In our summer edition of Diabetes Matters, we’re looking at some of the most popular diets and eating styles and helping you decide which approach to food might work for you. Read our other Eating Style articles here.
Low carb diets are often put forward as a good way to help manage diabetes, weight loss and blood glucose levels. But not all carbohydrates are created equal.
The topic of carbohydrates can be very confusing when it comes to managing diabetes, with many conflicting messages either promoting or demonising carbohydrate
What we do know is that not all carbohydrate foods are created equal. Low glycaemic index (GI) foods such as wholegrain bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, legumes, lentils, buckwheat and quinoa contain fibre which slows down digestion, giving us a slow, steady rise in blood glucose levels, keeping us feeling fuller for longer. High GI foods such as pastries, chips, confectionery, cakes and biscuits break down into glucose quickly which spikes our blood glucose levels. We can’t paint all carbohydrate foods with the same brush – some will help to stabilise our blood glucose levels and others won’t.
We often hear the term ‘low carb’ used to describe a new food product, a new diet or style of eating. The fact is, there isn’t a specific number or criteria to define exactly what ‘low carb’ means. A diet termed ‘low carb’ could mean anywhere between 20g to 200g of carbohydrates per day (between 10% and 45% of your daily energy intake).
With any low carb diet, foods high in fat and protein are increased to replace carbohydrate-rich foods. Foods high in good quality fats and protein can help to make us feel fuller for longer which can also have a positive impact on our blood glucose levels.
However, like carbohydrates, not all fats are created equal. Healthy fats from plants or seafood are known to offer protection against some serious conditions, but eating too much of the wrong type of fat – saturated fats such as animal fats – can have negative effects on our health.
Professor Grant Brinkworth is one of the authors of The CSIRO Low-carb Diabetes Everyday guide, a new book designed to help people with diabetes adapt their eating habits to reduce carbohydrate intake, while focusing on including good quality carbohydrates in addition to healthy fats and protein. The guide is based loosely on a research paper that reviewed 23 studies on the impact of low carb diets for people with type 2 diabetes. Low carb diets were defined as those as containing less than 130g of carbohydrates per day.
“If you look at what the CSIRO low-carb diet is, it’s really just grounded in the core nutrition principles of healthy eating,” Grant says. “I don’t think it’s too radical, because it’s still using the same food people are already consuming, we’re just changing the portions.”
One important element of the CSIRO diet is it’s a complete diet (meaning that, if followed properly, it won’t lead to the nutritional deficiencies that can result from simply reducing carbs), it will work for those living with diabetes, without putting them at risk of other chronic conditions.
“I think as an Australian population, we could all do better in terms of improving our nutritional quality.”
Packed with recipes and food plans, The CSIRO Low-carb Diabetes Everyday guide helps Australians living with diabetes to follow this way of eating without feeling overwhelmed. But Grant stresses there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to going low carb.
“The guide enables people and empowers people to personalise their plan and tailor it to their personal preferences, energy requirements, or weight loss goals, if that’s how they want to use the plan.”
The guide lays out how many serves of each of the food groups Australians should be eating each day, empowering the reader to identify how much food they need to reach their nutrition and energy requirements.
“What it does is it enables you to select ingredients that you want to consume as part of your eating plan and helps you consume them in the right quantities. And then it helps you mix and match those ingredients as you see fit.”
The intention is to balance prescription with flexibility, providing guidelines that can be bent to fit the reader’s needs.
Grant hopes that books such as The CSIRO Low-carb Diabetes Everyday will help clear up some of the confusion around which diets are mere wellness fads and which diets actually have concrete benefits.
“All the all the diet plans CSIRO has put out into the community are grounded in strong scientific evidence. We’re trying to translate the science into simple self help guides.”
Individuals on low carb diets have demonstrated significant improvement on blood glucose control, triglyceride levels and weight at six months compared to individuals on a low fat diet, although one study suggests the majority of these benefits had diminished by 12 months. It is difficult to know whether the lack of any demonstrated long-term benefit is due to the diet itself or the fact that people tend to drift away from its principles as time goes on.
Melissa Robinson, one of Diabetes WA’s dietitians and educators, says that sticking with any one diet can be hard. People might find it more helpful to make small, sustainable changes to their current diet.
“We don’t yet know the ‘ideal’ amount of carbohydrate that someone living with diabetes should eat each day,” Melissa says. “For some, improving the quality or reducing the quantity of carbohydrates in their diet may be one option to help them manage their diabetes. Small changes can make a big difference over time!”
Individuals with diabetes, in particular those on insulin or medication that increases the risk of hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose), should test more frequently when reducing their intake of carbohydrates, to avoid blood glucose levels dropping too low. But if you are looking for some new, tasty and healthy recipes with lower amounts of carbohydrates, The CSIRO Low-carb Diabetes Everyday guide may be a good place to start.