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Diabetes: Healthy eating tips for expats living abroad
As the number of people affected by diabetes globally is set to rise by 227 million over the next 20 years, find out how you can stay healthy by reading these tips.
According to the International Diabetes Federation (IDF) Atlas, the number of people with diabetes is on the rise. In the Middle East and North Africa, 35.4 million adults aged 20-79 are diabetic and this number is expected to double by 2040.
In Southeast Asia 78.3 million adults are affected by diabetes, which is over twice as many as in the Middle East and North Africa, and is set to rise by 79% by 2040.
It is important to remember that there are two types of diabetes, type 1 and type 2. Type 1 diabetes is autoimmune condition – where the body destroys cells creating insulin – and is not caused by lifestyle, but lifestyle choices can affect it. Type 2 diabetes usually develops later in life, with lifestyle factors – particularly diet – playing a large part in its development and how it is managed.
While genetics does have an impact, expats often face additional health challenges of living and working in a country where cultural differences make it harder to source a diet that can help control both types of diabetes and avoid the onset of type 2 diabetes.
Access to a better standard of living where you may find it easier to eat out, and being at times too busy to exercise, can exacerbate these challenges.
Solve the diet puzzle
In terms of diet, consuming less alcohol, eating more balanced meals at home, and avoiding late-night eating can all control the possibility of putting on weight, which is one of the main risk factors for developing type 2 diabetes.
Zeina Soueidan, a clinical dietician at The Right Bite Nutrition Centre based in Dubai, says it’s important for expats to look for ways to reduce their intake of processed foods that have a high sugar and fat content, particularly desserts and sugary drinks, if they want to minimise their risk of type 2 diabetes.
Zeina’s advice is to reduce the temptation for snacking on high fat and sugary foods by learning to control portion sizes and eat to satisfaction, not fullness.
“Eat smaller meals at intervals of no more than 3-4 hours and aim for more fruits and vegetables, plus high-fibre products such as beans and grains,” she says.
Did you know?
In a 330-350ml portion:
Coca Cola contains approximately 40 grams of sugar (10 teaspoons)
Apple juice contains approximately 39 grams of sugar (9.8 teaspoons)
Coconut water contains approximately 15 grams of sugar (3 teaspoons)
A more consistent approach to eating teaches your body to avoid sugar cravings which, when supplemented with regular exercise, can help shed any excess weight.
Zeina suggests even a minimum of 2.5 hours a week exercise can make a difference, along with getting enough sleep and rest to balance hormones.
One way of staying informed about what you are eating is using the glycaemic index (GI). This is a scale that ranks food from 1 to 100 to tell you how slowly or quickly they will increase your blood glucose levels. You should try to avoid food with high GI numbers and replace them with food with low GI numbers, which are better for you.
A separate measure, glycaemic load, tells you both how quickly glucose will be absorbed and how much glucose is in a certain food, per serving.
Cultural differences can make it tougher for expats to structure their diet to tackle diabetes. For example, if you are moving to China then it may be tough to avoid white rice, given it is a staple of many dishes. But it is widely regarded as key to the country’s diabetes epidemic. Replacing white rice with brown rice reduces the risk of diabetes by 16%, according to a Harvard study, as brown rice has a lower glycaemic index and glycaemic load.
Did you know?
White rice glycaemic index = 72
Brown rice glycaemic index = 50
Health complications from diabetes
It’s important to realise that long-term complications associated with diabetes can include heart problems, strokes, kidney failure, eyesight issues and loss of limbs. So make sure you take care of your eating habits, exercise regularly and it should go a long way to help avoid the onset of type 2 diabetes and other health complications in the future, wherever you are in the world.
Are you covered?
Knowing you have global health insurance that suits your circumstances and gives you access to the best possible care overseas can give you peace of mind. But it’s essential to check cover limits carefully, as not all global health insurance plans offer the same benefits, particularly for pre-existing conditions.