‘Diabetes’ usually refers to one of three main conditions in the body relating to the body’s inability to manage healthy blood sugar levels.  These three conditions are diabetes type 1, type 2 and gestational diabetes. Diabetes is a disease in itself and if someone has diabetes it can also increase the risk of developing other diseases such cardiovascular disease and stroke, kidney disease, blindness and even nerve damage (neuropathies) leading to limb amputations. It sounds serious because it is serious and from a naturopathic perspective I believe that in some cases of type 2 diabetes and gestational diabetes (certainly not all), it can be prevented. 

Type 1 diabetes (accounts for approximately 10% of diabetics) is an auto-immune condition where the cells in the pancreas which produce the hormone insulin are destroyed. Insulin is required to help transport sugar from the blood into the cells to enter the energy production cycle. People with type 1 diabetes rely on external forms of insulin (usually injection or pump) to manage blood sugar regulation to stay alive. Family history of type 1 diabetes is a significant risk factor. Even though type 1 diabetics are reliant on insulin to manage their condition, dietary and lifestyle practices to support healthy sugar levels can reduce severe fluctuations in blood sugar levels which may reduce further complications or progression of the disease. 

Type 2 diabetes (accounts for approximately 85% of diabetics) and although includes genetic risk factors, it is also strongly associated with unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices. Type 2 diabetes is a progressive disease which occurs as the cells in the body become less responsive to the actions of insulin and eventually the pancreas is unable to produce enough insulin. A diet consistently high in sugar or processed carbohydrates can make our bodies less responsive to insulin and perpetuate this process. This can also lead to excess body fat and obesity which also can affect how our cells respond to insulin and sugar in the blood. It can become a vicious cycle.

From a naturopathic and nutritional perspective I believe we can affect how our genes express and through healthy diet and lifestyle choices can certainly reduce the incidence and severity of many chronic diseases such as type 2 diabetes. This is particularly the case when type 2 diabetes is detected in the early stages, before the insulin producing cells in the pancreas have been completely damaged and unable to produce enough insulin.    

Gestational diabetes refers to diabetes that can develop during pregnancy and usually disappears after pregnancy, and future pregnancies need to be monitored closely as there’s an increased rick of recurrence. 

The incidence of all three types of diabetes is on the increase in Australia and we need to establish why and actually focus on addressing the cause rather than focusing on the other end of the health care spectrum – the drugs to treat it. Of course access to medication to treat life threatening situations and in the case of diabetes, to prevent potential serious complications is imperative, however focusing on prevention of the disease in terms of correct education regarding nutrition, diet and lifestyle may reduce the incidence of the disease in the first place. Additionally this may also reduce the huge financial burden that the obesity (big risk factor for developing type 2 diabetes) epidemic is placing on our health care system.  

As it is with most diseases, prevention is a much easier and healthier approach than having to deal with a condition once it has fully established in the body. If you have been told that you are in a ‘pre diabetic’ state, this is your warning system to sort your health out now and possibly prevent a fully established disease that may require prescription medication in the future.

I firmly believe that in many cases the prevention of type 2 diabetes is possible with consistent, healthy, well balanced eating and lifestyle choices.  This condition is pretty much unheard of in third world countries where obesity doesn’t exist. In Australia there appears to be an unhealthy pattern of overeating yet under-nutrition, lack of exercise and poor stress management which can all contribute to increased body fat, inflammation and an increased risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus. 

For men, generally if the waist measurement is above 94cm which suggests that excess body fat is stored around abdominal organs, there is an associated increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. For women it’s ideal to maintain a waist measurement below 80cm. Of course other things such as height, frame size and nationality need to be considered and these measurements are simply a guideline.

If a person has a number of risk factors for developing diabetes then it is like they are walking around with a loaded gun. Given an unhealthy environment, there is more chance of the gun starting to fire and once it starts, its more difficult to stop it. If however effort is made to maintain a healthy environment and reduce inflammation, I believe we can reduce the incidence of the gun going off and developing into full blown type 2 diabetes. 

Diet and lifestyle advice to prevent or better manage diabetes and blood sugar related conditions:

Exercise – minimum of 3 hours per week, Preferably 30mins of exercise that increases the heart rate most if not every day. Exercise helps manage blood sugar levels and improves insulin resistance. It also encourages blood circulation and excess fat loss. All of these things are important to reduce unhealthy blood sugar issues.

Diet – You can keep it really simple such as for lunch and dinner follow 80/20 rule. 80% of the plate should be plant based foods such as vegetables or salad and 20% of the plate should be lean protein such as fish, chicken, lean red meat, pork, sea food or vegetarian based protein such as legumes/lentils/chickpeas etc. Breakfast could be a fruit free muesli or plain oats – with added chia seeds and flaxseeds, greek yoghurt and grated apple or mixed berries. The seeds add protein and fibre which assist in healthy blood sugar regulation. Cinnamon has also shown to have blood sugar regulatory effects so a good shake of cinnamon instead of sugar is a much better option. 

Following a low glycaemic index and low glycaemic load diet is more detailed and specifically aimed at balancing blood sugar levels.  Further information can be found at nutritiondata.self.com or an individual dietary plan can be prescribed via naturopath or nutritionist. 

 Regular consumption of refined sugar needs to be avoided and I don’t believe artificially sweetened or ‘diet’ versions of food are an option. It’s not simply about counting calories, and artificial sweeteners are chemicals and don’t belong in our diet or our bodies. To obtain or maintain health and wellness, the body requires wholesome real food that is nutrient dense, not low calorie artificially sweetened food with no nutritional value. Consistency is also the key..