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Nutrition & Mental Health

STUDENT CONTRIBUTOR: Michael Sheng | School of Nutrition, Ryerson University

January 26, 2021

Knowing what foods we should and shouldn’t be eating can be really confusing, especially when we are required to make changes to our lifestyle that we weren't ready for, don't enjoy or wouldn't otherwise make voluntarily. There is evidence to support that food and nutrition plays a pretty major role in both our physical and mental health and wellbeing. In simpler terms, what we eat may also affect the way we feel.

When managing diabetes, food and nutrition plays a key role. Contrary to popular belief, diabetes is not caused by eating too much sugar, nor does it mean the end of all desserts, sweets, and treats. Granted, it is extremely important for people with diabetes to closely monitor their diet and lifestyle, it’s also important to find ways to enjoy what you eat. Substitutions and limitations of certain foods and drinks are common when discussing how to balance meals for optimal blood sugar management, but total restriction can be dangerous and often leads to disordered eating.

I just can't get enough...

Most of us know what it's like to have cravings. Many times, those cravings are a result of emotional discomfort, and we use those sweet and tasty, melt-in-your-mouth foods to help make us feel better.

A previous T1D Academy blog post that touched on intuitive eating provides tips and trick to help better manage cravings, like taking some time to reflect on how you’re feeling and asking yourself questions like:

  1. Am I actually hungry right now, or am I eating for pleasure?

  2. How has my day/week been? Is there any emotional distress in my life?

  3. If I eat this treat, will it make me feel better?

Other ways to manage cravings include recording how much you eat, and reflecting on how you feel after having eaten it. Did the snack satisfy you? This is important to acknowledge, as - without it - we can often go down the path of binge eating.

Binge eating is characterized by eating large amounts of food in a short time, feeling out of control with your eating habits, and compulsively eating a lot of high calorie snacks between meals. Binge eating can turn into a dangerous eating disorder that has been proven to intensify challenges and barriers to mental health and wellbeing.

Research shows that 9% of people with type 2 diabetes suffer from eating disorders, with binge eating being listed as the most common. Binge eating is also seen amongst many people in the type 1 diabetes population, especially in girls and young women. It is also reported that 50% of people who binge eat have had depression at some point in life.

So how does binge eating start? What can we do to manage it? Binge eating is often a result of restrictive diets leading to overwhelming hunger and cravings, explaining why binge eating is common for people with diabetes. This is exactly why learning how to incorporate treats into our diets in a healthy way helps to avoid restriction and teach moderation. Many people diagnosed with diabetes need to make adjustments to what and how much they eat, but nobody likes a restrictive diet.

Limiting highly processed and refined carbohydrates like white rice, sugary cereals, juice, pop, chocolate, chips and candies. These lead to a quick rise and fall in blood sugar levels, leaving you hungry shortly after. Sometimes, these fast-acting sugars lead to a delayed insulin response, which can cause your body to overshoot and product more insulin than required; leading to low blood sugar, then making us hungry again. Take some time to learn about the Glycemic Index - a tool that rates foods based on their carbohydrate content and how quickly they raise blood sugars. Try to include more low-GI foods like whole grains, oatmeal, fruits, and legumes.

Managing Lifestyle Habits

A big issue that often arises for people with diabetes (or anyone trying to follow a restrictive diet) is the development of such eating disorders and destructive lifestyle habits. It can be difficult to balance health and emotional wellbeing, so be aware of and stay alert to the following habits you'll want to steer clear of:

1. Skipping meals

Skipping meals is a sign of bulimia nervosa, a potentially life-threatening eating disorder characterized by the binging of food followed by purging. The most identifiable traits of bulimia are induced vomiting, excessive exercise, or skipping meals. This behaviour can result in heart problems, nutrient deficiencies, and kidney failure. Especially in the context of managing diabetes, skipping meals can result in hypoglycaemia or low blood sugar, which - at best, makes you feel tired and irritable, but an also be life-threatening.

2. Cutting out entire food groups

No food is inherently good or bad, it depends on what your diet looks like as a whole, so don’t feel the need to swear off pasta forever! Not only does this limit all the different foods you can eat, it is also a surefire way to become deficient in nutrients like omega-3, zinc, iron, vitamin D, magnesium, and B vitamins. Restriction is also linked with worsening mood and mental wellbeing. While the new Canada’s Food Guide does not follow a food groups approach, it does recommend filling ½ your plate with fruits and vegetables, a ¼ of your plate with whole grains and/or starches, and a ¼ of your plate with lean meat or plant-based protein foods in order to ensure balanced, nutritious meals.


All treat, no trick!

Many times, our cravings can be linked back to some sort of emotional discomfort, and we have a tendency to rely on food to feel better. To combat this, try a fun activity to boost your mood and reflect on whether or not you have a true craving.

For example, take the time to cook your own meals. This gives a sense of accomplishment and provides an opportunity for creativity. Have some fun with meal planning, explore what works for you; you'll discover that taste and health can coexist on your plate. Home-cooking, a.k.a. ‘kitchen-therapy’, is shown to be beneficial for those dealing with anxiety, depression, ADHD, addiction, and eating disorders.

A tasty treat that's safe for people with diabetes to incorporate in their kitchen-therapy efforts is to make and enjoy some homemade hot cocoa! Studies link cocoa with a decreased risk for type-2 diabetes due to natural flavanols and antioxidants found in cocoa. The next time you have chocolate cravings (and who doesn’t every once in a while?), making your own hot cocoa from scratch can be a relaxing activity to lift your mood without the blood sugar spike, since homemade treats usually have less added sugar than store-bought alternatives.

The main risk associated with desserts for people with diabetes is the carbohydrate content, so look for portion-controlled, healthy alternatives to simple carbohydrates that will satisfy your cravings; try cheesecake, hummus, sunflower seeds, or nuts. Just make sure you don’t abandon carbohydrates all together, as you may be putting yourself at risk of missing out on all the benefits provided by the energy and fibre they have to offer.

Always consult your doctor or speak with a Registered Dietitian when looking for evidenced-based, safe nutrition and lifestyle advice. We're here for you!

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