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The Link Between Proper Nutrition & Diabetes Prevention & Disease Management

October 17, 2017

This blog is written in conjunction with Wyndham Bonett and Lee Weber, FSU medical students.

A balanced diet filled with nutrient-dense foods like whole grains, fruits and vegetables can help prevent chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease and high blood pressure, but it also can help manage these conditions after someone is diagnosed.

Diabetes is a prime example of the importance of a healthy diet, from both a prevention and disease management perspective. In people with prediabetes, a precursor to the actual disease, sticking to a healthy eating plan can control your blood sugar. 

While we talk about healthy eating, it’s also important to understand how our bodies process calories and how the food choices we make can affect our ability to maintain a healthy weight, and in turn, affect our risk for certain diseases and conditions. Here’s what you should know:

Calories and What You Eat

Everyone has heard that they need to “watch their calories” to get in shape. But what is a calorie? Most people have a vague understanding of the word, but we hope to give you a better grasp to help you meet your health goals. 

Calories are a unit of measurement for energy. We use this metric as a way to track how much energy we burn versus how much we take into our bodies. Scientifically speaking, a calorie is the energy it takes to raise the temperature of a kilogram of water by one degree Celsius. 

But what does that mean for us? To stay the same weight, we must net zero calories in a day. This means that we would have to burn the same amount of calories in a day that we consume through food and drink. To lose weight, this net must be negative. This means we need to increase the amount of energy we burn or decrease the amount of calories we consume. These two concepts work together in harmony, making the classic combination of proper diet and regular exercise the most efficient way to lose weight.

Conversely, overeating and not exercising will cause your weight to quickly increase by creating a net positive of calories. Our bodies store this net positive of calories as fat. We know we need energy to stay alive. This is why our bodies make it so enjoyable for us to eat. But when our bodies burn this energy, where does it go?

Roughly 70 percent of our energy goes to something called basal metabolic rate, or BMR, which is the energy that keeps us alive. This is often referred to as someone’s metabolism. It powers many of the organs in your body, such as the heart, kidneys, liver and brain. We say “roughly” 70 percent because BMR varies from person to person. This is why some people can eat a whole cake and not put on a pound. Unfortunately, there’s not much we can do to change our BMR, which is largely influenced by our genetics and age. Also out of our control is the energy it takes to digest food, which is roughly 10 percent of the calories you burn in a day. Luckily, we can still control our activity, which makes up the remainder of our daily calories burned.

Fat vs. Carbs vs. Protein

The key to losing weight is diet and exercise. But is it that simple? Kind of.

As we just discussed, if you take in less energy with calorie reduction and burn more energy with increased activity, you will lose weight. So why do people say eating less fat will make you lose weight? Fat, protein and carbohydrates are the three macronutrients, or “macros.” Pretty much all ingredients fall into one of these three categories. Fat has 9 calories per gram, while protein and carbs have 4 calories per gram. You can see why people think fat is the enemy. It has more than double the “density” of calories per gram. This means you could eat 10 grams of protein and still get less calories than 5 grams of fat.

However, life is about moderation. The Dietary Guidelines for Americans suggests less than 10 percent of your daily calories come from saturated fats — so not all fats are created equal. There also are “good fats,” like Omega-3 fatty acids, which you can get from certain fish, like salmon. Your body needs all three of the macros and you should never cut one out completely. 

The ratio of macros you consume is variable. For example, if you are diabetic, you should limit your carb intake. This is because carbs are the umbrella term for sugar and the underlying problem in diabetes is keeping blood sugar from going too high. If you are a long distance runner, you may want to do the opposite and increase your carb intake.

The message here is that if you want to lose weight, your goal should be to cut down on the total number of calories you eat and drink in a day (in addition to getting regular exercise). If you start a new diet, don’t get too caught up on the exact ratio of fat, carbs and protein. The most important thing is to ensure your new diet is sustainable, which you can achieve by eating a well-balanced diet with meats, vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and legumes.

About 29 million Americans have diabetes, but they can better manage the disease by making adjustments to their diet, in consultation with their doctor. If you don’t know where to begin, it’s best to focus on small changes and limiting your intake of simple carbohydrates like white rice, bread and pasta, saturated fat and processed sugar from candy and desserts. Also pay special attention to the ingredients and portion size of your meals.

To start off your healthy eating journey, here’s a great, heart-healthy recipe:

Recipe of the Day

Quinoa Stir-Fry

Feel free to make it your own. You even can make it heartier by throwing in a lean, baked chicken breast.

Healthy eating doesn’t have to be bland. By making food flavorful it can become more enjoyable, which will help you stick to a balanced diet long term and ultimately lower your risk for diabetes. 

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