Blog

Sweet Life diabetes community blog.

Diabetic superfoods

Ask the dietician: Cheryl Meyer

From our community: “Sometimes it feels like I’m constantly trying to juggle what I want to eat and what I should be eating. Are there certain foods I must include in my diet because I’m diabetic?” Gracie Monaheng

The term “superfood” has become very popular in the language of food and health. We know that Mother Nature offers a wonderful selection of healthy foods, but research has yet to prove any of them magical. No single food, no matter how “super,” can take the place of the important combination of nutrients from a diet based on a variety of nutritious foods, including plenty of fruits and vegetables.

Some tests to help you decide whether a certain food is worth trying:

  • How does it taste? No food is worth eating if it doesn’t taste good. There are plenty of options to choose from that offer both health benefits and flavour.
  • Where was it grown? Has it had to travel long distances from where it was grown to where it was sold?
  • How much does it cost? Has its “super” title brought with it a “super” price tag?
  • Has it been researched? Check with your healthcare team.
  • What value does it add to my overall diet? Variety is an important measure of diet quality, but bear in mind that adding variety doesn’t necessarily mean trying wildly new things: even just a slight change can wake up your taste buds.

Think positive when planning your diet — focusing on foods to add, rather than avoid. Aim to include*:

  1. Omega-3 rich foods: like salmon, mackerel, pilchards, tuna, canola oil, flaxseed oil, flaxseeds and walnuts.
  2. Leafy green vegetables: like spinach, kale, lettuce and bok choi. These powerhouse foods are low in kilojoules and total carbohydrate.
  3. Wholegrains: easily trump their paler, refined counterparts. Choose brown or wholewheat options for a source of protein, fibre and B vitamins.
  4. Berries: sweet, yet low in calories and packed with antioxidants, vitamins and fibre.
  5. Nuts: plenty of flavour, very versatile and with a good dose of fibre and selenium. Although they are high in fat and calories, a few nuts go a long way to adding taste to all kinds of meals.
  6. Legumes: delicious, low in fat, high in fibre and rich in protein.

*As with all foods, you need to work these into your individual meal plan in appropriate portions.

The carbs-fat-protein debate

Ask the dietician: Genevieve Jardine

From the community: “I don’t understand the whole ‘low carbs high fat or high protein’ idea – how do carbs, fat and protein work together? Is there a happy middle ground, or does it need to be all or nothing?” Wessel Jones

To understand what all the fuss is about, we need to look at the history of diabetes treatment. Treating diabetes (both Type 1 and Type 2) by lowering carbohydrates (carbs) has come and gone out of fashion over the last century. This debate is not a new one and it is probably not going to go away.

Before the invention of insulin, the only way for a diabetic to survive was to cut out the foods (carbs) affecting blood glucose. With the advent of insulin, the focus switched from lowering carbs to lowering fat to help reduce heart disease. Fast forward a couple of decades and we can see that we have failed in reducing obesity, diabetes or heart disease. It’s not as simple as just diet: it’s about physical activity, stress, diet and environment.

How do carbs work in the body?

What is quite simple is that carbs cause blood sugar to rise and the more carbs you eat, the higher the blood sugar goes. If a person wants to control their blood sugar, it’s a very good idea to reduce carbs. The big question is: how low do you go? A “low carbohydrate diet” can have anything from 20g to 130g of carbohydrate per day.

Remember: One portion of carb (a medium apple, a slice of bread) = 15g carb

The amount of carbs depends on the individual, their control, their medication and their weight. There is a growing amount of scientific evidence that low carb diets improve glucose control and help with weight loss.

Where do fat and protein fit in?

When carbs are cut, the amount of protein or fat (or both) go up. And this is where the debate heats up. The concern is not the low carb, but the increase in saturated fat or fat in general. Remember that not all fat is the enemy and there are good fats that play a very important role in the body.

A benefit of protein and fat is that in the immediate, they do not cause the same spikes in blood sugar. When you lower carb intake you have an immediate blood sugar lowering effect. When this happens, and you have fewer spikes and dips in blood sugar, your appetite is better controlled. The fuller you feel, the less likely you are to snack and the fewer kilojoules you consume. The fewer kilojoules you consume, the more likely you are to lose weight.

The problem with the low carb approach is that, like everything else, it needs to be a lifestyle. When you add carbs back into your diet you will put on weight, especially if you have increased your fat and/or protein. You can’t have it all: full fat products and also carbs. The most important goal is to increase your vegetable intake and try to eat as close to nature as possible. Eat foods in their most original form.

When it comes to deciding on the right ratio of carbs : fat : protein, work with a dietician. It may take time to find your correct balance and you need to be monitored properly with blood tests and possible medication adjustments.

Making the right food choices (at work)

Ask the dietician: Cheryl Meyer

From our community: “I get invited to lots of business meetings and workshops that are catered… Needless to say, none of the catering is healthy! What do I choose or how do I deal with this situation?” Rene Prinsloo.
Many of us consume at least half of our meals and snacks during work hours, which makes our food choices in catered meetings and workshops very important. Here are three steps to consider:

Step 1: Build your plate

  1. Aim to fill half your plate with vegetables or salad. Look out for vegetable skewers, veggie sides, crudités (chopped raw veg), soup or salads.
  2. Next, add a healthy carbohydrate: either a wholegrain/high fibre starch or a piece of fruit.

Look out for:

  • Wholewheat bread
  • A seeded roll
  • Wholewheat pita
  • Wholewheat pasta/noodles
  • Wholewheat wrap
  • Brown or basmati rice
  • Fresh fruit
  1. For long-lasting brain and body power, add a source of protein.

Some good protein choices:

  • Lean cold meats
  • Grilled chicken
  • Mini meatballs
  • Legumes like beans or lentils
  • Fish like tuna, sardines or pilchards
  • Cottage cheese
  • Boiled eggs

Sauces like low-fat mayonnaise, sweet chilli sauce, hummus or guacamole are optional but not essential.

Avoid:

  • Deep-fried foods (like samoosas, spring rolls or vetkoek)
  • Sausage rolls and pies
  • Croissants, muffins or other pastries

Step 2: Choose portions with caution

  1. Be sure to start the day with a balanced breakfast and keep healthy snacks or a packed lunch on hand to avoid arriving at a meeting hungry.
  2. Use smaller plates and serving utensils to help manage how much you dish up.
  3. Sit far away from the food to avoid “picking”.
  4. Use the size of your hand to determine sensible and healthy portion sizes and curb overeating:
  • A fistful is equal to one cup and can be used to estimate the portion size for carbohydrates (starches and fruits).
  • The size of the palm of your hand can be used to estimate the portion size for protein. For a stew, curry or casserole this would be about half a cup.
  • The tip of the thumb is equivalent to one teaspoon and can be used to estimate the portion size for all oils, butter or mayonnaise.
  • The thumb can also be used to estimate the portion size for peanut butter or hard cheese.

Step 3: Carefully consider your choice of drink:

Some good choices are:

  • Still or sparkling water
  • Tea or coffee
  • Vegetable juice
  • Low-fat milk
  • Sugar-free fizzy drinks

Diabetes-friendly kids menu

Ask the dietician: Genevieve Jardine

From our community: As the mom of a diabetic child, I’m constantly wondering what to make her that is delicious but won’t spike her blood sugar. Could you give me some basic guidelines please?” Bernadette Simons.

As a mother of three (constantly hungry) young boys I am kept on my toes when it comes to healthy eating. Although my children are not diabetic, I practice “diabetes-friendly” eating in my household. The bottom line is that you want your children to eat real, whole foods. This means no foods that are manufactured, processed and refined: time for a cupboard clear-out!

For children with diabetes, you need to make meals novel, colourful and exciting, while reducing refined carbohydrates and harmful fats. It’s important to break away from the rut of cereal for breakfast, sandwich for lunch and one-pot meal for dinner. Parents need to constantly focus on increasing fresh foods and not wait for dinner to try and make up the daily vegetable intake…
Here are some menu options:

Breakfast:

  • Bring back eggs for breakfast! Make eggs more interesting and nutritious by adding vegetables and baking in a muffin tray as mini crustless quiches. Serve with chopped strawberries or other brightly coloured fruit.
  • Try making your own cereal out of nuts and seeds, coconut shavings and some rolled oats. This can be eaten with plain yoghurt or milk. Use vanilla, cinnamon and half a grated apple to sweeten it naturally.

Lunchboxes:

  • Move away from a daily sandwich for lunch. Try choosing other low GI starch like baby potatoes or corn on the cob.
  • Add some protein – chicken drumsticks, hard-boiled eggs, meatballs, homemade fish cakes or cheese. Remember protein makes you feel fuller for longer and doesn’t spike blood sugar levels.
  • Add a small amount of colourful fruit like a fruit kebab or fruit salad.
  • All lunchboxes should have vegetables! If your child doesn’t like salad, give some cucumber and carrot sticks, baby tomato kebabs or cucumber sandwiches (two slices of cucumber with cheese or cream cheese in the middle).

Dinner:

  • Most traditional South African dinners are one-pot meals like curry, stew, cottage pie or spaghetti bolognaise that are high in starch and low in vegetables. Try adding more vegetables to stew, curries and mince. Make the mashed potatoes with added cauliflower, add lentils to brown rice, and use baby marrow or aubergine instead of pasta.
  • Always serve dinner with vegetables on the side. Raw carrot sticks, sliced cucumber or snap peas are kid-friendly. Children need to get used to eating vegetables that are not hidden in food but out in plain sight!

Remember: Children learn eating habits from their parents so you need to set the example. Tastebuds are influenced early on by processed foods with hidden sugars and fats, so it’s up to you to encourage your kids to eat – and love – real food.

Top tips for a pregnancy diet

Ask the dietician: Cheryl Meyer

From the community: “Being both diabetic and pregnant makes it difficult to know what to eat – there are so many things I have to avoid! And I’ve been craving sweet things. Any advice?” Sameshnie Naidoo.

The diet for pregnant women with diabetes should be a healthy, well-balanced eating plan aimed at supporting the pregnancy and promoting blood sugar control. This is essential for the wellbeing of both mom and baby.

Of course, pregnancy and diabetes means that there are more foods on the “Do Not Eat” list, as your normal diabetic diet has a new list of things to avoid. But bear in mind that it’s only for nine months, and that it’s for the best possible cause: your healthy child.

Foods to avoid:

Here’s a list of foods that you shouldn’t eat when you’re pregnant because they pose a potential food safety risk and might make you ill or harm your baby.

  • Soft cheeses e.g. brie, camembert, and blue-veined cheeses unless the label says they are made with pasteurised milk.
  • Processed cold meats or deli meats unless they are reheated until steaming hot.
  • Refrigerated paté or meat spreads (canned options can be eaten).
  • Refrigerated smoked seafood unless as an ingredient in a cooked dish e.g. a casserole.
  • Raw or partially cooked eggs and dishes that contain these e.g. homemade mayonnaise.
  • Raw or undercooked meat and poultry
  • Unpasteurised juice
  • Raw sprouts
  • Raw or undercooked fish or shellfish
  • The American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) recommends pregnant women avoid fish high in mercury e.g. shark, swordfish, marlin. And limit intake of fish and shellfish lower in mercury e.g. prawns, canned light tuna and salmon, to 360g or less per week.

The good news? You don’t need to give up caffeine entirely. The AND recommends keeping your intake below 300mg/day, which is about one or two servings of coffee or tea. And of course rooibos is naturally caffeine free, so you can have as much as you like!

Being both diabetic and pregnant can feel restrictive from a diet point of view… When you’re lacking motivation, just remember that everything you eat your baby is eating too: so put down the junk food and pick up a carrot!

A note on cravings:

Whether it’s pickles and ice cream or other odd combinations, both cravings and food aversions are common during pregnancy. Although the exact cause is unknown, taste perceptions may change with hormonal changes. Cravings are generally harmless*, unless foods you crave replace more nutritious foods, or all you want is junk food. If broccoli loses its appeal, for example, substitute another vegetable that you enjoy and tolerate.

*Cravings for non-food substances like sand or chalk (a condition called pica) can be dangerous as they contain lead or other toxic substances. If you’re craving non-food items, consult your doctor.

Sundowner snacks

Ask the dietician: Genevieve Jardine

From the community: “My wife and I love having friends over for sundowners but never know what drinks to offer and what snacks to serve so that I can actually enjoy myself too. Any advice?” Riyaaz Benjamin.

Luckily, there is a way to enjoy (guilt-free) sundowners… It just takes a little planning. Let’s take a look at the when, what and where of it.

When?

The main problem with sundowners lies with the timing. As the name suggests, they usually occur long after lunch and just before supper. This means that you may arrive hungry and tired with low blood sugar levels: a recipe for overeating, drinking (sugary) alcohol on an empty stomach, and filling up on unhealthy snack food. After sundowners, you may then go for supper, which means even more food and alcohol.

The key? Sundowners are best handled when prepared. Make sure you have an afternoon snack just before arriving (preferably one that contains protein to help stabilise blood sugar levels). Upfront, decide to either have the snacks as a replacement dinner (only a good idea if there are healthy snack options) or hold back and leave room for a light supper.

What?

What is being dished up? The good news is that sundowner snacks are usually savoury and not sweet. The bad news is that savoury snacks – like chips and cream dip, sausage rolls and salty peanuts – are often high in starch and fat. Try to choose the healthiest options on the table, and don’t forget to dish up a plate rather than snacking so that you know exactly how much you’re eating.

Sundowners are also synonymous with cocktails (not the right choice of drink for anyone with diabetes!) When it comes to alcohol, good options are light beer, a wine spritzer made with Sprite Zero or soda water, or single spirit tots with diet mixers. Sparkling water with ice, lemon and cucumber is a refreshing drink if you’re not in the mood for alcohol.

Healthy snack ideas:

  • Lean proteins like nuts, lean biltong and grilled strips of chicken or beef.
  • Fresh vegetables like cucumber strips, baby carrots, baby tomatoes and celery sticks, served with a low-fat cottage cheese, avo or salsa dip.

Where?

The last thing to consider is where the sundowners are being held. If you’re hosting or going to a friend’s house, you can simply bring along what you would prefer to eat and drink. Restaurants can be more challenging, but easily overcome with a bit of forward planning. Call the restaurant beforehand and make sure that there are snacks or drinks on hand that you can enjoy. Most restaurants are more than willing to help – if not, at least you know and can plan for the evening.

Having diabetes doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a cold drink and a delicious snack as the sun goes down, it just means you need to forward plan a little to enjoy it!

The basic diabetic pantry

Ask the dietician: Cheryl Meyer

From our community: “I’ve just been diagnosed and have no idea what to eat. Please help me! I just need some basic ideas of what to keep in my cupboard so I can make easy healthy meals…” John Tabenga.

Stocking your pantry is a fantastic place to start – healthy eating isn’t only about your kitchen, it begins when you wheel your trolley down the aisles of your local supermarket. Arming yourself with a well-planned grocery list will not only get you in and out of the shops quickly, it will also keep your healthy eating plan on track.

To help get you started I have put together a basic list to help you stock your fridge, freezer and pantry with healthy options:

Breakfast cereals

  • Oat bran
  • Rolled oats
  • Low GI muesli

Cooked starches

  • Baby potatoes
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Wholewheat pasta
  • Brown rice
  • Barley
  • Quinoa
  • Mealies
  • Corn: frozen, canned or fresh

Breads & crackers

  • Rye, wholewheat or low GI bread
  • Wholegrain crackers: Provitas, Ryvitas, Finn Crisp
  • Multigrain melba toast
  • Wholewheat wraps
  • Wholewheat pita bread

Legumes

  • Canned beans, lentils and chickpeas (drain and rinse well)
  • Dried beans, lentils and chickpeas

Dairy products

  • Low-fat milk
  • Low-fat yoghurt
  • Low-fat cottage cheese
  • Ricotta cheese
  • Hard cheeses: mozzarella or reduced fat cheddar

Tip: When choosing hard cheese, aim for less that 25g fat per 100g.

Meat, poultry, fish & eggs

  • Lean beef and pork, trimmed of fat
  • Chicken, trimmed of skin
  • Ostrich
  • Lean cold meats
  • Eggs
  • Fish rich in omega 3s: Fresh, frozen or tinned salmon, trout, tuna, pilchards, sardines, mackerel
  • Hake or kingklip fillets

Fats and oils

  • Olive / canola / avocado oil
  • Seeds
  • Unsalted nuts
  • Peanut butter
  • Avocado
  • Low oil dressings and mayonnaise (less than 5g fat per 100g)

Vegetables

  • Frozen vegetables: green beans, peas, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli.
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Tinned tomato
  • Tinned asparagus

Fruit

  • A variety of fresh fruit
  • Pre-cut frozen fruit
  • Canned fruit (in juice) for treats

Spreads

  • Hummus
  • Tzatziki
  • Olive oil

Snacks

  • Unsalted nuts
  • Lean or game biltong
  • Popcorn kernels to prepare homemade popcorn with a dash of oil and salt

Store cupboard basics

  • Non-stick cooking spray: Spray n Cook
  • Beef, chicken and vegetable stock powder
  • Lots of herbs and spices

Tip: Read food labels and compare different brands within each food category.

With these pantry essentials, you should be able to whip up all kinds of delicious diabetic-friendly meals… Check out our recipes here if you’re looking for inspiration!

 

“Cheat” treats


Ask the dietician: Genevieve Jardine

From our community: “I know that as a diabetic I should always try and be good, but sometimes it’s hard… What can I snack on without feeling too guilty about it (but that will also be a treat)?” Charne Smith.

A treat is something that tastes great, is normally high in fat and refined carbohydrate, and is eaten to either celebrate or make you feel better… But how do you have your treat and prevent it from totally messing up your blood sugar levels for the day?

Treats are not forbidden, but they should not be too often or too big. It all comes down to self-control and portion control. The occasional block or two of chocolate should not mean disaster for your blood sugar: it’s when you eat the whole slab that things spiral out of control. Everything in moderation is the key.

If you battle with cravings, you need to understand that the last bite never tastes as good as the first bite. The feel good rush you get from the first bite of a treat starts to fade as you continue eating, but your blood sugar levels start to increase.

What does this mean? You only need a small amount to feel like you’ve had a treat. You don’t need the whole slab, packet, bowl or slice…

How to cheat:

  • Split a dessert with your partner. It might drive them nuts, but it will keep your blood sugar and weight down. Better yet, plan ahead and choose a light main course so that you can have a small dessert on those special evenings out.
  • Choose biscuits and cakes that don’t have icing, or remove the icing and jam from cakes. Icing has twice the amount of sugar as the cake or biscuit.
  • Choose a dessert like apple crumble (without the ice-cream or cream) or two small scoops of ice-cream. Just remember to keep portions small.
  • Spoil yourself with some good diabetic-friendly ice-cream (low fat/low sugar), lite custard and diabetic friendly puddings.
  • Opt for small “bite” sized chocolates or chocolates with wafer inside (e.g. Kit Kat Fingers).
  • Dark chocolate with a high percentage of cocoa is better for you as it is higher in antioxidants. Dark chocolate is also bitter so people tend to eat less of it: usually a block or two is enough.
  • Salt and vinegar popcorn instead of crisps will keep your fat content low and help with salt cravings. When going to the movies, choose a small popcorn and a diet drink.

Remember: Spoiling yourself on the odd occasion is allowed. Always test your blood sugar levels to see how they react and you will learn to better control these situations.

10 FAQ about the diabetic diet

Ask the dietician: Cheryl Meyer

We asked our community what they most wanted to know about diabetes and food – here are 10 frequently asked questions, answered by our expert dietician.

  1. Must I cut sugar out of my diet completely?

Small amounts of sugar can be included in your diet, but too much sugar or sweet food is not recommended as part of a healthy eating pattern.

  1. What can I eat when I feel like chocolate?

Treats like chocolate can fit into a healthy diet, as long as you keep these points in mind:

  • Try to have treats with a meal, e.g. as a dessert.
  • Watch your portion size: choose a small portion or share.
  • Put a healthy twist on treats – check out these great recipes for ideas
  1. Do I have to buy special sugar replacements, or can I just use less sugar?

Small amounts of sugar, jam, and honey have little effect on blood glucose levels, so small amounts of sugar can be included in your diet, e.g. a scrape of jam on wholewheat bread.

  1. How important is fibre in a diabetic’s diet?

Fibre keeps your digestive tract working well, can help lower your cholesterol level and can improve blood glucose control if eaten in large amounts. Another benefit of fibre is that it adds bulk to help make you feel full. Given these benefits, fibre is important to include in a diabetic’s daily diet – and in the diets of those who don’t have diabetes!

  1. How many vegetables should I be eating in a day?

The amount of vegetables you need depends on your age, gender and level of physical activity. On average, an adult woman will need 2½ cups a day, while an adult man will need 3 cups, and children will need between 1 to 2 cups a day.

  1. How much protein do I need to balance out carbohydrate?

Protein should account for about 15 to 20% of the total calories you eat each day – roughly a fist-sized portion at each meal.

  1. Is too much fruit bad for diabetics? And grapefruit?

Fruit (any kind, grapefruit included) can be included as part of your diet, but controlling portion size is vital. Limit your portions to a fist-sized or tennis-ball sized portion at a time.

  1. How do I manage food for my diabetic child?

Provide structured, nutritious meals and snacks for your child and make healthy eating and lifestyle changes as a family (don’t single out one family member). Remember that they are a child first and a diabetic second. Work with your child’s diabetes health care team to help your little one grow up healthy and happy!

  1. My sugar is always high – am I eating wrong?

Diabetes is managed with diet, exercise, tablets and/or injections. Check in with your doctor to make sure your food choices, exercise levels and medication are on track to keep your sugar within your target range.

  1. How can a diabetic lose weight in a healthy way?

The best way to lose weight for good is to find an approach to eating that makes sense, doesn’t cut out whole food groups and has you eating regularly and feeling well.