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Eating to Manage Diabetes During COVID-19

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If you’ve been keeping up with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) regarding who’s at highest risk for complications from COVID-19, you’re probably aware that people with underlying health conditions such as diabetes are among the affected groups.

Because diabetic people are more vulnerable to complications from the virus if they become infected, it’s important that people with diabetes manage their condition appropriately to stay in the best health possible during the pandemic.

Keeping your blood sugar in check lowers your risk for contracting respiratory infections such as the coronavirus. This means that instead of becoming lax in your efforts to control your blood sugar, it is vital that you do everything in your power to try to hit recommended targets. In addition to taking prescribed medications, testing your blood sugar and getting active, eating right is one way to keep yourself healthy.

Read on for tips on how to eat to manage your diabetes during COVID-19.

Go lower carb

It used to be thought that sugar was the main culprit in spiking blood-sugar levels, but now we know that all types of carbs raise blood-sugar levels. Carb-rich foods include rice, pasta, potatoes, beans, cereals and breads (the whole grain and the white versions), as well as fresh fruits, fruit juice, milk, most types of yogurt and most snack foods, including chips, cookies and other sweets.

Those with type 2 diabetes should be mindful of carbohydrate intake, though the specific amount recommended varies with individual size, appetite and activity level. Consider talking to your physician about setting up a referral with a registered dietitian and/or certified diabetes educator to better understand your specific recommendations.

Aim to consume a variety of non-starchy vegetables, lean proteins and plant-based fats to lower your blood sugar and maintain a healthy weight. (Losing excess weight – even just 10 to 15 pounds – can lead to better blood-sugar control.)

Of course, it can be challenging to eat this way if supermarkets are barren, but these strategies can help you get nutritious meals until the food supply is back to normal:

  • Frozen fruit and vegetables are long-lasting, nutritious alternatives to fresh produce.
  • Canned tuna and salmon, as well as canned oysters, shrimp, mussels and clams are high in protein and free or nearly free from carbs.
  • Dried and canned beans are high in protein and fiber. (Canned beans can also be used to make a variety of splurge-worthy treats as well as other creative and unexpected dishes like these.)
  • If bread is out of stock, try your hand at baking at home with whole-grain flour. If yeast breads are too intimidating, there are plenty of quick bread recipes that do not require kneading or time for rising.

Cut back on sugar

Sugar has huge influence on our brains, triggering our bodies to produce feel-good chemicals that – when combined with salt and fat – light up the same areas of the brain that are activated by addictive drugs. In times of stress (hello, quarantine!), we crave these chemicals to feel better.

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But don’t reach for the salty, sweet junk food! I know. It's not easy. But there are a number of ways to slash sugar and curb (and satisfy) your cravings.

  • If you only make one change, eliminate sugary drinks. This the single biggest impact you can make on your sugar intake, since sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest source of added sugars in the American diet. Opt instead for sparkling flavored water or unsweetened tea.
  • Eliminate added sugar as much as possible, including honey, agave, coconut sugar, turbinado and organic cane juice. Watch out for even seemingly “healthful” foods that are loaded with sugar. (Think flavored Greek yogurt, nutrition bars and many types of green drinks and protein shakes.) The first week may feel insanely difficult, but you can do this! And it will get easier, once your taste buds start to catch up to your new habits.
  • If you need help stepping away from sugar but still have a sweet tooth, plant-based sweeteners can help. There are plenty of all-natural, plant-based, zero-calorie sweeteners available, including New Orleans-based Swerve, as well as Truvia, monk fruit and stevia. They're all good options for those looking to avoid artificial sweeteners.

Space protein-rich meals and snacks throughout the day

Aim for small, protein-rich meals and snacks every three to four hours so that the body isn’t required to produce such large loads of insulin at one time.

Consider natural supplements to manage blood sugar

To prevent blood sugars from dropping too low when adding supplements to your diet, incorporate just one product at a time, checking fasting blood-sugar levels for five to 10 days before making any further changes. This allows time to make any necessary adjustments to medication dosages before adding another supplement.

Remember that supplements can interact with certain medications and lab tests, so always check with your physician and pharmacist before beginning any supplement program.

Here are a few you may want to try, after discussing them with your care provider:

  • Alpha lipoic acid can improve insulin sensitivity in people with type 2 diabetes. It may reduce symptoms of diabetic neuropathy (burning, pain, numbness and prickling of the feet and legs).
  • Chromium picolinate decreases fasting blood sugar and insulin levels, and helps improve insulin sensitivity in people with type 2 diabetes.
  • Psyllium can reduce post-meal circulating levels of blood sugar and insulin.

For more tips on managing your diabetes through nutrition, check out my FUELED podcast episode with Melissa Guillot, registered dietitian who specializes in diabetes management, and endocrinologist Dr. Pavan Chava. Also check out the Eat Fit Cookbook for a selection of delicious, diabetic-friendly recipes.

The information in this blog post is accurate at the time of publication. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to change, it's possible that information has changed since being published. While Ochsner Health is trying to keep our blog posts as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations by using the CDC website.

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