Approximately 25.8 million children and adults in the United States (8.3 percent of the total population) have diabetes. While not every diabetic needs medication, many people control their symptoms through insulin or oral medications. However, there is a way to possibly reduce or even eliminate your need for medications if you are diabetic.
“If a patient has diabetes, but loses weight, there is a huge potential that they might reverse diabetes [symptoms] and get off of their medications,” says Dr. Islam Eltarawy, M.D., an internal medicine physician at Piedmont Physicians Group. “We always encourage our patients to exercise and watch what they eat.”
Carbohydrates and blood sugar levels
Carbohydrates are important for your health because your body uses them as fuel. However, it is important to distinguish between simple and complex carbs. Dr. Eltarawy says carbohydrates have a major impact on blood sugar levels, so begin by watching your intake.
“If we eat too many carbs, especially simple carbs, they can raise the blood sugar pretty fast and [are digested] fast,” he says. “You get into that vicious cycle of feeling hungry because your sugar levels drop and then you eat simple carbs again. This will cause your sugar to spike and drop again.”
Simple carbohydrates are also called simple sugars and are chemically made of one or two sugars. They are most commonly found in processed foods, like white bread, candy, sugary juices or soft drinks, and table sugar. Simple carbs can lead to cravings, overeating and swings in blood sugar. While dairy products and fruits contain simple sugars, they are a healthier option than processed food because they contain essential vitamins and nutrients the body needs.
Complex carbohydrates can be found in whole grains, legumes and vegetables. This type of carb contains fiber, which keeps you full and improves digestion. Complex carbohydrates also help stabilize your blood sugar levels and keep you energized between meals.
Healthy foods containing COMPLEX carbohydrates:
- Starchy vegetables
- Whole grain breads
Foods containing SIMPLE carbohydrates:
- Soda & fruit juice
- Candies & cakes
- Corn syrup & table sugar
- Bread made with white flour
- Pasta made with white flour
- All baked goods made with white flour
- Most packaged cereals
How exercise impacts blood sugar
“Exercise has a huge effect on blood sugar,” says Dr. Eltarawy. “For example, if you are running or walking, you will immediately lower your blood sugar. If a person has mild diabetes, they can actually control [their symptoms] with something as simple as walking every day for half an hour.”
Strenuous exercise, such as heavy weightlifting, can affect blood sugar levels differently. Blood sugar levels will still lower immediately, but they could also keep lowering after the workout. Talk with your doctor before beginning any new exercise routine, especially if it is strenuous.
“If someone is on insulin or diabetes medication, there is a very delicate balance between the dosage of medication and the blood sugar levels when starting a new exercise program,” Dr. Eltarawy explains. “The more you exercise, the lower dosage of insulin or oral medicine you will need.”
Insulin produced by the pancreas helps regulate carbohydrates and fat metabolism in the body. He cautions that a new exercise program should be discussed and reviewed by your doctor and possibly a dietician.
“We can adjust [caloric intake] and the medications you need as you are doing your exercise program,” he says.
To avoid diabetes in the first place, limit your intake of simple carbohydrates, such as candy and sugary drinks; eat complex carbohydrates; aim to walk at least 30 minutes every day; and add more movement throughout your day by parking the car further away at the grocery story or taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
“Just simple things like this can help you avoid diabetes,” says Dr. Eltarawy.