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World Diabetes Day: South Africans can relearn how to eat well for optimum health and longevity

Today, November 14, is World Diabetes Day, a day that aims to increase awareness of the effects of diabetes and the complications caused by the disease.

Experts reveal that people with diabetes are more at risk for serious complications from the illness. For that reason, you need to do everything you can to ensure you’re in good health.

This means knowing what to eat and what not to eat. As today is World Diabetes Day, registered dietitian and Virgin Active’s expert advisor on all things nutrition shares her insights on how South Africans can relearn how to eat well for optimum health and longevity.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, as your body needs the energy to fuel it for the day. Picture: Pexels/Jane Doan

Nutrition basics 101: common sense

The cornerstone of healthy eating behaviours is to find balance through common sense, through a combination of listening to your body, eating mindfully, and being cognisant of moderation.

With time our body and taste buds adjust as we get into a natural rhythm. Do away with fad diets with extreme rules that are difficult to fit around your lifestyle, as these only work until you lose motivation or become too busy.

And ignore any eating plan that requires willpower, as it won’t be effective in the long term. Instead, listen to when your body is physiologically hungry and your blood sugar levels drop.

Practice balance by eating every three to five hours from various food groups while being mindful of portion sizes.

A healthy approach to nutrition means detangling negative emotions around food and changing our thinking and vocabulary around certain foods that are deemed to be unhealthy, naughty or inspire guilt.

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We’re allowed to eat every kind of food; small and occasional treats are allowed, as long as we practise moderation. It’s helpful to be guided by a registered dietitian or nutritionist who can create an eating plan around your physiology – age, gender, and any medical conditions or genetic predispositions.

Don’t skip breakfast

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, as your body needs the energy to fuel it for the day.

The body requires more energy during the day to think, concentrate, exercise, and partake in a range of various activities and so it works far more efficiently from a digestion and energy utilisation perspective during the daytime than at night time.

People often feel hunger pangs and sugar cravings later in the day, if they skip breakfast or have not eaten enough during the day.

This can lead to overeating in the evenings. But if you eat balanced meals with nutritious snacks during the day, those cravings will often disappear. For those who do intermittent fasting, it’s better to eat dinner earlier in the day or to eat breakfast and lunch, rather than skipping breakfast.

It’s vital to eat enough, as many of us are always on the go with little time to take a lunch break. Picture: Pexels/Klaus Nielsen

Balance and portion control

Maintaining balance is where most people struggle. It’s vital to eat enough, as many of us are always on the go with little time to take a lunch break, or where we eat far less than our body requires to function optimally because we’re trying to lose weight.

Remember that your metabolism stores energy as a future fuel reserve, when you don’t eat enough, and it tends to function normally and burn more calories the more you eat. So, when we don’t eat enough, not only are we slowing down the processes of our metabolism, but we also have the tendency to overeat later as a result. We also live in a culture where certain foods are deemed to be naughty or bad for us and induce feelings of guilt.

We should allow ourselves to eat every kind of food, even sweet and savoury treats, as long as we do so mindfully, from time to time, and with the correct portion control in mind. balance is essential as deprivation often leads to overindulgence. It’s also important to eat balanced meals that include the three macronutrients (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) with each meal.

That is a palm-size portion of protein, the thickness of your little finger; a clenched fist portion of carbohydrates; and a cupped hand of vegetables. While many fad diets deem carbohydrates to be bad for us, in reality, they are an ideal source of energy, as the body converts them to glucose to use as fuel.

Where we tend to get it wrong is that we eat far too many carbohydrates, and too many of the wrong kinds of carbohydrates – that is refined carbs that have had their fibre and roughage extracted. Instead, we should eat balanced amounts of whole-grain carbohydrates, which contain more nutrients.

We also often forgo eating wholegrain carbohydrates with dinner, but spoil ourselves with a sweet or savoury treat of refined carbohydrates afterwards, when we should be doing it the other way around. Restaurants and fast-food outlets often distort, which is why it’s important to put all of our focus on the meal in front of us when we are eating, which leads to the next point.

Spend time with your food

We eat for two reasons: because we need nutrients and also as a form of nurture because we like the way certain foods taste or their texture.

But the only way to adequately nurture yourself through food is to truly taste it by savouring it slowly. Practise mindful eating by engaging all the senses in the process – look at your food, smell it, touch it on your tongue, feel the texture in your mouth and be deliberate with your chewing to truly taste it.

Another way to truly indulge in our meals is to step away from any distractions, such as the television, computer, phone, or desk.

Take a break and bring your meals back to the dining room or cafeteria table. We need to learn how to spend time with our food, rather than gulping it down as quickly as possible.

And if you’re eating a sweet or savoury snack or treat, give it all of your attention – eat it by yourself and without any external distractions. Allow yourself to truly indulge in it without feeling guilty – knowing that you are doing so mindfully.

Eating with all the senses and doing so slowly will help to satiate you much faster. You may find that you don’t finish the entire meal or treat – save it for later.

Planning nutritious weekly meals and shopping will make you less likely to order takeaways or eat out at the spur of the moment. Picture: Pexels/Gustavo Fring

The answer is preparedness

The secret to healthy living and maintaining a balanced weight is always being prepared no matter the circumstances, understanding yourself, and knowing your habits.

Planning nutritious weekly meals and shopping will make you less likely to order takeaways or eat out at the spur of the moment.

And the more you practise meal prep the better and more creative you become. Pack a healthy and balanced lunch with snacks for work and school, rather than resorting to getting takeaways or eating at a restaurant. If you’re running errands, pack sufficient water and snacks, whether it’s a fruit, vegetable, or a treat because if you feel too hungry, you are more likely to overeat during your next meal.

If you have a tendency to overindulge in treats and snacks daily, be deliberate about not keeping them in the house, that way you will have to go out to get them each time and may be able to convince yourself otherwise.

We need to learn how to slow down a little, make food an occasion rather than another checklist item, strive for more balance, and be gentler on ourselves.

Read the latest issue of IOL Health digital magazine here.


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