Eating right is the key to managing type 2 diabetes. Good food choices are critical for people with diabetes who want to reduce their risks for heart disease, stroke, and other health problems caused by diabetes.
“When someone is diagnosed with type 2 diabetes, they often have a sense that eating and food are things to be conquered,” says Michelle May, MD, a board-certified family physician who practices in Phoenix. That feeling can seem overwhelming. In fact, says Dr. May, some people may eat before they are hungry, motivated by the fear of having hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar. For better control of diabetes, May counsels her patients to employ mindful eating techniques, an approach to food that can help them manage their diets and their lives.
Mindful eating focuses on tuning in to one’s body to recognize basic hunger signals and notice early hypoglycemic symptoms, like feeling dizzy or shaky, and then eating with increased awareness — paying attention to every bite of food. “You have to be prepared to eat when you need to, to respond to your body’s signs,” says May.
Mindful Eating Ends Diabetes Diet Frustrations
May describes mindful eating as “eating with intention and attention.” Instead of thinking about “being good” or adhering to a diabetes diet, May says diabetes patients should be thinking about why, when, what, and how they eat.
A diabetes patient using mindful eating techniques may express intention as “I want to feel well,” “I want to be healthy,” or even “I want to enjoy the food at this party.” Mindful eaters pay attention to the eating experience by “being in the present moment and noticing how good the food tastes,” says May, “and [being aware that] as you eat, the enjoyment decreases as you get used to the flavors and become sated.” That’s your cue to stop eating.
Paying more attention to when, why, how, and what you eat sounds easy. But “many things can influence your choices and your awareness,” May warns. Among the most common distractions to avoid are eating while driving, eating while watching television, and focusing on cleaning your plate rather than on the food itself. Such habits, May says, not only distract people from what they’re eating, but also from the simple pleasure of eating.
Using mindful eating makes the food you eat much more satisfying. People who are keenly aware of what and how they are eating are “more likely to enjoy flavors and textures and the ambience of the eating experience,” May says, and they may also enjoy their lives more fully. “If you eat too much, you feel lethargic and regretful; if you eat the right amount, you feel energetic, content, and ready for your next activity,” she explains.
Mindful Eating in Practice
Mindful eating can help you successfully manage diabetes and get your weight under control, two problems that often go hand in hand. When you’re overweight, says mindful eating practitioner JoAnn Martin, 68, of Phoenix, all you think about is food — “what can I eat and when can I eat it?” With mindful eating, Martin learned how to get her food cues from her head rather than her stomach.
Martin is the mother of seven and had gained more weight after every pregnancy, peaking at 300 pounds. She has had diabetes for decades and started needing insulin injections in the early 1970s, eventually developing insulin resistance. “My sugar was so out of control,” says Martin, who realized that she had to lose weight to avoid risking her life.
After trying many other diets, Martin enrolled in May’s “Am I Hungry?” class, having heard about it through her health insurer. Though it took time for all the information she learned to register, eventually it clicked. By practicing mindful eating, Martin says, she was able to control what and how much she eats: “All of a sudden you get this little voice in your head that says ‘You can stop’ or ‘You’ve had enough.’”
Being conscious of when to put down the fork has enabled Martin to lose 60 pounds and get better control of her diabetes as well. As May explains, mindful eating can make you feel less like a slave to a diabetes diet and help you enjoy food in a healthy manner.