Remember when low carb wasn’t as well known as it is today? We do! Here’s an article from Sweet Life magazine published a few years ago that explains all the ins and outs…
Professor Tim Noakes says that a low carb, high fat diet is the way to go. We gathered your questions and asked him how the low carb diet affects diabetics. Here’s what he had to say.
What exactly is this diet?
A low carbohydrate, moderate protein, high fat diet. This diet is most effective for people with diabetes – either Type 1 or Type 2, or pre-diabetes, like myself. It also helps treat obesity, but it’s obviously not the diet for everyone. The question is whether it’s for 10% of the population, or 90% of the population – I think it’s about 60% or more.
Low carb means no bread, pasta, cereals, grains, potatoes, rice, sweets and confectionery, baked goods. You have to be resolute – and the more severely affected you are, the more resolute you have to be. If you’re already diabetic, you have every reason not to eat these foods.
Can you explain what carbohydrate resistance is?
My opinion is different from the traditional teaching. Carbohydrate resistance is traditionally described as someone who is unable to take glucose out of the blood stream and store it in their muscle and liver. I disagree with this explanation: I think we’re all born with varying degrees of carbohydrate resistance, and the children who get really fat very young are the ones who are most carbohydrate resistant. The carbs they take in they simply store as fat. That’s the first group.
The second group are people who become pre-diabetic at 30 or 40, and then they become diabetic at 50. They are overweight, and that’s a marker of the high carbohydrate diet. They eat a high carb diet, they are carb resistant and it gets more and more severe until they become diabetic. I think it’s genetic, and the reason I think that is because in my case, although I’ve lost weight, I’m still carbohydrate resistant – I can’t go back to eating carbs.
What if you have high cholesterol? Isn’t it dangerous to eat so much fat?
Firstly, the theory that high cholesterol is a good predictor of heart disease is not true – it’s a relatively poor predictor. A far better predictor is your carbohydrate status. Everyone knows this – if you’re diabetic or pre-diabetic, your risk of heart disease is increased. Diabetes, hypertension and heart disease are linked, but most heart attacks occur in people with cholesterol below 5. It’s very frustrating, because the public has got the wrong idea.
A high fat diet corrects everything, in my opinion – your HDL goes shooting up, your triglycerides come shooting down and that HDL to triglyceride ratio improves dramatically: that’s one of the better predictors of heart attack risk. The LDL small particles are the killers, and on a high fat diet, those go down. Your total cholesterol can go up, but that’s because your HDL has gone up, and the large, safe LDL particles have gone up. So unless you measure all those variables: HDL and LDL and triglycerides and glucose tolerance, you can’t judge the effects of the diet.
What carbs do you eat?
The good carbs are veg – that’s it. Sweet potatoes (not regular potatoes), butternut, squash and then I also eat dairy: milk, cheese, yoghurt. I don’t eat any fruit except apples, but that’s because I severely restrict my carbs. You’re not cutting out nutrients if you eat nutrient-dense foods like liver, sardines, broccoli and eggs – those are the most nutrient-rich foods you can eat. You can get vitamin C from meat if it’s not over-cooked. The key is that you eat lots of fat, and you don’t avoid the fat. I eat lots of fish, like salmon and sardines. And you want to eat lots of organ meats – that means liver, pancreas, kidneys, and brains if you can get them, but particularly the liver. Liver is very nutritious.
Is this diet possible for people who don’t have a lot of money?
You don’t have to eat meat every day – you can eat sardines and kidneys, for example, which are both very cheap.
Could the positive effect of a low carb diet on insulin resistance be because of the weight loss and not because of the new diet?
No, absolutely not. Because it happens within one meal – your insulin requirements go down within one meal, because you’ve shut off the production of glucose by not eating carbohydrates.
What is wrong with the old fashioned idea of a balanced diet? Why does it have to be so extreme?
If you’re diabetic, you have a problem with metabolising carbohydrates. You have to understand that if you want to live a long life and have minimal complications, you want to minimise your carb intake. Start at 50g a day. What that looks like is two eggs for breakfast, with some fish – salmon or sardines, and some veg. And dairy: cheese or yoghurt. That will sustain you until early afternoon. For lunch, I think you should have salad and some more protein and fat – and exactly the same for dinner. Chicken, cheese, nuts, salad, tomatoes, broccoli. It’s an incredibly simple way to eat, but you don’t get bored.
Once you’re on this diet, you feel so good, and you get rid of all these aches and pains and minor illnesses: you won’t want to go back. If you do go back to eating carbs you’ll put on the weight again. It’s not a diet, it’s a lifelong eating plan. It’s not a quick fix.
I think the diabetics who live to 80, 90, 100 are the ones who eat this kind of diet.
Ask the dietician: Genevieve Jardine
When someone is newly diagnosed with diabetes, it’s helpful to start with very simple dietary advice as they come to terms with the necessary lifestyle changes. The spectrum of food choices for diabetics involves “good choices” on one end and “bad choices” on the other. In the middle lies ‘moderation’, which can be adapted to the individual depending on personal factors and other conditions like blood pressure or cholesterol.
Here, we’ll break down what good and bad choices look like in each of the food groups – proteins, starches and sugars, vegetables, fruit, fats and oils, and drinks.
Proteins: meat, chicken, fish, eggs and dairy
- Fish more frequently (especially fatty fish like salmon, trout and mackerel)
- Eggs, especially boiled eggs
- Plain yoghurts, milk and cottage cheese
- Plant-based protein options like beans, lentils and chickpeas, instead of meat
- Using chicken that has skin removed (preferably grass-fed)
- Game meat that is very low in fat
- Deep fried meat, chicken and fish
- Very fatty red meats and processed meats
- Diary that has been sweetened, like ice cream
- Imitation cheese and coffee creamers
Starches and sugars
- Unprocessed, high fibre starches like sweet potatoes, rolled oats, brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, buckwheat and barley.
- Items made with wholegrain flour with little or no added sugar such as wholegrain bread, crackers and cereals.
- Any food item that has a lot of sugar added, like sweets, chocolates and biscuits.
- Refined flours that have been processed and bleached white such as white flour, white breads, white crackers, white rice and refined cereals (especially if the cereals have sugar added).
- Deep fried starches such as doughnuts, koeksisters, vetkoek, fried potato chips and crisps.
- Homegrown, fresh or even frozen vegetables with emphasis on lots of different colours. Try to eat a rainbow of vegetables. Eat them raw, juice them, steam them or bake the root vegetables for maximum nutrient retention.
- Fresh herbs and spices like garlic, ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, mint, rosemary and coriander.
- Vegetables that have been boiled
- Vegetables with thick sauces
- Canned vegetables which are higher in salt (for those people who need to watch their salt intake)
- Fresh fruit in season
- Fruits with a naturally lower sugar content, such as berries, apples and citrus
- Fruit juices
- Dried fruit with sugar coating
- Fruit canned in a thick syrup
Fats and oils
- Foods that are naturally high in fats like olives, avocado, nuts and seeds
- Good quality oils such as extra virgin cold pressed olive oil
- Foods that are high in trans fatty acids and hydrogenated vegetable oils (read the food labels to spot these words).
- High quantities of plant seed oils like sunflower and canola oil (usually deep fried products).
- Filtered water flavoured naturally with lemon or mint
- Herbal teas
- Sugary drinks such as sports drinks, fizzy drinks, iced tea, flavoured water.
- Alcoholic beverages that are high in sugar, such as cocktails, dessert wines and fruity mixed drinks.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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!
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:
- Oat bran
- Rolled oats
- Low GI muesli
- Baby potatoes
- Sweet potatoes
- Wholewheat pasta
- Brown rice
- 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
- Canned beans, lentils and chickpeas (drain and rinse well)
- Dried beans, lentils and chickpeas
- 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
- Lean cold meats
- 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
- Unsalted nuts
- Peanut butter
- Low oil dressings and mayonnaise (less than 5g fat per 100g)
- Frozen vegetables: green beans, peas, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli.
- Fresh vegetables
- Tinned tomato
- Tinned asparagus
- A variety of fresh fruit
- Pre-cut frozen fruit
- Canned fruit (in juice) for treats
- Olive oil
- 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!
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.