Can These Foods REALLY Prevent Diabetes?

I was browsing MSN.com in early June of 2009 while preparing for the day and found an article published by the magazine Prevention, entitled “Can These Foods Prevent Diabetes?” I always look at these online articles with more than a pinch of skepticism, since some of the information in them can be misleading or downright wrong. Although there is some good information here, this article is not an exception. Let’s evaluate the foods Prevention has chosen to be good for diabetes prevention.

Coffee. Yes, there is evidence that the caffeine in coffee can increase insulin receptor sensitivity, thus helping to decrease the risk of diabetes. But that’s only part of the story. Caffeine also increases the amount of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is the body’s main stress hormone, normally secreted during the “fight or flight” response during times of acute stress. But if cortisol is elevated chronically (say, with stressful jobs or when ingesting high amounts of caffeine), it can result in increased abdominal fat and increased blood glucose levels, neither of which are desirable if you’re trying to avoid diabetes. (Besides, who regularly drinks coffee black nowadays, with no sugar or cream or flavored syrup? That mocha frappuccino or cinnamon latte will really undermine any efforts to prevent diabetes.)

Vitamin D. I have no issues with this one. Vitamin D deficiency is endemic in our culture, and has been linked with a variety of chronic diseases, including diabetes. But even the highest food sources of vitamin D are insufficient to bring our body’s stores of this hormone back to normal. (And yes, I did say hormone. Strictly speaking, vitamin D is not a vitamin.) Even if you take a daily vitamin D supplement including 5,000 or 10,000 IUs, it’s possible that weeks or even months will go by before levels normalize, depending on the extent of the deficiency. The best way to get vitamin D back to normal is to get lots of sunshine exposure to as much skin as possible…much like our ancestors did. Just avoid excessive sun exposure leading to sunburns. In times when you cannot get sun exposure, taking high doses of vitamin D is recommended; 5,000 IU is a good daily dose, and overdosing is highly unlikely. (For more information, check out the Vitamin D Council’s website – the link is below.)

Low-fat dairy foods. It’s disturbing to see a picture of ice cream in a list of foods that can prevent diabetes – even if it’s low-fat ice cream. This sends a terrible message. But on to low-fat dairy foods of all sorts. The study referenced by this article may or may not be accurate; even the study’s author admits that people who eat low-fat dairy foods tend to have healthier dietary habits in general. If calcium is the key nutrient here (and evidence thus far doesn’t really show that this is the case), then dairy foods like cheese and yogurt are indeed the best sources for calcium. (Incidentally, there is evidence linking dairy intake among young children to type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune condition also known as insulin dependent diabetes.)

Cinnamon. In many alternative health circles, cinnamon has been accepted as an effective blood sugar moderator, and it is now easy to find supplements for diabetes that include either powdered cinnamon or cinnamon extract. It may take a long time before cinnamon is accepted by mainstream medicine as an effective treatment for blood sugar control. But in the meantime, it certainly doesn’t hurt to include cinnamon in more liberal amounts in your diet, either. Try pork chops with a cinnamon rub, or add cinnamon to your morning oatmeal.

General dietary modifications. No problems here. I agree with this article’s recommendations: Stop drinking sweetened drinks and substitute tea and water. Switch from refined grains to their unrefined brothers and sisters. Keep protein sources lean, and add more legumes to the diet. Eliminate trans fats. Increase intake of fish and nuts. And despite what the title of this part of the article says (“Eat for your genes”), these modifications are beneficial regardless of what your ancestry may be.

Carrots. If the active components here are carotenoids, then why stop at carrots? Taste the rainbow of fruits, vegetables, and spices! The brighter and more vivid the food, the better off you will be. Carotenoids are especially high in yellow/orange foods (like carrots, sweet potatoes, mangoes, and apricots), red/pink foods (tomatoes, salmon, cayenne, and pink grapefruit), and green foods (spinach, kale, and collard greens). Since carotenoids are fat-soluble, it is a good idea to eat them in combination with a healthy oil (such as olive oil) or butter to optimize absorption.

Fiber. The link between high fiber intake and decreased blood sugar surges is well-established – particularly for soluble fiber. It can slow the ability of the intestines to absorb sugars that are the result of normal digestion of carbohydrates. Shoot for 40 grams of fiber a day from foods like apples and oatmeal…with cinnamon!

Seeds. The key nutrient here is magnesium. And much like vitamin D, magnesium deficiency is rampant in society today. There is actually stronger evidence that magnesium can help prevent diabetes more than chromium (often viewed as the classic nutrient to take when trying to moderate blood glucose). Sunflower seeds may be a good source, as the article points out, but leafy greens, cashews, almonds, most legumes, and even chocolate chips (in moderation!) contain more magnesium.

Relevant links: – Original article – Vitamin D Council

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