It’s true – managing type 2 diabetes with diet and exercise is possible. In this article I’m going to share some practical, evidence-based tips showing you how to manage the condition effectively yourself.
I’ve written this article in response to a request from a personal training client, because his father has recently been diagnosed as a type 2 diabetic. None of this is intended as medical advice, more a framework for good practice if you suffer from (or are at risk of) diabetes. If you suffer from the condition then you should always consult a doctor.
Now that’s out of the way, lets discuss a few practical tips that will aid you in managing your Type 2 diabetes with diet and exercise…
What is type 2 diabetes?
Diabetes can largely be grouped into two main types. The first one, type 1, is where your pancreas doesn’t produce enough insulin, so your body can’t control blood sugar levels. The treatment in this case is usually an insulin injection that you’ll administer yourself. The second one, type 2, is where over a prolonged period your insulin has become less sensitive, meaning your body needs help to control its blood sugar. It’s often linked to obesity or at least being overweight for a prolonged period.
Whereas type 2 diabetics are born with the condition, in most cases type 2 diabetes is generally a result of poor lifestyle choices, namely an over-consumption of calories and a lack of regular exercise. Once you have the condition, the treatment options will depend on the severity of your symptoms. There are some anecdotal reports suggesting that some patients with a mild version of the problem have managed to reverse their symptoms, effectively ‘curing’ themselves of the disease.
This article is a series of steps I’d suggest anyone suffering from type 2 diabetes takes, with justifications for each. I’ll cover self-monitoring of your blood sugars, nutritional approaches and exercise habits.
Managing type 2 diabetes with diet and exercise
To make this practical guide more user friendly, I’m going to separate the advice into three distinct sections – diet, exercise and lifestyle. If you combine the three, you’ve got an excellent chance of reducing the severity of your condition and improving a lot of other health markers associated with diabetes.
Dietary guidance for managing type 2 diabetes
Fundamentally diabetes is a problem metabolising carbohydrates, so addressing your carbohydrate consumption is a very strong first step. If you’re sensitive to gluten, you’d avoid it. If a particular washing powder made your skin react, you wouldn’t use it. Consider yourself in a similar boat with carbohydrates – you don’t have to avoid them altogether, but you certainly have to limit their consumption.
Carbohydrates include foods such as bread, pasta, rice, potatoes, sweets, noodles, sweet potatoes, squash, cakes etc. Aim for a small portion, once per day and make sure it’s on a day you’re exercising. A good rule of thumb could be to not eat carbs you haven’t earned.
Instead, prioritise your consumption of good quality protein (lean meat, fish, eggs) and high fibre fruit and vegetables (broccoli, blueberries, sweetcorn, carrots, peas, apples, tomatoes, cucumber, cabbage etc).
Taking a multivitamin supplement, a vitamin D supplement and a fish oil is helpful too. I see them as a nutritional insurance that will plug any mineral gaps in your diet. It takes a few seconds (I take mine last thing at night when I’m in bed) and will help to keep your vitamin and mineral levels high.
Keep yourself well hydrated with water. Avoid sugary drinks at all costs, because frankly they’re full of sugar (a nightmare for you as a diabetic), they’re not great when it comes to hydrating and they’re also high in calories. Coffee and tea are fine, but don’t have any sugar or cream in it. Perhaps a skimmed or semi-skimmed milk only.
- Keep your consumption of carbs low – only consume a small portion, once per day on a day where you’re exercising
- Prioritise protein and fibre – lots of meat, fish, eggs and plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables
- For nutritional insurance, take a multivitamin, a vitamin D and fish oil supplement every night
- Drink a lot of water – avoid sugary drinks like the plague. If you’re drinking coffee and tea, don’t add sugar and stick to skimmed or semi-skimmed milk
Exercise to help manage type 2 diabetes
Exercise is one of the best ways to manage what’s known as your insulin sensitivity – how effective the insulin you produce is. Recent studies show that exercise and insulin sensitivity has a dose-response relationship, so the more high intensity exercise you do, the more your insulin sensitivity is improved.
High intensity exercise is of course dependent on the person, but essentially it’s short burst, hard effort exercise known as HIIT (high intensity interval training). You would train for 30-45 minutes or so at a high intensity and that would be it. You’d have no need to spend hours on a treadmill or bike for example. Short, sharp and very effective training. You can do HIIT with weights, with cardio or a mixture of the two. It helps with exercise variety and prevents you from getting bored.
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Here’s the thing with exercise – it’s burning off a lot of your sugars, so is helping you to control your diabetes. It’s doing some of the work for your insulin, so the demands placed on it are a lot lower. By burning your sugar as fuel, there’s less sugar for the insulin to deal with, if that makes sense.
With that in mind, you should consider exercise as medicine and use it as a daily practice. You don’t have to do a daily HIIT workout, but you should certainly be active every single day. Whether that’s as simple as going for a 30 minute walk, a daily workout at the gym or a daily swim, move your body EVERY DAY.
If I were you though, I’d be shooting for a minimum of 4 HIIT sessions per week on a day on, day off basis and on my ‘off’ days, get a good walk, swim or cycle in. Always remember that exercise is medicine.
- High intensity exercise is key – the more you can do, the better
- Train daily – even if it’s not always HIIT work, move your body every day
- Exercise is medicine and helps to burn blood sugar, so make life easier for your insulin
- HIIT workouts should be high intensity but only last 30-45 minutes
- Exercise helps to improve the effectiveness of your insulin
Lifestyle advice for managing the condition
This is general advice that will help you to keep control of your condition and improve your overall health. These are simple, actionable tips that done correctly will transform your life…
Know your numbers by monitoring
Half of the battle when it comes to managing your diabetes is knowing what your blood sugar levels are. By using a free glucose monitor you can be kept aware of your sugars, especially in response to food and exercise. I’d suggest you perform frequent tests to build up a ‘personal data set’ on how your body reacts to certain food and exercise choices. That way you’ll know the best way to manage your condition.
High quality sleep is one of the bedrocks of great health. There is solid research that shows improved sleep helps to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce insulin resistance. Furthermore, good quality sleep helps you to regulate your appetite better, so you won’t be constantly tempted by poor quality food choices.
Many people find comfort in food, so understanding your triggers and avoiding stress can help you to turn away from poor quality food choices. Stress happens, so being more proactive in dealing with it, building your resilience and teaching yourself how to cope with difficult situations without resorting to food or booze will help you.
Effectively managing type 2 diabetes yourself…
Being diagnosed with type 2 diabetes is one thing, but how you respond is another. If you take a passive approach to your treatment, relying on medication to bail you out whilst you continue to make poor lifestyle choices, you’ll suffer the worst effects of the condition (which can include peripheral neuropathy, blindness, impaired wound healing, leading to infection and amputation).
If you decide to take a proactive approach, you can dramatically reduce the severity of your condition and in some cases may even be able to come off medication. I wouldn’t be willing to jump on the ‘cure is possible’ bandwagon just yet, because the evidence isn’t strong enough so far. You can however, give yourself the best possible chance of avoiding the worst of the problem and lead a long, full and healthy life.
By following the advice in this article, you’ll make yourself much fitter and healthier, which in turn will cure or prevent a whole host of other problems you may have or be at risk of.
Eat well, exercise well, life a good life and you’ll avoid diabetes or at worst, reduce it’s impact!
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