Insulin is necessary both to regulate levels of sugar (glucose) in the blood and to use this sugar to fuel the body's cells.
Healthful eating is one of the easiest and most effective ways to prevent or manage the symptoms of diabetes. However, by making smart decisions, it is possible for those with diabetes to enjoy their favorite junk foods from time to time.
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Junk food and diabetes
Junk food is high in calories and sugar but low in nutrients, so should be consumed as infrequently as possible.
Fast food, processed foods, and prepared snack foods all fall into the category of junk foods. They are high in calories, sugar, and fat but low in nutrients. Therefore, these types of foods should be consumed infrequently, especially when trying to manage diabetes.
How junk food may contribute to diabetes
Junk foods may contribute to diabetes in the following ways:
- Rapid effect on blood sugar levels. Highly processed foods that are high in calories and low in vitamins, minerals, and fiber are digested quickly and can cause a rapid rise in blood sugar levels.
- Poor portion control. Junk foods are usually not very filling and frequently come in larger portion sizes than recommended. Both these factors may lead people to overeat junk foods, something that can negatively impact on diabetes - a condition where portion control is important.
- Weight gain. Due to its poor nutritional qualities and its ability to encourage overeating, people who eat junk food may gain weight. Being overweight is one of the major risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes, which accounts for up to 95 percent of all cases of diabetes.
- High blood pressure. Junk food is usually very high in sodium (salt), which raises blood pressure. High blood pressure is linked to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes.
- Triglyceride levels. Junk foods are high in trans and saturated fats, which can raise levels of triglycerides, a type of fat carried in the blood. High levels of triglycerides increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.
According to a recent study published in Experimental Physiology, regularly eating junk foods can cause as much damage to the kidneys of people without diabetes as it does to those with the disease itself. Junk food also causes high blood sugar levels similar to those experienced by people with type 2 diabetes.
As people with diabetes are already at a higher risk of kidney disease, diets containing a lot of junk foods can be especially problematic.
Saturated and trans fats
Chips are high in trans fats, which are linked to heart disease and diabetes.
Saturated fat raises blood cholesterol levels and triglyceride levels. It is recommended that less than 10 percent of a person's daily calorie intake comes from saturated fats. This can be difficult to do on a diet containing junk foods.
Sources of saturated fat include:
- chicken and turkey skin
- dairy products (butter, cheese, cream, ice cream, whole milk, sour cream)
- ground beef
- hot dogs
- palm oil
- pork (sausage, bacon, ribs, fatback pork)
Trans fats cause inflammation, which is linked to diabetes and heart disease. They also contribute to insulin resistance, which increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. Even very small amounts of trans fats can have a negative impact on health. Research reported in The New England Journal of Medicine suggests that the risk of heart disease increases by 23 percent for every 2 percent of daily calories that come from trans fats.
Sources of trans fats include:
- crackers and chips
- fast food items, including fries
- hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil
- muffins and cakes
When calculating amounts of trans fat in a product, remember that food producers are allowed to label their food as containing 0 grams (g) of trans fats if the product contains less than 0.5 g.
Understanding both quantity and type of carbohydrates is important in the management of diabetes. Balancing insulin levels in the body with carbohydrate intake is key to managing blood glucose levels.
Heavily processed and junk foods often contain added sugar, a fast-acting carbohydrate that can quickly spike insulin levels. They also tend to be made with refined, rather than whole, grains and so lack the nutrients and fiber that slows down the body's breakdown of carbohydrates.
The quantity of carbohydrates that can safely be tolerated by those with diabetes varies from person to person, but the American Diabetes Association suggest 45-60 g of carbohydrate per meal as a good starting point.
A large portion of McDonald's fries contains 66 g of carbohydrates, while a 6-inch meatball sandwich from Subway contains 60 g. Unless portion control is exercised and fast food items are carefully chosen, it can be easy to exceed the recommended daily carbohydrate intake.
Eating junk foods with diabetes
It is important to read the nutritional content on store-bought food and understand per serving sizes.
Education and preparation are key to making the most healthful choices when eating out, or when choosing junk food.
Many restaurants, particularly large chain restaurants, publish the nutrition content of their food online. It is a good idea to look at these websites prior to eating out, or to request nutritional information at the restaurant.
Learn how to read the nutritional information on store-bought convenience and snack foods, paying particular attention to total calories, carbohydrates, fat, and salt content. The nutrition information will be labeled per serving, so be sure to look at the serving size and understand portions based on this.
13 tips for healthier fast food choices
- Don't be afraid to make special requests. Ask servers to leave out certain items, or swap them for others. Request smaller portions. Ask for sauces and dressings on the side, or do not have them at all. Consider ordering side salads to start and instead of a main course, opt for an appetizer with some healthy sides.
- Avoid deluxe or super-sized portions in fast food restaurants. These may save money, but are higher in calories, fat, and sugar.
- Ask for meals without full-fat dressings or sauces, such as mayonnaise, ketchup, or other creamy sauces. Mustard or fat-free dressings are healthier choices.
- Choose a salad-based meal where possible, with grilled chicken, tofu, or beans. Add a low-fat dressing on the side.
- Order burgers without cheese. Ask for extra salad toppings instead, if desired.
- Try an open-faced burger, with only half of a bun, or no bun.
- Choose sides wisely. Instead of french fries or potato chips, opt for side salads, fresh fruit, or raw vegetables.
- Pizza can be made more healthful by requesting whole-wheat thin crusts, vegetable toppings, and light cheese, or none at all.
- Avoid fried or breaded fish or poultry and choose grilled or broiled versions.
- When eating from salad bars, choose non-starchy vegetables, such as leafy greens, carrots, bell peppers, broccoli, and cucumber. Nuts, seeds, and avocado are healthy fat options. Avoid or limit cheese, bacon, and mayonnaise-based foods.
- Sodas, smoothies, and fruit juices can play havoc with blood sugar levels. Plain water or unsweetened tea are better choices.
- Restaurant portions tend to be oversized. Find out the rules about healthful portion sizes and follow them. For example, 3 ounces of cooked poultry or fish is the size of a deck of cards, 1 tablespoon of dressing is the size of an adult thumb, and a clenched fist equates to approximately 1 cup.
- At buffets, use the "plate method" and fill half the plate with non-starchy vegetables, one quarter with lean meat, fish, tofu, or beans, and one quarter with whole grains and starchy vegetables. Add a piece of fruit and a cup of low-fat milk or water.
Eating breakfast on the go is a common occurrence, but it can lead to unhealthy food choices. It is best to start the day with a homemade meal, but if that's not possible then healthier options include:
- A whole-grain English muffin or bun, with toppings, such as egg, reduced-fat cream cheese, nut butter, or avocado.
- An omelet with non-starchy vegetables.
- A handful of granola, fat-free, or low fat plain yogurt, a small handful of berries, and a sprinkling of nuts and seeds.
- Adding a side of fruit to the meal.
- Choosing black coffee or a skinny latte over full-fat coffee drinks. Skip the sugar and sugary syrups.
Diabetes-friendly options at popular chain restaurants
The following menu items, from a selection of the most popular fast-food restaurants, represent some of the healthier choices for people with diabetes.
- Burger King: A Whopper Jr. sandwich without mayonnaise, with apple slices.
- Chick-Fil-A: A grilled chicken sandwich without mayonnaise, with a large fruit cup.
- Chipotle: A chicken or tofu burrito bowl with black beans, fajita vegetables, tomato salsa, lettuce, and a half portion of guacamole.
- McDonald's: A quarter pounder without cheese, a side salad with low-fat balsamic vinaigrette and apple slices.
- Papa John's: 2 slices of a 14-inch custom thin pizza with olives, peppers, onions, tomatoes, mushrooms, light pizza sauce, and light cheese.
- Starbucks: For breakfast, the Berry Trio Yogurt. For lunch, the Zesty Chicken & Black Bean Salad Bowl. Drink options include unsweetened herbal teas, a Caffè Americano, or a short Skinny Flavored Latte.
- Subway: The 6-inch Veggie Delite with lettuce, tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers, onions, and a fat-free dressing.
- Taco Bell: The Breakfast Soft Taco with eggs and cheese, or the Chipotle Chicken Loaded Griller.