Diabetes and Diet Culture

There is a strong intersection between diabetes, diet culture and disordered eating behaviours. People are taught to think that there is only one way to eat for diabetes, and that everyone should “eat as though we have diabetes”, in an effort to reduce our risks of developing diabetes. We realize more and more how stigmatizing the diagnosis of diabetes has been. People assume that if you have diabetes (more specifically type 2), it’s because you ate too much sugar, and that’s bad.

But is it really that simple? Should we actually be posing judgment and prejudice on individuals with this chronic illness?

What is type 1 diabetes?

Type one diabetes is an autoimmune condition that decides to attack the insulin producing cells in the pancreas. So essentially, the body no longer produces insulin.

Insulin is needed for the processing and digestion of carbohydrates. Without insulin, glucose (a building block for carbohydrates) build up in the bloodstream. This can lead to really, really elevated blood sugars, which can ultimately lead to death, if it’s not controlled.

There are many different types of diabetes and none of them are caused by eating too much sugar. Some of them can be related to lifestyle factors, but it’s not lifestyle factors alone that will result in anyone developing diabetes. There are environmental factors, stress, genetic predisposition etc. All of these need to be considered when making a diagnosis.

Diet Culture and Diabetes

Anytime you have a health condition that requires altered food consumption as treatment, you are putting people at risk for eating disorders and a poor relationship with food.

With type 1 diabetes, you need to count your carbohydrates and read food labels. That is what is going to determine how much insulin your body needs in order to avoid scary high/low blood sugars and ensure your body functions properly.

Diet culture has taken this “carbs are bad” model and targeted people with diabetes even more. Now, logically, people will think “since carbs cause diabetes, I just won’t eat carbs and there won’t be a problem”.

But that’s actually not how it works. There is a whole other set of metabolic processes that happen in the body that need carbohydrates, and for people with diabetes, they just need t go about it in a smart way. It becomes a slippery slope trying to avoid being too restrictive and regimented, while it’s also part of managing your blood sugar in a safe way.

Media representation of Diabetes

There are many people on social media who make jokes about eating cookies and doughnuts and saying it will cause diabetes. It’s understandable where these jokes come from, because that’s what we are taught! However, these type of comments and beliefs aren’t helpful. It only makes people who are diagnosed with diabetes feel ashamed of their diagnosis. Because of this, people don’t seek the proper medical attention they need and it makes them too afraid to eat.

Within the diabetes community, there’s very much this polarizing “type 1 versus type 2” culture. A lot of people with type one are misguided and look down on people with type two, because they think “Well, I didn’t cause mine, you caused yours. And mine isn’t because of lifestyle, it’s not my fault”.

But the truth is, diabetes doesn’t care if you are a man/woman, larger body/smaller body, old/young etc. You could be anybody and the way diabetes is portrayed in the media reinforces this stigma that people with diabetes are unhealthy and continues to perpetuate diet culture!

Why should we KEEP sugar in our diet?

Contrary to popular belief, we should all keep sugar in our diet.

Yes.

Don’t take this “you need to eat sugar” the wrong way.

There is this idea that somehow added sugar is worse than naturally occurring sugar. And the problem is, our body doesn’t see it that way. I mean, sugar is sugar. However, naturally occurring sugars come with all sorts of other great vitamins and minerals, and antioxidants, and all these things that our bodies need to do well.

I’ll admit it, it’s a really tricky conversation to have as a dietitian, because you don’t want to promote rigidity around sugar, but also don’t want to neglect our bodies of other nutrients it needs to survive.

Sugar serves are your primary fuel source, so it is needed for EVERYONE. Glucose (or carbohydrates) really serve as that energy source to feel good and ready to go. Other nutrients like protein, fat and fibre (a form of carbohydrate), play a super important role for our bodies to function properly. It’s not about only having sugar, or only having protein, it’s legit about having all the types of nutrients because your body requires it.

You don’t have to give up the foods you love, it’s just about being a little smarter on how we can make those foods you love work for you. We might have to tweak some things about timing or the foods that you eat with it, but you can still eat those foods you love. The goal is NOT to take them away from you.

Everyone has the same goal, regardless of which type of diabetes you have. Everyone is trying to manage their blood sugar.

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Focus on what you can ADD vs REMOVE

Okay, now that we have set the stage for neutral nutrition when it comes to diabetes management, you’re probably thinking about food and what you’re going to eat next.

  1. The first thing you want to do is focus on what you want. What you truly
  2. Then you want to make sure you have fat, fibre and protein (your 3 keys to prevent huge spikes in blood sugar)

When you have diabetes, it takes a lot of planning and effort to be able to enjoy food sometimes. But once you figure out how your body responds, your relationship with food can change very quickly! See it as a science experiment! Putting more emphasis on what you can add as opposed to remove to your plate will make the entire planning process a lot less stressful.

For some, having a set of rules or a plan can be really helpful and make them feel secure, but not for everyone. Know that you are the expert of your own body and you have the ability to make decisions over how you want to nourish your body.

The goal is for you to feel empowered and to reclaim ownership over your body!

Developing a good relationship with food, while managing diabetes

  1. Just say no to changing who you are: Keep those foods you love. The foods that bring you joy, and the foods that really give energy. You don’t have to give those up. We don’t have to completely change who we are and what we like.
  2. Prioritize your health above your body size: “Skinny” does not equal healthy, and “overweight” does not equal unhealthy. It’s really important to remember that health is a parameter that has so many different factors attached to it.
  3. Make eating an intentional activity: Pay attention when you eat. Enjoy your food and the process of eating.
  4. Don’t eat too fast: We can’t pay attention to the signals our body is sending us when we are eating too fast. Especially when it comes to diabetes, it’s better if you can slow down and actually enjoy your food and let that digestion process happen to improve your blood sugar management.
  5. Plan out your week: This doesn’t come from a restrictive meal plan type kind of scenario. But when we have to make spontaneous food decisions repetitively, it makes blood sugar management difficult. Unfortunately, with diabetes, you do have to be prepared, you do have to plan ahead.
  6. Prioritize all meals: We’ve kind of adopted this, three meals per day culturally here. But if you need to do it differently, that’s fine, but just prioritize all your eating times.
  7. Don’t believe the hype: If something sounds too good to be true, it probably is too good to be true. A well-balanced, nutrient rich diet that allows room for all foods really is the best and most effective way to manage your well-being.

Conclusion

Diabetes management isn’t easy, let alone just having a diagnosis of diabetes. Remember that diabetes is not a diagnosis to be ashamed of, there is a way to achieve food freedom and enjoy all foods, while managing your blood sugar. The process is tricky at first, but it is possible for everyone.

🎙 MORE INFORMATION ON THIS WEEK’S PODCAST🎙

Hear me explore this topic more in depth in this week’s podcast episode, with Registered Dietitian Mary Ellen! Access it by clicking on any of the icons below!

Need support?👇

The Balanced Practice is a team of professionals specialized in eating disorder outpatient treatment, disordered eating. Our mission is to help as many folks heal their relationship with food and their bodies so they can live happily outside of diet culture!

We strive to provide evidence based nutrition counselling to support you, or your loved one, in achieving full recovery. Schedule a connection call now.

Marie-Pier Pitre-D’Iorio, RD, B.Sc.Psychology
Lead Registered Dietitian and Founder of  The Balanced Practice

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