9 Everyday Eating Tricks for Better Blood Sugar
What we eat every day says a lot about the context of our lives. Each person makes dietary choices based on the stuff we like to eat, the money we have, the cultures we come from, and more. Food is deeply tied to family, especially for members of the Hispanic/Latinx community. “In the Latino community, we gather around food,” says Ina Flores, assistant program director of Emory Latino Diabetes Education Program in Atlanta. “If you visit somebody, you have food—that’s a big part of the culture.” Your daily food choices contribute to long-term health in positive and negative ways.
Latinx Americans & Diabetes
Hispanic/Latinx Americans are at increased risk for developing diabetes. Currently, 17% of Hispanic/Latinx adults in the United States are living with type 2 diabetes, as opposed to 8% of non-Hispanic whites. There are many reasons for this disparity, including socioeconomic status, lack of access to nutritious foods, and systemic bias in the healthcare system. But traditional Latin diets are not to blame, says Krista Linares, registered dietician and diabetes management specialist in Raleigh, NC: “Research shows that as the Latino community goes through dietary assimilation toward a more American eating pattern, that’s when our health outcomes worsen.”
Latin Food Can Be Beneficial
“I wouldn’t say that there’s anything specific about Latin food or Latin diet that is particularly damaging or making us prone to diabetes,” Linares says. “In fact, I would say the opposite—that our traditional diets can be health protective.” Instead, she notes, it’s when Hispanic/Latinx Americans eat highly processed foods and refined sugars that they suffer from worse health outcomes—and many are forced into these eating patterns due to financial hardship or lack of geographic access to healthier options. Our tips aim to steer you toward diabetes-friendly food choices in an accessible, affordable way.
Focus on Fresh, Whole Foods
Latin diets vary based on country of origin, but all share a focus on fruits, vegetables, and healthy whole grains. “For example, a traditional Mexican diet is based on things like corn, squash, and beans,” Linares says. “Those are very healthful plant-based foods full of fiber, and they also complement each other.” The more you can focus on eating whole foods (in general, things that don’t come in a box), the better you’ll be able to keep your blood sugar under control. When your plate lacks variety, it's tougher to get the nutrients you need.
Pay Attention to Carbs
Carbohydrates are broken down in your body as glucose (a type of sugar). People with type 2 diabetes don’t respond well to the insulin needed to process sugar, so they have to watch carb consumption. For Hispanic/Latinx Americans, carbs commonly come from foods like white rice and tortillas. “The first thing I always tell patients is to start being aware of how many carbs they are eating,” Flores says. “[I also suggest they] check their blood sugar after their biggest meal, so they can see the relationship between carbohydrate consumption and blood sugar levels.”—not on a regular basis, but once to get an idea.
One way to counter the effects of carbohydrates is to add more fiber. “High fiber foods are the key solution for glycemic control,” Flores says. She urges clients to try brown rice instead of white rice in recipes or try combining the two. Linares uses a different approach—not asking her clients to go low-carb but instead to add in fibrous foods like beans and vegetables. “I like to focus on how we can add in things like fiber or protein to the carbs we are eating, so we get a better response to those carbs,” she explains.
Add New Ingredients to Your Recipes
Rather than giving up your favorite recipes, try tweaking them a bit to add more fiber or healthy fats. Flores, who makes her own arepas at home, adds chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds (all of which as high in fiber) or uses whole-grain flour as the base. “Try to incorporate whole grains in everything you can,” she suggests, and steer clear of refined flour when possible. The beauty of home-cooked foods is that you have control over the ingredients list, so you can adjust it to fit your needs.
Limit Fruit, If Possible
But wait… weren’t we just talking about how fruit is healthy? That’s true, but it also contains significant amounts of a sugar called fructose, which can be problematic for people with diabetes. “The Latino community eats a lot of fruits, maybe consuming four or five fruits in a day and liquifying them [by] making juices,” Flores explains. It’s best to keep your fruit intake to two to three servings per day, and when possible, to consume fruit in its whole form to preserve fiber and nutrients. Berries and citrus fruits are great high-fiber, low-sugar options.
Buy Dried Beans
Beans are a staple food in most Latin diets—and that’s great news because they’re full of healthy fiber and low on the glycemic index. Beans and other legumes are frequently associated with a longer and healthier lifespan. Flores encourages her clients to buy dried beans and cook them with low or unsaturated fat, avoiding the high sodium counts of canned beans, since sodium can make diabetes worse. “If they do eat beans from a can, try to have as low sodium as possible and not refried,” she says. “Try to have the whole bean.”
Watch Out for Added Sugars
One study in The Lancet found that around 70% of processed foods in U.S. households contain added sugar. It’s hard to avoid, especially for people who don’t have the luxury of time and resources to be selective about the foods they buy. Flores suggests starting small, paying attention to the ingredients you’re adding to coffee and smoothies: “Try to be mindful of how much sugar you add into juices and coffee, because we’re not always conscious of that.” If you do like the taste of sweeter foods, go for a low-calorie sweetener like Splenda.
Add Options to Family Meals
It can be challenging to make healthy changes when you’re cooking for a group. “This is especially relevant for the Latino community because a lot of times we’re living in multigenerational households,” Linares explains. “That’s when something like adjusting courses or adding extra things to the plate comes in handy.” If you’re eating a big family meal with lots of rice and tortillas, bring your own vegetable dish to contribute—eating more veggies means you’ll eat less of those heavier foods. P.S., don’t be afraid to educate your family about the perks of eating healthy.
Bring New Meals to the Weekly Rotation
If your family is not supportive of the changes you want to make, you don’t always have to tell them outright. “Incorporate new things to the menu that people can try without saying, ‘This is low-sugar or low-carb,’” Flores advises. That connotation brings a lot of emotions, and the response might be negative. Instead, “try to incorporate new recipes within Latin culture by adding more spinach, pumpkin, zucchini, peppers, broccoli [and other] healthy whole wheats and vegetables.” It’ll be your secret, but one that the whole family can enjoy.
Latinx Americans & Diabetes: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (n.d.) “Hispanic/Latino Americans and Type 2 Diabetes.” https://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/library/features/hispanic-diabetes.html
Dietary Assimilation: Journal of Health and Social Behavior. (2019.) https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6416786/
Carbs & Blood Sugar: American Diabetes Association. (n.d.) “Understanding Carbs.” https://www.diabetes.org/nutrition/understanding-carbs
Added Sugars: The Lancet. (2016.) “Sweetening of the global diet, particularly beverages: patterns, trends, and policy responses.” https://www.thelancet.com/journals/landia/article/PIIS2213-8587(15)00419-2/fulltext