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Diet can help prevent diabetes, heart disease

Type 2 diabetes and heart disease are major killers. Yet medical experts widely acknowledge that they are largely preventable by adjusting diet and lifestyle. In this column, we’ll look at key dietary changes you can make to prevent these diseases – starting today.

Type 2 diabetes largely results from wild fluctuations in blood sugar levels over the long term, resulting in impaired insulin function. Hence, the best strategy is to base your diet on foods that release glucose slowly but consistently into the blood, reducing the need for drastic insulin intervention. Such foods are known as having a low glycemic index (GI). However you can go a step further by using glycemic load (GL) values.

While GI measures the effect of a carbohydrate on blood sugar levels, GL takes into account the quantity of carbohydrate available within the food. As a general rule, whole unprocessed foods, such as beans, whole grains and whole-grain products, nonstarchy vegetables, fresh fruits, proteins and fats, are usually low GL. Processed foods, such as white breads, most breakfast cereals, rice and rice products, commercial cakes, biscuits and processed fruits and vegetables (jams and sauces), are typically high GL.

Also consider: adding cinnamon or lemon juice to food to lower its GL value; moderating fructose intake (read labels when shopping, as scientists are linking high fructose consumption with insulin resistance and cardiovascular disease markers); and combining fiber, protein or fat with a higher-GL food to slow down the release of glucose into the blood.

Some research reports that coffee is helpful against diabetes. Caffeine in coffee actually stimulates the release of glucose into the blood, which is counterproductive. It appears that a substance other than caffeine could be providing the protection, so if you decide to take this route, try switching to decaf.

A low-GL diet also benefits cardiovascular health, with studies showing improved triglyceride and cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure and less abdominal obesity. Interestingly, high-GI/GL carbohydrates appear to be more harmful to cardiovascular health than saturated fat.

Good foods to include in a heart-friendly diet are:

–Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna. Their omega-3 fats help thin the blood, positively rebalance triglyceride and cholesterol levels, and prevent plaque buildup in the arteries. Steam, bake or carefully grill, but do not fry, as this damages the omega-3 fats.

–Rolled oats. These contain soluble fiber, which is linked to the lowering of cholesterol, and minerals that help lower blood pressure. Eat as porridge topped with berries or as the main ingredient of homemade muesli.

–Beans. They are a heart-friendly source of protein, packaged with good fats, fiber to help lower cholesterol, and calcium and magnesium for proper heart rhythm and blood pressure. Add to vegetable soups for a protein boost and to red meat dishes to reduce total meat consumption.

–A rainbow selection of fruits and vegetables, and plenty of them. There is no getting away from it, I’m afraid. These provide an almost full spectrum of vitamins and minerals that keep your body in tip-top condition, as well as special nutrients known as phytochemicals. Phytochemicals have many health benefits, including antioxidant activity that protects the body’s cells from damage by free radicals. In the arteries, this can signify the prevention or slowing of plaque buildup.

–Nuts. They contain heart-helpful fats, the antioxidant and blood-thinning vitamin E, and phytosterols, which are thought to reduce cholesterol levels. Look for unroasted, unsalted versions. (Try PriceSmart and the supermarket home-baking aisles.)

–If you enjoy alcohol, the occasional glass of red wine is your healthiest choice, as it contains free-radical-busting antioxidants. 

To achieve optimal health, you need to make lifelong changes. Start by filling your meal plate in the following proportions using whole, unprocessed foods: 50 percent nonstarchy vegetable or low-GL fruit (green leafy vegetables, apples, berries, etc.); 25 percent low-GL carbohydrates (oats, al dente pasta, quinoa); and 25 percent lean protein (beans, fish, nuts, eggs, skinless poultry, dairy and occasionally red meat). Variety is essential, so be adventurous and consume different selections of foods from each group to maximize your chances of a long, active and disease-free life.

For more information on the GL diet and food values, see Julie Godfrey is a nutritional therapy practitioner and full member of the British Association of Applied Nutrition and Nutritional Therapy (BANT).

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