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flat lay of low GI foods for diabetes diet

Plants for the Diabetic's Garden

Eat tons of fruits and vegetables! Cut out fatty meats! Blah, blah, blah! That's the standard "eat healthy" mantra, but for some people — diabetics in particular —  it's potentially dangerous advice.

Not all fruits and vegetables are healthy for everyone. Some contain more carbohydrates and sugars than a person can metabolize. High blood sugar levels, such as those experienced by people with diabetes, lead to long-term serious conditions such as hypertension, poor circulation, blindness, hearing loss, heart failure, and stroke. 

Diabetes in a Nutshell

Simply put, Type 1 diabetes (T1D) is an autoimmune condition that causes the body's defenses to attack the insulin-producing cells within the pancreas. Type 2 diabetes (T2D) is quite different. The pancreas can produce insulin, usually at rates relatively lower than normal but the patient's cells aren't able to use it properly to manage blood sugar levels. The body may become resistant to the hormone, requiring the pancreas to up the ante until it's simply not effective at all. 

Approximately 90% of diabetics fall into the latter category, which has in the past been called "adult-onset diabetes" because the cumulative effects of diet and lifestyle greatly affect its development. Genetics play a role in a person's predisposition to diabetes, but only TD2 is reversible through nutrition and exercise. In all but the rarest cases, damage to the TD1 patient's pancreas is permanent. 

Then there's gestational diabetes when pregnancy causes hormones—including insulin — to misbehave. As with TD2, diet and weight gain put pregnant women at higher risk. 

What foods wreak havoc on blood sugar levels if they're not consumed with care? We're glad you asked. 

Carbohydrates and the Glycemic Index

low GI foods for diabetes diet

Carbohydrates are sugar, starch, and fiber. Each of these carbohydrates is essential to well-balanced diets, but only if they pull their share of the workload. It's also important to understand the two main types of carbohydrates and how they interact with our metabolism: 

  • Simple carbohydrates (monosaccharides and disaccharides): Sugar, honey, pure fruit juice, corn syrup, maple syrup, and lactose in dairy products are what make life sweet. On a molecular level, simple carbs are smaller and more easily "thrown into the boiler" than complex carbs, giving the body quick access to short-lived energy. 
  • Complex carbohydrates (polysaccharides): These are the starches necessary for sustained energy, and the fiber required to slow down the digestive tract long enough to absorb nutrients. 

The Glycemic Index (GI) ranks carbohydrates according to how they affect blood sugar levels. Simple carbs, with their quick uptakes, have higher (70 and above) GI numbers while slow-to-digest polysaccharides are lower (less than 55) on the Glycemic Index scale. You can learn more about understanding GI numbers from the Glycemic Index Foundation and why the organization recommends lowering the threshold for healthy GI rankings to 45 from 55.

Here are some quick tips to remember when choosing carbohydrates from any group: 

  • Select whole grains and whole-grain products over processed, bleached, and enriched carbs. 
  • Fresh fruit's better for you than dried, canned, frozen, or juiced as it retains its fiber and nutritional value. 
  • Fruit that's rich in fiber won't cause your blood sugar levels to spike as quickly. 

Balance the "sweet" with the "slow" following the Diabetes Research Institute Foundation's advice: "Combining a high-sugar/low fiber fruit with a small amount of protein or a healthy fat could minimize the effect of blood sugar spikes. For example, have grapes with a cheese stick or pineapple with cottage cheese."

Grow (and Eat!) Diabetes-Friendly Produce

Sources of lean meat and proteins rich in Omega-3 fatty acids are important to a diabetic's balanced diet. So are nutrient-dense carbs, both simple and complex. Even though starchy vegetables such as potatoes, turnips, winter squash, corn, and pumpkin get a bad rap in articles written for those monitoring blood sugar levels, they're beneficial if consumed in moderation, and when prepared using low-fat cooking methods. Since produce begins losing nutritional value as soon as it's harvested, locally-sourced fruits and vegetables provide the most benefits per serving — something that's a priority when people are struggling with portion control as well as high blood glucose levels. 

And nothing's fresher than home-grown heirloom and hybrid varieties bred for flavor and nutrition, rather than conformity and shippability. 

Choosing nutrient-dense starches and fibers

About a quarter of a balanced meal includes starchy vegetables, and you may have heard that dark-colored vegetables are more nutritious than their paler (dare we say, pastier?) counterparts. This is true to an extent. According to Michigan State University health and nutrition educator Dawn Earnesty, darker vegetables and fruits tend to have more anti-oxidants, but some lighter-colored fruits, legumes, and veggies come ahead in other nutrients. "It is important to eat a variety of colors to ensure that you're consuming adequate nutrition, so try to incorporate different colors into your meals each day," she wrote. Within a species known for color, varieties with the richest hues may have the biggest nutrient punch. 

Here are a few fruits and vegetables you can only find at local farm stands, farmers' markets, and in home gardens: 

Blue Hopi corn: Not just for ornamental use, this ancient heirloom variety is high in antioxidants and amino acids and has a more complete protein profile than other types of corn. Eat it fresh as you would sweet corn, or grind it for cornmeal. And here's a little something: Any variety of corn, when harvested at the "baby" stage, is low in starch. 

Waltham butternut squash: Winter squash like this popular variety is full of low-calorie fiber and valuable nutrients. A serving of butternut squash has half the calories as sweet potato, and according to Harvard's School of Public Health, "the protein and unsaturated oils from the seeds may also have a moderating effect on blood sugar."

Scarlet Nantes carrot: This is our favorite choice for snacking and steaming, as it's the most palatable and digestible variety when eaten fresh. They also cook more quickly, reducing the chance you'll lose nutrients. Try grating them over dark, leafy-green salads. 

Cosmic Purple carrot: Purple on the outside, and orange on the inside! This variety is only one of several richly-colored heirloom carrots, but its complex spicy-sweet flavor puts it over the top as a grilled or lightly-steamed carrot.

Perfection Dark Pea: Shelling peas have been on the diabetic's hit list for a while, but this easy-to-grow variety is rich in Vitamins C and B6, along with folate, iron, and phytochemicals. You won't want to serve yourself a ball-pit sized bowl of any kind of pea, but this variety adds texture, complexity, and sweetness to salads, and you can balance them out with legumes and veggies lower on the GI scale for soups and sides. 

Supreme leaders of the dark, leafy, diabetic-friendly super greens

These low-carb, high-nutrient vegetables are the heroes of the diabetic's garden, and a little variety and creativity in the kitchen go a long way towards fending off the "same-old, same-old" blues. As a rule, if it's leafy and dark green, it's super good for you but here are a few varieties we think belong in your garden: 

Rainbow Swiss Chard: The multicolored stems in each bunch of Rainbow Swiss Chard add a broader spectrum of health benefits to this already nutrient-rich green. Eat it fresh, or add it to sautees and stir-fries. This variety is great for keeping diabetic kids on a healthy meal plan — especially if you encourage your wee ones to participate in the garden. 

Kale: Among many other benefits, kale is right in Omega-3 fatty acids. This is a big deal for those of us who are vegan, or who can't afford to shell out for salmon fillets, or who can't raise free-foraging backyard chickens. Use Vates' Blue Scotch Curly for cooking, and Red Russian for fresh salads, garnishes, and low-carb wraps. 

Tatsoi Mustard Greens: Don't have room for a big garden? Microgreens are scalable to smaller yards, and Tatsoi mustard greens deliver a lot of nutrition in a small footprint — and on a short timeline. 

Learn more about "green light" vegetables for diabetics

If you or someone close to you has asked for your help in attaining their nutrition goals, you're well-aware of all the fad diets and supplements targeted to those living with TD1 and TD2. You're smart enough to know that there are no miracle herbs, essential oils, or tablets for treating diabetes. Only common sense, disciplined blood sugar monitoring, good diet, and exercise. 

The American Diabetes Association is a great source of information, and you'll find a long list of non-starchy vegetables and fruits on their site as well as their support for fresh over preserved produce.

Preserve your harvest and make smart shopping choices

If you do decide to store your season's bounty, or you're limited to what you can purchase at the market, blanching and freezing is the best way to maintain nutritional values. Diabetics should avoid dried fruits, and everyone's better off purchasing produce canned in water or juice, rather than in corn syrup. 

Finally... Three of Seed Needs' favorite diabetic-friendly recipes

If we were to rattle off every low-GI recipe on our list of favorites, we'd be here forever so we randomly picked three from a shortlist of a dozen. Do you have your own nominations that include produce you can grow from seed? Contact us! With your permission, we'll share it on social media. 

No-Bake Sugar-Free Low-Carb Peppermint Cheesecake Pie: Originally posted on Sugar-Free Mom but borrowed (with permission) by Diabetes Daily, this recipe includes stevia and peppermint extract, and you can gather sunflower seeds right from your garden. Hit up post-holiday sales or overstock shops for bashed-up, sugar-free candy canes to top off this treat, and use this opportunity to try out your homemade extract process!

Tuna Nicoise Salad: Diabetes Strong's twist on a classic salad profile ditches the potatoes and lets you substitute your favorite lean meat and dark, leafy greens. Don't skip the parsley in the dressing, though! Print out the recipe card and carry a big handbasket to your veggie garden. This Nicoise recipe includes pretty much every diabetic-friendly veggie in its ingredient list. 

Baked Kale Chips: Potato chips are addicting, and they're hard to give up. Kale chips might sound like a meme-worthy jab at Reed College students or man-bunned hipsters, but they're actually quite good! 

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