Jul. 6. 2018
Written By:
McKel (Hill) Kooienga
McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

McKel Hill Kooienga, MS, RDN, LDN

Founder of Nutrition Stripped and the Mindful Nutrition Method™

Diabetes is a disease that affects millions of Americans. While it occurs in several types, each one affects blood sugar.

One study shows, thirty million Americans have a diabetes diagnosis (1). Because it’s so widespread, I decided it was time to talk about the condition. First off, you may be wondering what is diabetes exactly? Well, there are several types including Type 1, Type 2 or gestational diabetes. To learn how each of these conditions affect the body, let’s break down what diabetes is, symptoms of it, recipes for balancing blood sugar, and how to take care of yourself if diabetes is a part of your life.

What Is Diabetes?

In all forms, diabetes affects blood sugar—making it higher than normal—and insulin. When you eat food, your body turns it into sugar or glucose. In a healthy person, the pancreas then releases the hormone, insulin, into the body in order to open up your cells and bring glucose into those cells. Think of glucose as the gas to your body’s car. It keeps you running with energy, but you need the tank open for your car to accept the gas. Insulin serves as the cap that lets gas into the tank—without it, your car (aka your body) won’t run properly.

As for what goes wrong in each type of diabetes, here are the basics:

Type 1 Diabetes

Affecting just 5% of the population of those who are diagnosed with diabetes, individuals get diagnosed with this type of diabetes early in life, which is why it was previously called juvenile diabetes (2). In this case, your body doesn’t make insulin at all. Those who have type 1 rely on insulin therapy (or self-administered insulin, typically as a shot) so that their body can still use glucose for energy. Patients often need to check their blood sugar levels regularly to make sure their bodies are getting enough insulin and can, therefore, keep running on glucose.

Type 2 Diabetes

This is the most common type of diabetes and is often associated with overweight or obese individuals. People with this type still have insulin in the body, but it’s not used properly. Because the insulin isn’t able to help the body take in glucose and use it for energy, blood sugar levels spike. This is called hyperglycemia or high blood sugar levels. While your pancreas might try to make extra insulin to control high blood sugar, it won’t be able to keep up with demand, meaning glucose levels will still rise.

Gestational Diabetes

Gestational diabetes only occurs during pregnancy, usually in the 24th week (3). It also results in high blood sugar levels, just like type 2 diabetes.

If diabetes patients don’t address high blood sugar, it can lead to problems with the eyes, kidneys, nerves, heart disease, stroke, and sometimes even loss of a limb.

Symptoms of Diabetes

Often times diabetes symptoms can go unnoticed, but there are a few telltale signs, particularly of type 2 diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, diabetes symptoms include frequent urination, feeling thirsty and hungry, fatigue, blurry vision, cuts, bruising, weight loss (for type 1), and tingling, pain, or numbness in hands and feet (for type 2).

If you can check off a few of these symptoms and suspect you might have diabetes, then it’s time to see a doctor. A simple blood test will determine if you have the condition. If you are overweight or obese, it’s also a good idea to get checked simply as a precaution.

Metabolic Syndrome and Diabetes

One condition that can seriously up your risk of diabetes is metabolic syndrome—a condition that also increases your chances of getting heart disease or experiencing a stroke. About 23% of adults have metabolic syndrome, according to the American Heart Association (8). The major causes are overweight or obesity, physical inactivity, genetics, and age.

To get a metabolic syndrome diagnosis, you would present at least three metabolic disorders. These disorders include a waist circumference that’s more than 40 inches for men or 35 inches or women; triglyceride counts of 150mg or more; HDL cholesterol less than 40 mg/dL for men and 50 for women; systolic blood pressure of 130mm Hg or greater or diastolic blood pressure of 85mm Hg or greater; a fasting glucose of 100mg/dL or greater.

While the numbers may seem confusing, your doctor can easily do these readings for you. That’s why it’s so important to see your doctor or dietitian, particularly if you’re experiencing any of these symptoms. A few simple lifestyle changes will also decrease your risk of metabolic syndrome, including weight loss, regular exercise, a healthy diet, and regularly checking blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels.

Now, let’s tackle what lifestyle factors can help lower your risk of metabolic syndrome, along with diabetes—particularly your diet.

Diabetes and Your Diet

Besides insulin therapy, certain foods can help keep diabetes symptoms in check. One study found that following either a low-carbohydrate or a low-fat diet will help people with diabetes lose weight (4). That’s often a top goal for diabetes suffers weight loss. Another study says that restricting certain carbohydrates is the first approach to controlling diabetes (5). In this case, the most important thing to pay attention to when controlling diabetes is choosing complex carbohydrates (think beans, whole grains, and vegetables) and cutting back on sugar (limiting desserts or even sky-high juices and yogurts).

Keep in mind, simple changes can lead to big results in terms of diabetes control. For starters, make sure to fill half your plate with vegetables. While vegetables are also carbohydrates, they won’t spike your blood sugar as quickly as foods like white bread or rice. The best veggie choices are artichoke, asparagus, Brussel sprouts, beets, sprouts, and tomatoes. Always go for whole grains, rather than processed, white grains. Starchy vegetables (like pumpkin, squash, potato, and green peas) are also smart choices. With diabetes, you’ll also want lean protein sources, like lentils and beans, fish and seafood, poultry and eggs.

Another good choice for curing a sweet tooth for diabetes sufferers is fruit. Just make sure you’re eating fresh fruits or frozen ones without added sugar. Watch portion sizes, too, sticking with 1/2-cup to one-cup servings, or just two tablespoons of dried fruits a day.

Diabetes-Friendly Recipes

Craving something sweet? Check out these low-sugar smoothies.

If you’re having trouble getting more veggies in your day, which also means fiber! We know that fiber helps slow digestion and the release of blood sugar into our bodies which can help prevent the roller coaster of blood sugar highs and lows. If you’re looking for more vegetable-rich recipes, check out all of ours on the Recipe page or follow this guide to going more plant-centric.

Our reader favorites when it comes to eating more plant-based meals:

Exercise and Diabetes

Another important way to help control diabetes: Get in those steps! The American Diabetes Association recommends leaving your seat and moving around at least every 30 minutes (6). In other words, don’t sit at your desk for more than a half hour at a time. Get up and mingle with co-workers or take a walk around the block. Also, the CDC currently recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate exercises, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous activity, such as running. Besides just standing more, you’ll want to break a sweat, too.


  1. Living with Diabetes” Diabetes Research Institute Foundation.
  2. Type 1 Diabetes.” American Diabetes Association.
  3. Gestational Diabetes.” American Diabetes Association.
  4. Nichola J. Davis, MD, MS, Nora Tomuta, MD, Clyde Schechter, MD, Carmen R. Isasi, MD, PHD, C.J. Segal-Isaacson, EDD, RD, Daniel Stein, MD, Joel Zonszein, MD, Judith Wylie-Rosett, EDD, RD. (2009, July.) Comparative Study of the Effects of a 1-Year Dietary Intervention of a Low-Carbohydrate Diet Versus a Low-Fat Diet on Weight and Glycemic Control in Type 2 Diabetes.
  5.  Richard D.FeinmanPh.D., Wendy K.PogozelskiPh.D., ArneAstrupM.D., Richard K.BernsteinM.D., Eugene J.FineM.S., M.D., Eric C.WestmanM.D., M.H.S., AnthonyAccursoM.D., LyndaFrassettoM.D., Barbara A.GowerPh.D., Samy I.McFarlaneM.D., Jörgen VestiNielsenM.D., ThureKrarupM.D., LauraSaslowPh.D., Karl S.RothM.D., Mary C.VernonM.D., Jeff S.VolekR.D., Ph.D., Gilbert B.WilshireM.D., AnnikaDahlqvistM.D.NicolaiWormPh.D. (2015, January). Dietary carbohydrate restriction as the first approach in diabetes management: Critical review and evidence base.
  6. American Diabetes Association Issues Recommendations for Physical Activity, Exercise.” AJMC.
  7. Get Active!” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  8. About Metabolic Syndrome.” American Heart Association.