Are dietary supplements really necessary if you have diabetes? Nicole McCreedy asks the experts.
Like many other people with diabetes, you may be wondering whether you need to take supplements to help manage your condition. Dietary supplements can be vitamins, minerals, herbs or other plants, amino acids (the building blocks of protein) or a combination of the above. They can be in pill, capsule, powder or liquid form.
Despite some of the claims being made, there is not enough scientific evidence to suggest that any dietary supplements can help prevent or manage Type 2 diabetes. That said, dietary supplements may provide extra nutritional benefit to people with special health problems, including diabetes. In such cases, they are usually recommended when there is a specific lack of something in the body.
Do: Eat correctly
It’s important to try and get the nutrition your body needs from a balanced diet. Making healthy food choices and choosing fruit, vegetables and whole grains over carbohydrates, refined sugars and foods high in saturated fats can make a big difference. Compared with supplements, whole foods provide a variety of different nutrients for health in one package, whereas single vitamin supplements are most often for a single purpose. An apple, for example, contains vitamin C, fibre, and antioxidants – all in one crunchy package!
Dr Claudine Lee, a GP from Hilton, says that following a balanced and healthy diet is essential. “If you think you’re not getting the vitamins and minerals you need from your diet, consult with your GP whether it is necessary to take a supplement,” she advises. Eating correctly, being physically active and taking your prescribed medication is vital for maintaining good control of blood sugar levels to avoid serious complications like strokes, heart and kidney disease, limb amputation and blindness.
Don’t: Go it alone
Talk with your doctor. That is the first step in deciding whether or not to use a dietary supplement. He or she can discuss the possible benefits of dietary supplements, and check that any supplements you take will not interact dangerously with your medications.
Be sure to list any dietary supplements you take whenever you tell your doctor or any other healthcare professional about your medications. Most importantly, keep in mind that a dietary supplement is not a replacement for the diabetes treatment and care advised by your doctor.
So who could benefit from a vitamin supplement?
- Those on low calorie diets, who do not eat a variety of foods.
- Those following vegan diets.
- Those with certain food allergies, kidney disease or diseases of the gastrointestinal tract that interfere with nutrient digestion or absorption.
- Pregnant women.
An A to Z of supplements and their benefits
Ask the expert: Andrea Jenkins, nutritionist.
“The following supplements have been shown to improve blood sugar control or limit diabetic damage.”
Carnitine (L-carnitine), a nutrient made from amino acids that helps the body turn fat into energy, has been found to be deficient in people with diabetes. Almonds, egg and cottage cheese are rich in this nutrient.
Antioxidants can help reduce oxidative stress and lower the risk of diabetic complications. Choose brightly coloured fruits and vegetables in smoothies, salads and soups to ensure a variety of antioxidants.
Digestive enzymes help ensure that mineral uptake is strong and can aid the management of diabetes. Pre- and probiotics are also helpful to maintain digestion and immunity.
Lipids and essential fatty acids
Omega-3 fatty acids lower blood pressure and triglyceride levels, and can help to relieve many of the complications associated with diabetes.
Magnesium, common in leafy green vegetables, is frequently lacking in people with Type 2 diabetes, as is chromium. Brewers yeast, mushrooms and non-refined grains all contain chromium. Zinc improves insulin function, and potassium (found in all fruits and vegetables), can improve insulin sensitivity.
A vitamin B complex improves the metabolism of glucose, and vitamins C and E can improve eye health.
Remember that dietary changes are important to treat diabetes successfully. Many foods can have a positive impact on blood sugar, for example artichokes, garlic, nuts, onions, olives, cinnamon, blueberries, avocado and fenugreek. Try to include some (or all!) of these in your next meal…
Ask the expert: Faaiza Paruk, dietician
“Some people believe that by taking a supplement they won’t need to exercise or take any medication. This is untrue. You need a balanced diet as well as exercise to help control your sugar levels. A balanced diet includes five servings of fruit and vegetables a day, a low intake of salt and fat, lean meat and complex carbohydrates found in foods such as brown rice, potatoes, beans and lentils.”