Focus on Food to Defeat Diabetes

If the news that diabetes rates have nearly doubled in the US over the last decade has you worried, a new study on diet and diabetes risk may be just what the doctor ordered. This latest research suggests that following a healthy diet pattern is a positive way to reduce diabetes risk.

Focus on food

These findings come out of the Multi-Ethnic Study of Atherosclerosis (MESA), a research effort begun in 2000 and designed to examine connections between diet and chronic disease risk. Researchers collected diet and lifestyle information from 5,011 white, black, Hispanic, and Chinese men and women living in the states of Maryland, Illinois, North Carolina, New York, California, and Minnesota. Researchers tracked new cases of diabetes in the group during seven years of follow-up.

Study participants who ate more whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds, green leafy vegetables, and low-fat dairy were 15% less likely to develop diabetes than those who did not follow this dietary pattern. Study participants who ate more refined grains, beans, tomatoes, high-fat dairy, and red meat were 18% more likely to develop diabetes than those who did not.

Study participants who followed a low-risk pattern, defined by the researchers as a diet that emphasizes whole grains, vegetables, low-fat dairy foods, nuts and seeds, and coffee were 13% less likely to develop diabetes than those who did not follow this pattern. The authors indicate that none of these findings were influenced by race or ethnicity, suggesting that these results apply to most people.

Study author Jennifer Nettleton, PhD, noted that studying diet patterns rather than any one food or nutrient is valuable and that “people who want to decrease diabetes risk should focus on increasing intake of key food groups, including whole grains, low-fat dairy, fruits and vegetables, and nuts [and] seeds.”

Finding foods that count

Along with maintaining a healthy body weight and exercising regularly, diet can be a powerful ally in your fight against diabetes.

• Make those grains whole. When shopping for bread and cereals, avoid products with the word “enriched” in the ingredient list. “Enriched” is a tip-off that grains are refined, not whole.

• Snack on fruit and nuts. The combination of carbohydrates from fruit along with protein and healthy fat in nuts will satisfy your snacking urge.

• Sprinkle some seeds. Try a tablespoon or two of flaxseeds or sunflower seeds in your yogurt and cereal.

• Stick with low-fat dairy. Skim or 1% milk, part-skim mozzarella cheese, and low- or no-fat yogurt are good choices. Limit whole milk, cream, and ice cream to special occasions.

• Go for the greens. Add kale, chard, or other green leafy vegetables to soups and stews.

• Enjoy coffee… in moderation. One or two cups per day may lower diabetes risk. Any more than this and you may run into trouble with side effects such as insomnia and rapid heart rate.

• Choose healthy proteins. Try for more fish, chicken, or soy products and other lean proteins. Limit red meat to one or two times per week and stick to a 3-ounce serving. (Three ounces of meat is about the size of a deck of cards.)

(Diabetes Care 2008;31:1777–82; MMWR 2008;57:1169–73)

Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RD

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