods. (Think: rice with sweet potatoes). While too much starch doesn’t directly raise your risk of diabetes, it can contribute to weight gain and blood sugar spikes, both of which could up your risk. As with any food, moderation is key.
“Many people don’t consider vegetables like sweet potatoes, corn, and peas to be sources of starch,” says Jenifer Bowman, R.D., a dietitian at UCHealth in Fort Collins, Colorado. “But if you’re trying to regulate your blood sugar, you need to be aware of overall carbohydrate content.”
To make sure every meal is a balanced one, fill half your plate with non-starchy produce like leafy greens, then fill the rest with equal parts protein and grains or starchy vegetables. (So, quinoa or corn — not both.)
2. REGULARLY SNACKING ON DRIED FRUIT
It may seem like a healthy snack, but dried fruits can cause blood sugar spikes, and don’t ward off hunger like their fresh counterparts.
“If you eat a whole apricot, you’ll probably feel somewhat full from just one fruit,” says Fatima Cody Stanford, M.D., an obesity medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center. “However, if you’re eating dried apricot, you probably have to eat quite a few of them for the same effect.”
This means you’re consuming a ton more sugar — without the fiber that will blunt its effects on your blood sugar.
“When we dry food, we take away a lot of the fibrous content that promotes satiety and helps to regulate blood sugar,” Dr. Stanford explains.
The occasional dried fruit snack won’t hurt you, but Dr. Stanford recommends eating this snack sparingly. Instead, opt for the real deal — a fresh apple or juicy grapes, for instance. (The water content in these fruits may also help to keep you fuller, longer).
3. CONSUMING TOO MUCH RED MEAT
Although red meat is typically associated with heart disease risk, there’s evidence that eating it even in small amounts can increase the risk of diabetes. One meta-analysis from the Harvard School of Public Health found that a daily serving of red meat was associated with a 19 percent increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
Although researchers aren’t certain how red meat causes an increased risk, its high iron content could play a role by damaging insulin-producing cells. Swapping a daily serving of red meat for a healthier source of protein, like nuts, dairy, or whole grains was associated with up to a 35 percent lower risk of type 2 diabetes in the meta-analysis.
4. BUYING PROCESSED FOODS INSTEAD OF FRESH ONES
The Harvard School of Public Health meta-analysis also found that eating a small amount of processed meat every day (think two slices of bacon or one hotdog) increases diabetes risk by 51 percent. The high levels of preservatives and sodium in processed meat may play a role, according to the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health.
5. SO WHAT SHOULD YOU EAT INSTEAD?
“Look for lean cuts of protein, whether they’re from animal sources or another source, and avoid meat that’s been processed significantly beyond its native form, like fried chicken tenders,” says Dr. Stanford.
But it’s not just processed meat: If you want to lower your risk of developing diabetes, it’s best to choose whole foods whenever possible, including whole grains. Research shows that diets rich in whole grains reduce diabetes risk, while those rich in refined carbohydrates increase risk.
“Many cereal companies have promoted themselves as being a go-to healthy option, but if you really look at their nutritional information, the fiber content is quite insignificant,” says Dr. Stanford.
Meanwhile, whole grains like rolled oats have fiber that slows down digestion and wards off blood sugar spikes. They’re also rich in nutrients and phytochemicals that may help ward off diabetes.