The Benefits of a Whole Food Diet and Diabetes

Food provides our minds and bodies with the nourishment it needs to thrive. So what we put in them is important! This article explores the concept of a whole food diet and diabetes management. Exploring the potential benefits associated with eating this way, as well as suggestions on how you can incorporate more whole foods into your diet.


pin showing a wholefood meal with the caption the benefits of a wholefood diet  and diabetes management

Food is such an important aspect of all our lives. Yes, we need it to survive but I know for my family it has always played a really large part in creating family time, making memories, and just having a good time. Food can be so much more than simply the nutrition our bodies need.

Since my daughter’s type 1 diabetes diagnosis in 2020, I’ve come to appreciate the pivotal role that diet plays in managing this condition. Navigating the intricacies of delivering insulin, insulin resistance and sensitivity with the constant monitoring of blood sugar levels, it’s clear that food choices are key to effectively dealing with diabetes. And this is where a Whole food diet has supported us.

Read on to discover our journey to a diet rich in whole foods, what they are and how you too can incorporate more into your diet to not only support your blood glucose management but your overall health too.

The Journey to Whole Foods

Navigating life with type 1 diabetes in the mix has been an intricate dance between understanding the needs of my daughter’s growing body and providing it with the nourishment it needs. Our bodies, especially when dealing with a chronic condition like diabetes, thrive on top-notch food and nutrition. I realised that the choices we make in what we eat play a central role in our overall well-being. So considering what we eat has become a powerful determinant in the management of this lifelong condition.

My journey with diabetes in our lives (which you can read more about in TYPE 1 DIABETES AND OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD) led me to discover the impact of embracing a whole food diet, and that’s where the philosophy of Whole Hearty Kitchen truly resonated with me. It’s not just about what’s on your plate; it’s a lifestyle that champions the transformative benefits that whole foods bring to the table, especially for those of us managing diabetes.

selection of whole foods including a bowl of grains with vegetables

What are Whole Foods?

Whole foods are foods in their purest form. They are natural, unprocessed, or minimally processed foods that are as close to their original form as possible. Whole foods are in contrast to ultra processed foods, which have undergone significant alterations from their original state through methods like refining, cooking, or adding preservatives and industrial chemical additives.

Key characteristics of whole foods include:

  1. Minimally Processed: Whole foods undergo minimal processing, preserving their natural state. This means they are not heavily refined or altered from their original form.
  2. Nutrient-Rich: Whole foods are rich in essential nutrients, including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and dietary fibre. They provide a broad spectrum of health-promoting compounds that are beneficial for overall well-being.
  3. Single-Ingredient Foods: Many whole foods are single-ingredient items, such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and lean proteins. These foods are often found in the fresh produce section of supermarkets and grocery stores.
picture of different fruit vegeltables nuts seeds and legumes

They retain their nutritious and fibrous qualities, meaning that in general they haven’t been processed in any way. So following a whole food diet is about incorporating these foods into every meal you eat. And you may be surprised to discover a wholefood diet is not the same as a vegan diet!

Examples of whole foods include both plant-based foods and animal products:

  • Fruit and Vegetables
    • All types and varieties of
    • Fresh, frozen, canned or dried
  • Wholegrains
    • These are grains that have not had their outer husk removed.
    • Some examples are wholewheat flour, wholewheat bread and pasta, brown rice, rolled oats, quinoa, bulgar, freekeh, buckwheat
  • Nuts and Seeds
    • All types and varieties
    • In their whole form or as spreads
    • Some examples are cashew, hazelnut, almonds, walnuts, flax, poppy, hemp, sesame, sunflower, chia seed,
  • Legumes
    • These are all types of beans, lentils and peas
    • Dried, tinned or ready-prepared packets
    • Some examples are chickpeas, kidney, cannellini, pinto, black, butter beans, tofu is derived from soybean, and all varieties of lentils, peanuts and peas
  • Animal Products
    • Lean Red Meat, Chicken, Turkey Fish and Eggs
  • Dairy Products:
    • Whole, unprocessed milk, yoghurt, and cheese.

A Whole Food Diet and Diabetes Management

A whole food diet offers a wide variety of health benefits, and when it comes to diabetes management, its positive effects are particularly noteworthy. Here are some of the key health benefits I have noticed and researched that are associated with a  plant-predominant diet in the context of diabetes:

Improved Blood Glucose Control

Whole foods, particularly those high in fibre, have been associated with improved blood sugar control. Whole foods, especially those high in fibre and low in refined sugars, have a positive effect on blood sugar levels. Fibre slows down the absorption of glucose, helping to reduce the risk of sudden blood sugar spikes and crashes. This can be incredibly helpful for individuals living with diabetes in managing their condition day to day.

In the context of type 1 diabetes, we have certainly noticed improved and less high blood sugar when eating a fibrous whole food meal in comparison to a more refined/processed meal. The use of a CGM and food monitoring tools has helped us enormously to understand these food trends.

Enhanced Insulin Sensitivity

A whole food diet is often linked to improved insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity refers to how effectively cells respond to insulin, the hormone responsible for glucose uptake. With a diet rich in whole plant foods, particularly complex carbohydrates cells become more responsive to insulin, which can aid in better blood sugar regulation.

Whilst we notice a change in insulin sensitivity due to growth, hormones and even the weather, it is harder to attribute a healthy diet when you are insulin dependent with type 1 diabetes.

Cardiovascular Disease

Diabetes increases the risk of heart disease. Whole foods, particularly those rich in omega-3 fatty acids (salmon, eggs), antioxidants, and soluble fibre (fruit and vegetables), have been associated with cardiovascular benefits. These foods can help lower cholesterol levels, have a significant reduction in inflammation, and support overall heart health.

Nutrient Density and Micronutrient Intake

Whole foods are naturally rich in essential micronutrients like vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Consuming a variety of nutrient-dense foods ensures that the body receives the necessary micronutrients for overall health. This is particularly important for individuals with diabetes who may have specific nutritional needs.

Stable Energy Levels

Whole foods provide a sustained release of energy due to their complex carbohydrates and fibre content. This can help prevent energy crashes and maintain stable blood sugar levels throughout the day. This can mean a more consistent and manageable energy supply for individuals with diabetes.

Wearing a CGM certainly helps us to track this with our daughter and we can clearly see sustained periods of normal blood glucose ranges after enjoying whole foods.

Weight Management

The role of whole foods in weight management has been explored in numerous studies. A recent study in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine (2020) found that individuals consuming whole foods had better weight loss outcomes and that following a whole food plant-based diet can help to reduce the risk of diabetes, treat it and even support diabetes remission. However, I should point out that this is only applicable to type 2 diabetes.

It’s important to note that individual dietary needs can vary, and we all respond differently to the foods we eat. Consulting with a healthcare professional or a registered dietitian is advisable for personalised advice on managing diabetes through dietary choices.

a selection of wholefood meals

Practical Benefits of adding more Whole Foods to your Diet

Whole foods really are great and I genuinely can’t think of any downsides to adding more into your diet. A whole food diet isn’t just about vegan or vegetarian diets, as they also incorporate animal products, which creates a breadth of wonderful foods to choose from. Above we delved into the advantages of diabetes management, but here are more practical benefits of adding more whole foods into your diet that contribute to cooking, your overall health and well-being:

  • They are easy to substitute in cooking and baking – whole foods can easily be used to replace sugar, processed flour, and animal fats
  • Legumes are cheap and effective sauce thickeners – add them to your soups, bolognese, curries and casseroles.
  • Adding in more whole foods stretches the meals even further – great when you’re feeding a family or crowd as you can make meals more budget friendly.
  • Helps us to decrease the number of trans and saturated fats we consume – This is because whole foods are lower in these fats and higher in healthy fats such as monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats
  • Increases our dietary fibre intake – most whole foods are rich in fibre. These also help us to feel fuller for longer and manage blood sugar levels
  • Naturally increases the nutrients we are giving our minds and bodies – providing the nourishment it needs in order to thrive.

For Diabetes Management

  • Has made carb counting more accurate as I know exactly what’s in our meals.
  • Using a wider range of carb-count-free options helps to reduce the overall carb count in meals
  • A lower overall carbohydrate intake helps to reduce the error rate for insulin delivery
  • Have a low to medium Glycemic Index which helps with a slower and potentially lower rise in blood glucose levels

Moving to a Whole Food Diet

With a diabetes diagnosis, illness, or food sensitivity, lifestyle changes are a predominant focus, in particular the food we eat. Unfortunately, most of us tend to approach this from a perspective of restriction rather than inclusion. I know I certainly did. However, I have since learnt that considering what we could be adding to our diets is a much better approach!

It is so easy to get bogged down in all the latest fads around food. We are fed an unimaginable amount of information (and disinformation) about food. What is good for us, or bad for us; the latest ways to lose weight or eat healthier; detox cleanses, low-carbohydrate diets, Keto, no sugar, fasting and it goes on and on.

Now, I am the first to put my hand up that I have been swept along in many of the seemingly convincing arguments for better health and blood glucose management. I am only human after all. However, diabetes has taught me that excluding food groups really wasn’t the way forward for us. And in fact, it just made everyone miserable.

I have learnt that:

  • The inclusion of all food and balance in our choices is key.
  • To achieve balance, no food is off-limits but when, how, what or with, has definitely become part of our consideration.
  • To help with blood glucose management and keep HB1AC in a good range by
    • Moving to a whole food diet with a lower glycemic index
    • Using some alternatives/replacements to reduce the net carbohydrate count

Whole foods have become an essential tool in helping us to eat healthier as well as supporting our daughter’s diabetes care. These foods are the essence of Whole Hearty Kitchen and the recipes shared here.


what is a whole foods diet - food in a fridge

Shopping for whole foods

Shopping for whole foods is a journey towards nourishing the body with unprocessed, nutrient-rich options. I know the thought of buying whole foods may lead you to say “I can’t, They are just too expensive” because typically they have been associated with higher costs. And let’s face it in today’s current climate no one has any desire to increase their food bills. However, I want to dispel that myth.

Use my free wholefood shopping list to help you discover a realm of wholesome and delicious ingredients:

Whilst yes some of the foods listed may carry a higher price tag due to labour-intensive processing costs to get them on our shelves. There are cheaper ways of buying whole foods so you can include a wider range of foods in your diet.

I always opt for minimally processed items and here are some of my recommendations for achieving this whilst still being budget-conscious:

Online

There are some great websites out there that sell whole foods at a more reasonable price than you can sometimes get at the supermarket or in health food stores.

Buy Whole Foods Online is a great UK-based company who are very competitive with its pricing

Amazon have a competitive marketplace where you can find some great deals if you know what you want

Supermarkets

We are lucky to have pretty competitive pricing on our foods in the UK, but unsurprisingly Lidl and Aldi still seem to come out cheaper on some foods. They now both stock a great but still limited range of whole foods from nuts, wholegrain rice cakes, and nut butters which are all significantly cheaper than some of the named brands. It is really worth checking them out.

Both Lidl and Aldi also have a great range of fresh produce that is very competitively priced.


How can I easily include more whole foods in my diet?

Now, this is the part where making balanced choices comes in.

Don’t ditch all the processed – I still use some processed ingredients and processed foods (I do try to avoid as much Ultra Processed Food though). Not only are they convenient and save time in the kitchen but, there are many off-the-shelf products which are absolutely brilliant. I just make sure I am aware of the ingredients in them and potentially the impact they can have on blood glucose levels.

Don’t try to make massive changes all in one go – Take it slowly by making small progressive changes instead. strive to achieve a balance between convenience and whole foods to create satisfying, balanced, nutritious, and above all else delicious meals.

Try replacing the processed white carbs with their whole-grain alternatives. Maybe just start with bread and slowly work up to pasta or rice. However, we have found that some of the wholegrains have different insulin requirements and may require less i.e. brown rice pasta. This process requires patience and the logging of insulin given against blood glucose levels. So be ready for experimenting and perhaps have to make a few adjustments before you get the right formula.

Include lots of vegetables with every meal – try to make them the star of the show. Try cooking vegetables in different ways from boiling or steaming. Stir fry or roasting brings out lots of different flavours. Try adding stock, herbs and spices.

Try adding a legume – like a tin of beans (not baked beans) or lentils into a dish you always make like spaghetti bolognese or chilli

Check out WHK SALADS AND SIDES and this roundup of 33 Easy Whole Food Recipes for some extra inspiration

pin for 33 delicious and easy wholefood recipes

33 Easy & Delicious Whole Food Recipes

A round-up of some of my favourite easy, whole food recipes. They include a varied selection of whole foods like vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains. Plus plenty of healthy plant protein, fibre and fats.


A Whole Food Diet and Diabetes

Living with diabetes underscores the pivotal role that diet plays in maintaining control over chronic diseases. It’s not merely about counting carbs; it’s about a strategic and mindful approach to nourishing the body in a way that supports optimal health and blood sugar management. Every food choice becomes a decision that directly influences the delicate balance of glucose regulation.

Diabetes doesn’t mean that you have to stop eating the foods you love or restrict yourself by cutting out food groups. Instead, add to it!

Making some small adjustments and finding your balance can have many positives and in particular, can form part of your overall diabetes care. For some, this could be quite a radical change in eating habits whereas for others it’s tweaking an already balanced diet.

However, wherever you are in your food journey,  set realistic goals! You don’t want any changes that you implement to become a fad that you easily pick up and drop. This is about making more of a long-term commitment to yourself (and maybe family) that through the inclusion of whole foods and balance you can provide your mind and body with the nourishment it needs to thrive.


Resources

How to identify ultra-processed food and what to eat instead – Zoe Health, 2023

What Should I Eat? Whole Grains -Harvard The Nutrition Source

Acute Effects of Dietary Fiber in Starchy Foods on Glycemic and Insulinemic Responses: A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Crossover Trials – Nutrients 2023

Fiber: The Carb That Helps You Manage Diabetes – CDC, 2022

A Whole Food Plant-Based Diet Is Effective for Weight Loss: The Evidence – American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 2020

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I’m on a mission to prove that eating for health and managing diabetes can be easy & incredibly flavourful.

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