Diabetes and Weight Loss: 5 Smart Ways to Shrink Your Belly

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Overweight and recently diagnosed with type 2 diabetes? Your doctor is probably encouraging you to try to lose weight. Weight loss can help get blood sugar under control and avoid the need for medication. Shedding just 5 to 10 percent of your body weight -- 10 to 20 pounds, for a 200-pound woman -- can lower blood sugar.

Forget counting calories, though. A diabetic is better off changing the way he or she eats, says Beth Reardon, director of nutrition at Duke University's Duke Integrative Medicine. "There are no 'magic bullet' foods," she says. "Instead of thinking about calories-in, calories-out, focus on changing your lifestyle -- you'll lose weight and improve your blood sugar."

Try these key ideas to help send all your numbers in the right direction:

Baby Your Pancreas to Lose Weight -- by Choosing the Right Carbs

When you're diabetic, your pancreas is worn out from working so hard to produce insulin to process the glucose building up in the blood. Simple sugars and starches, like those in processed grains, sugary foods, most baked goods, and fruits or juices flood the system quickly with sugar. Instead, Reardon advocates showing your pancreas "loving kindness" by choosing healthier carbs -- those that are slow to absorb in the bloodstream and rich in fiber.

Remember that carbs aren't just in grains. Amp up your vegetable intake, and eat a serving or two of fruit a day. Limit grains of all kinds and when you have them, choose whole grains.

"If you're picky about the type of carbs, you don't have to worry so much about amounts," Reardon says.

Star Choices
Steel-cut oats and whole-grain barley. Great sources of soluble fiber, they increase feelings of fullness and are processed slowly.

How Colorful Plants Help You Lose Weight

A plant-based diet should be the cornerstone of a weight-loss plan for anyone, not just those with diabetes. Look for richly-colored veggies, which tend to be highest in phytonutrients (also called phytochemicals -- phyto is Greek for "plant").

Types of phytonutrients, compounds that help protect against disease, include carotenoids, flavonoids, and resveratrol. But you don't need to remember their names, only this rule of thumb: The brighter or deeper-hued a veggie or fruit, the better for you it generally is. Think deep-blue or red berries, red grapes, bright-red tomatoes, cheddar-gold cauliflower. Purple carrots have as much as eight times the phytonutrients as the conventional orange ones, which are good sources themselves. See if you can eat seven or more kinds of vegetables and fruits (but especially vegetables) each day.

Star Choices
Kale, spinach, arugula, and broccoli. These deep-green veggies are super sources of antioxidants and fiber as well as magnesium, which the insulin hormone needs to function. Herbs are also a good phytonutrient source that can be added to almost anything you cook. Try mixing hamburger meat with chopped parsley, or topping a tomato salad with chopped basil.

Fats That Can Help With Weight Loss

Your body needs fat to function -- and the right fats help your body work better, without making you fat. Fats derived from plants (such as olive oil, avocado, nuts, and seeds) are better metabolized by the body than animal fats (such as butter, lard, and cheese) and help to lower cholesterol.

"Eating nuts and avocadoes doesn't make you fat and can be part of a healthy weight-loss plan," Reardon says.

Star Choices
Almonds and walnuts. These nuts provide protein as well as unsaturated fat, and a handful gives you a sense of fullness. Snack on raw almonds or add chopped walnuts to your breakfast cereal or a vegetable dish. Top a salad with a handful of nuts sautéed in a dab of olive oil.

Lose Weight by Swapping Animal Proteins for Fish and Plant Proteins

Protein helps prevent spikes in blood sugar. That's not only kind to your pancreas but it helps you avoid those energy crashes that make you rabid for the quick pick-me-up hit of doughnuts, chips, or a candy bar. The healthiest proteins are found in cold-water fish, which contain beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, and in plant sources -- especially beans and nuts.

Try to eat a little protein with every meal. Get away from thinking of it as the main dish; instead it should be a complement to vegetables and grains. Go vegetarian every other day, or three to four times a week.

Star Choices
Salmon, azuki beans, black beans. Canned salmon is an inexpensive source of wild salmon, which has fewer toxins than farmed varieties. For a powerhouse bean, look for azuki, a small red Japanese variety (also used to make sweet bean paste) that's especially low in calories but high in protein -- and tends not to make you gassy. Black beans may be easier to find, and all kinds of beans have been shown to stave off hunger by raising levels of the hormone that provides a sense of satiety. Eat them cooked and warm, or cooled in a salad mixed with olive oil, vinaigrette, and a mix of vegetables.

Foods and Spices That Can Lower Inflammation

People with diabetes tend to have inflammation overload. Inflammation is the body's natural way of protecting against damage. Chronic inflammation, on the other hand, is a state that can result from a history of eating highly glycemic foods and being overweight. Chronic inflammation is now known to contribute to many diseases, including diabetes.

A plant-based, whole food diet -- based on foods like those cited above in this article -- tends to be anti-inflammatory. In general, look for foods with strong flavors, strong smells, and strong colors. Spices are an overlooked source of anti-inflammatory properties.

Star Choices
Cinnamon, turmeric. These spices have the added advantage of enhancing food tastes -- important if you're trying to lose weight and are adjusting to a less-processed diet. Stir cinnamon into morning oatmeal or hot tea. Turmeric (also called curcumin, or ground turmeric root) gives curry and mustard their trademark colors. You can add it to eggs, lentils, and vegetable dishes. Some nutritionists recommend turmeric in capsule form for diabetics; ask your doctor.

Paula Spencer Scott

Paula Spencer Scott is the author of Surviving Alzheimer's: Practical Tips and Soul-Saving Wisdom for Caregivers and much of the Alzheimer's and caregiving content on Caring. See full bio