Diabetes has become a global epidemic. In fact, over 8 percent of the world’s population—about 382 million people—are estimated to be living with diabetes. Ninety percent of those folks have type 2 diabetes. According to the American Diabetes Association, the annual cost of diagnosed diabetes in the US is $327 billion.
If you’re living with type 2 diabetes, day-to-day management of your blood sugar levels can be frustrating. But what if basic changes in your lifestyle could alleviate your diabetes symptoms?
Over the past two decades research has shown that what you eat may be the key to releasing the hold of type 2 diabetes on your life. This article combines simple guidance from both Western medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) on how to eat a type 2 diabetes diet to help you successfully manage the disease.
What is Type 2 Diabetes?
From a TCM perspective, diabetes is known as “xiao ke,” which means “wasting thirst.” TCM categorizes diabetes, or xiao ke, into three types: the upper type, which is characterized by excessive thirst; the middle, by excessive hunger; and the lower, by excessive urination. All three types are associated with yin deficiency. Over the course of the disease, most people will experience symptoms of all three types.
Eu Yan Sang TCM physician Anita Pee says, “TCM practitioners believe that diabetes is due to a yin deficiency in the body. This means that a person has “excessive heat” in the body. This imbalance may be due to consuming too many fatty or sweet foods, which deplete yin energy, resulting in too much heat in the body.” She also says emotional or mental disturbances such as stress or depression can cause stagnant qi, which causes excessive internal heat. In addition, from a TCM point of view, too much or overly frequent sexual activity depletes kidney essence and yin in the body.
Additional symptoms and complications of diabetes include peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage that can cause numbness in limbs); dry and itchy skin; poor wound healing; kidney dysfunction, digestive problems (gastroparesis), and diabetic retinopathy — eye damage to the blood vessels of the retinas, which can potentially lead to vision loss.
However, type 2 diabetes is largely preventable. Eating healthier foods and exercising regularly can help. Lifestyle changes such as cutting down on sugar intake and processed carbohydrates, as well as quitting smoking, also can help to prevent type 2 diabetes.
But what if you have been diagnosed with type 2 diabetes? Improving your quality of life might be as simple as changing what you eat — and reinforcing the benefits with TCM.
Type 2 Diabetes Diet
Making some changes to your diet can help you get your diabetes under control and feel better. In fact, it can be possible to achieve remission of type 2 diabetes. This is mainly the result of weight loss.
How does weight loss help relieve your diabetes? It works by reducing fat in the pancreas. That can increase insulin sensitivity and help restore normal insulin production.
Below is a simple breakdown of foods to eat and foods to avoid. This list can be a great way to start eating a healthy type 2 diabetes diet. Be sure to consult your doctor or a nutritionist before making changes to your diet.
What to eat
Cutting down on added sugars and unhealthy fats is an important starting point as you think about how to manage diabetes with a healthy type 2 diabetes diet. Make sure to fill your plate with plenty of veggies, a source of lean protein, healthy fats, and some whole grains.
Fruits and vegetables
Eat the “rainbow” of colorful blue/purple, orange/yellow, deep green, and red fruits and vegetables.
Aim to get about 25 to 30 grams of fiber a day from raw vegetables and grains. You can do that by eating 3.5 ounces of whole grains, 1 cup of cooked beans, 2-3 servings of fruits, 7 ounces of broccoli, ½ cup of leafy greens (kale, spinach), 1 tablespoon of flaxseeds, and a handful of mixed nuts.
As mentioned above, make sure to include nutrient-dense, fiber-rich whole grains in your diet. That said, you may need to stick with rice (brown rice is best), millet, buckwheat, amaranth, and oats if you have any allergies or gluten sensitivity to wheat, rye, and barley.
If you are a meat-eater, make sure you stick with lean sources of protein. Go for skinless poultry, eggs, legumes, and fish. Plant-based proteins include organic tofu or tempeh, lentils, and beans. Keep in mind that some meatless, plant-based alternatives may contain more sodium, so check the label first.
Not all fat is bad. In fact, your body needs healthy sources of fat to run properly. These include omega-3 fats, which are found in fish such as salmon, walnuts, ground flax, flaxseed oil, and avocados. Also, try using mono- and polyunsaturated oils, such as olive, avocado, and safflower oils, when cooking and on salads. They are anti-inflammatory and heart-healthy.
Snack on nuts to get healthy protein and fat in your diet. Try pecans, walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, and cashews. You can also enjoy a couple of tablespoons of almond or cashew butter. A quick breakfast or snack could include apple slices spread with almond butter.
What to avoid
Avoiding the following foods, or eating them in moderation, will help you to maintain a stable blood sugar level and keep weight off. These are two important keys to a successful type 2 diabetes diet plan.
Food and beverages high in sugar
Avoid baked goods, candy, chocolate, and sweetened beverages, including sodas, juices, and energy drinks. If you crave something sweet, eat a piece of fruit.
Don’t eat foods containing high levels of unhealthy fats. Remove full-fat dairy, processed and fast foods, and red meat from your diet. You’ll sharply reduce your intake of saturated and trans fats.
Stay away from starchy foods and highly-processed carbohydrates, such as potatoes, white rice, pasta, corn, white bread, and some cereals.
Limit full-fat dairy products in your diet. Instead, choose skim milk or low-fat yogurt (that’s not sweetened). You may also want to try nut-based almond or cashew milk as an alternative.
Drink alcohol in moderation (1 drink per day for adult women; 2 drinks per day for adult men). Alcohol consumption can cause hypoglycemia when combined with the medications most often used to treat diabetes-particularly insulin and sulfonylureas. Do not drink alcohol on an empty stomach, this will also lead to hypoglycemia.
Managing Type 2 Diabetes with TCM Remedies
In addition to following a healthy diabetes diet plan, you can incorporate some other TCM practices to manage your diabetes. TCM can complement conventional medicine in the treatment of diabetes. Plus, it can help to reduce the risks associated with certain medications.
Note that when TCM is used along with western medication, it should be done under the guidance of both a qualified TCM practitioner and a Western/conventional medical professional.
TCM herbs for diabetes
A TCM practitioner can recommend herbal supplements to help manage diabetes based on the patient’s predominant symptoms. For example, huang qi (astragalus root) can help to boost qi (vital energy) and improve persistent fatigue. Tian Hua Fen (trichosanthes root) helps to clear heat and generate fluids. It is recommended for excessive thirst. These herbs can be taken until blood sugar levels are under control. They come in a capsule formula for easy consumption.
There are several other TCM herbs you can try to help manage diabetes symptoms. These include black garlic, Chinese yam, goji berries (also known as wolfberries), bitter gourd or bitter melon, and corn silk. While these may not always be found at your local grocery store, you may be able to find them at an Asian or specialty grocery store. You also may be able to order them online, particularly in supplement form.
Acupuncture for diabetes
Acupuncture (both body and/or ear) performed by a licensed acupuncturist is another TCM treatment that can help you manage your type 2 diabetes.
Making some different choices about what you eat, working with a TCM practitioner to determine the best herbal treatments for you, and using acupuncture gives you a comprehensive way to manage your type 2 diabetes.
- American Diabetes Association. N.d. The Cost of Diabetes. [Accessed 18 November 2021]
- Endotext. 2019. Nutritional Recommendations for Individuals with Diabetes. [Accessed 18 November 2021]
- Lancet. 2014. Prevention and Management of Type 2 Diabetes: Dietary Components and Nutritional Strategies. [Accessed 18 November 2021]